Staff Layoffs At The Village Voice Stir Debates Over The Future Of Alt-Weeklies

on August 20 2012 5:42 PM

These days, when someone refers to the Voice they're probably talking about the NBC reality show, not the seminal alt-weekly that founded a movement of counterculture journalism in the mid-1950s.

Sadly, the days when an article in the Village Voice could set the city abuzz with politically charged discourse essentially went out with the Dinkins administration. The paper in recent years has made news mostly for staff changes, lawsuits and layoffs -- the most recent round of which took place on Friday. According to the New York Observer, three more writers have been cut from the paper's already-skeletal staff, while one full-time editor was reduced to part-time status. One of the bounced writers, Steven Thrasher, was just named "journalist of the year" by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

The layoffs have naturally prompted passionate and diverse theories regarding both the Voice's downward spiral, as well as the death of alt-weeklies in general. And there is no shortage of places to point the finger -- from the classified siphoning of Craigslist to gross mismanagement at New Times, the Phoenix-based alt-weekly conglomerate that purchased Village Voice Media in 2005.    

Former Village Voice staff writer Rosie Gray took aim at the latter target in a Saturday post on BuzzFeed, recalling the precarious climate and watch-your-back culture that supposedly reigned supreme at the paper during her tenure. "No one trusted the management," she wrote. "The staff assumed that Village Voice Media Executive Editor Mike Lacey and his team were interlopers bent on squeezing the last drop of juice out of the paper before leaving it to die."

Gray also said that Thrasher learned of his being laid off through "texts and tweets" and that the Voice is planning to move out of its longtime space on Cooper Square, where it has been since 1991.  

Lacey did not return a request for comment. However, in an email message to the International Business Times, Village Voice editor in chief Tony Ortega confirmed that a move is likely next spring -- although he added that it's a long-overdue one. "If you've been in our offices lately, you know that this place has seen better days," he said. "Soon, we will decamp to a nicer set of digs, and we'll take the letters on the side of the building with us. That will be a happy day, believe me."

News of the Voice's layoffs follows a yearlong trend for Village Voice Media, which also owns such papers as the LA Weekly, SF Weekly, Seattle Weekly and Minneapolis City Paper. Last fall, after the company sought to trim its editorial budget by 5 percent, it eliminated positions from each of its papers, according to several reports. Ward Harkavy, a senior editor at the Voice, was also let go as part of that round of trimming. In February, film critic J. Hoberman got the ax after more than three decades on staff. He later told Indiewire, "It's like slicing salami. They just keep laying people off."

But the New York Times' David Carr said assumptions that Village Voice Media has run the paper into the ground are unfair. Countering Gray's post on Monday morning, Carr wrote that the Village Voice -- like all alt-weeklies -- is a victim of forces beyond its control.

"The problem with so-called alternative weeklies is that they were often formed in opposition to the daily newspapers in their respective markets, offering a spicier take on civic events and cultural coverage that reflected what was actually nascent in various places," Carr wrote. "With dailies limping in almost every American market and the listings and classifieds that were the bread and butter of weeklies now all over the Web, alternatives are just one more alternative among many."

In fairness to Gray, she did not blame the Voice's woes entirely on Village Voice Media. She said the paper's downfall probably began in the mid-1990s when the paper dropped its $1 cover price and went free. That decision was made, in part, to help the Village Voice stay competitive with the free New York Press -- a scrappy, fledgling alt-weekly that at the time was growing by leaps and bounds.

The Press discontinued its print edition in September of last year.