BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The alternative weekly, once on the fringes of American journalism, is now an institution in itself. Its staples are long-form investigative journalism, close coverage of the cultural avant-garde, watch-dogging of the local mainstream media and sharp, usually left-leaning, commentary. The granddaddy of alt-weeklies is the Village Voice, which for more than 50 years has proffered its downtown view of New York and the world. But last November, The Voice was acquired by the New Times chain of alt-weeklies. The Village Voice is used to turmoil, but, as Bob reports, this particular turmoil has raised questions about the sanctity of a cultural landmark and the future of alternative journalism itself.
BOB GARFIELD: In the space of four months, the Village Voice saw the departure of its publisher, two editors-in-chief, its storied Washington muckraker and its Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic. Sidney Schanberg quit after a confrontational meeting with the new boss. Investigative reporter James Ridgeway was terminated for reasons still unclear. Nat Hentoff, who has been covering civil liberties for The Voice for 49 years, was targeted for criticism in front of the entire staff, all of which drama leaves the survivors and many others to wonder when the shakeup of this venerable institution ends, who among the Villagers will still have a voice? Who, that is, other than Michael Lacey, the new chief?
MARK JURKOWITZ: You know, if there was any question about whether or not he was going to walk on eggshells with The Voice culture, that was answered very quickly. He just went in there and smashed all the eggs.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Jurkowitz, media critic for the Boston Phoenix, says Lacey's tough-guy approach has been sad and ugly to witness.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Frankly, when you have people like Nat Hentoff, who is about 80, and Sidney Schanberg, who's in his 70s, men who helped define journalism for a generation or two, I don't find it particularly appealing that you would go out of your way to pick fights with folks like that.
SIDNEY SCHANBERG: One of the last things he said at the meeting itself was, be prepared to say goodbye to some of your friends.
BOB GARFIELD: Sidney Schanberg.
SIDNEY SCHANBERG: And there was no real need for that kind of gratuitous hostility or insult, and I didn't think it was an accident. I thought that was part of the man, and I didn't want to work for him.
BOB GARFIELD: Schanberg looked at the new boss of the Village Voice and saw a self-satisfied bully. Jurkowitz looks and sees a talented journalist and businessman who, for reasons best known to himself, wanted to serve notice there was a new sheriff in town - not the new sheriff in Phoenix, however, or Nashville or any of the other dozen cities where Lacey has successfully run alt-weeklies - the new sheriff in New York City, Greenwich Village, where the likes of Norman Mailer and Alan Ginsberg, Andrew Sarris and Jules Feiffer invented the American alternative press. Never mind sheriff, it's as if Lacey and his partners were the Taliban, dynamiting journalism's Buddhas of Bamiyan.
R.J. SMITH: Columnists with original voices, kinds of writing that wouldn't [CHUCKLES] exist except in those pages, voices you want to hear and can't find anywhere else.
BOB GARFIELD: R.J. Smith, formerly of The Voice and the L.A. Weekly and now senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine, himself views his old rag with a certain awe and reverence, and he too has his doubts about the New Times fundamentalists, whom he believes are just itching to teach the highbrow New Yorkers a lesson. But he's quick to add that Lacey and company may well have a few good lessons to teach, because over the past 25 years, The Voice has taken on a certain pallor of decrepitude, an aged bohemian shuffling down Houston Street in faded India print and tattered leftist dogma. The New Times papers, meanwhile, are feisty and vital and fun.
DAVID CARR: And that's much to their credit. They like entertaining readers, and, in my opinion, in the pages of the Village Voice sometimes these days, they can be too intellectual.
BOB GARFIELD: And if not too intellectual, says media writer David Carr of The New York Times, certainly too predictable.
DAVID CARR: You don't have to read much beyond the headline to know that the boot heel of the man is going to end up on the lowly little guy in one shape or another.
BOB GARFIELD: And from predictability, it is but one tiny step to self-parody. Perhaps that's what Lacey sensed about his new property. What we know he sensed, because he hasn't shut up about it, is that the staff was too busy opining to gather actual news.
MICHAEL LACEY: Well, I thought that the paper had gotten lazy, frankly.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Lacey.
MICHAEL LACEY: There was a lot of sort of attitudinizing, and that was the sort of thing that I objected to. I thought that we ought to be breaking stories, rather than pointing people to other good stories that other journalists had done.
BOB GARFIELD: Cud-chewing, Lacey believes, is fine for blogs, but not a city weekly, which should be on the streets digging up tales of vice and corruption. Now, journalists can scarcely argue against conducting journalism, yet they also can't be blamed for fretting over the soul of the Village Voice. If Rupert Murdoch, who owned the paper for eight years, could refrain from interfering with content, they wonder why Mike Lacey is so hell-bent on change - for instance, his fixation on eliminating references to other news organizations in Voice pieces. In his notorious first meeting with the staff, Lacey's blast was directed at Nat Hentoff, but other Buddhas shuddered too. Sidney Schanberg.
SIDNEY SCHANBERG: I thought to myself in the meeting that how could you possibly write a press criticism column if you didn't write about other people's work. So I asked him that, and I said how can one get around this edict that you have made? And he said, �never mind, did you hear what I said in there?�
MICHAEL LACEY: I said you need to pick up the phone and interview people. I want you to do fundamental reporting and not simply riffing about what had occurred to you that day. And apparently, that was too much to expect.
BOB GARFIELD: What the new owners can expect from their acquisition is not apparent at all. The Voice remains profitable but, like other alternative weeklies, it faces all the problems of the mainstream press, and then some. For instance, its listings and opinion columns have ever-increasing competition on websites and blogs. The New York Times' David Carr.
DAVID CARR: That presents an editorial problem and a business problem. And you've got Craigslist sort of eating away at the classifieds in the back, which is the bedrock that all of these papers are built on.
BOB GARFIELD: Then there's the question of the readership, or alleged readership, of 260,000, because, as R.J. Smith observes:
R.J. SMITH: What's a reader? A guy standing in a movie theater line who picks up a weekly off the stack to get a time of the movie at the multiplex and then when the line moves they throw it back down? Sad to say, that's half the alternative weekly readers these days.
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe this is no time to be fiddling with the editorial product and instead figuring out how to reach its core audience in the digital age. Maybe, as Lacey insists, the doomsayers are wrong and a remade Village Voice will thrive for a long time to come. Or maybe he's feeling more squeezed than he admits and thinks desperate times demand desperate measures. Sometimes it's hard to tell the voice of doom, from the voice of conscience, from the voice of reason. And, as five decades of turmoil at the Village Voice more or less bear out, it's even harder to find the right alternative. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]