The Village Voice and the Past and Future of Alt-Weeklies

The Voice's decision to get rid of its print edition leads to a reckoning

The news earlier this week that The Village Voice was ending its print edition exists within a larger plane of shuttering or otherwise changed alt-weeklies. And while the Voice will go on in digital form, unlike other alt-weeklies that are closing for good, the decision nevertheless felt knell-like, inspiring both look backs on the Voice’s particular legacy and a reckoning on the alt-weekly’s future.

In Esquire, Luke O’Neil explains why. “The Village Voice was the publication that invented the concept of the alt-weekly newspaper, and indeed much of the irreverent, speaking-truth-to-power brand of journalism that we take for granted today,” he writes. “For decades, the Voice set the agenda for the cultural calendar of New York’s underground music and arts scene, and influenced dozens of other papers around the country.”

O’Neil gathers Voice writers past and present, who describe the Voice’s significance, personal and historic.

Eater editor Robert Sietsema, for one, discusses why in this case print does matter, saying, “Being in the center of things did have an effect on your ability to observe and go places at odd hours,” he writes. “To have publications that were tied to specific locales such as the Voice and to have consistent opinions and especially thought-out essays, those are not in as large supply anymore. Online publications seem to come from nowhere. They don’t necessarily tie you to a place and its thought-processes and opinions. It’s like living in a different universe and reporting on Earth to be so online.”

And Camille Dodero brings up a point about the opportunities publications like the Voice provide for a particular type of aspiring or young journalist. “What I believe to be the most significant, perhaps symbolic, loss of the Village Voice’s print arm—which I wrote about when the Boston Phoenix shuttered, for Gawker!—is that there are fewer and fewer pathways for kids from low-income families to become journalists. In my experience, the alt-weekly world famously recruited and mentored scrappy people like me, or like, say, David Carr, and there are few mechanisms left that are predisposed to bring that class of people into this world.”

Paul Farhi, in The Washington Post, writes in similar terms about the world captured by alt-weeklies, and the audiences they speak to. “They were intensely local, riffing on a city’s politics, environment, culture and people. They offered what no national news sites now does — consideration of a common municipal space,” he writes. “It might be Greenwich Village, Logan Circle or Silver Lake, any of the urban neighborhoods across America where gays, feminists, punks, greens, rappers and activists crossed and consorted. The places where the music and drug scene, political movements, and the sexual revolution were quaking long before the waves radiated to places colonized by Walmart and Applebee’s.”

Elsewhere, Annalies Winny, writing in the Guardian, discusses why the contemporary media business leaves alt-weeklies particularly vulnerable, even outside of the issue of the loss of classifieds revenue. “Those which survive have typically been scooped up by a new guard of companies that aren’t properly definable as publishers at all,” she writes of the dailies and their new owners. “Instead, they boast vast, multifaceted portfolios that can run the gamut from golf courses to newspapers, united only by the pressure to turn a short-term profit, or face closure. With their free content and a perception of being less advertiser-friendly, alt-weeklies are often the first to go.”