David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
As the Village Voice stops its print edition, the alternative-weekly era officially ends.
The death of the print edition of the Village Voice, which was announced on Tuesday, is being widely eulogized as the end of an era. Which era? Depends on which Voice you called your own—the granddaddy alternative weekly that was founded in 1955 survived a parade of owners and editors over its six decades. It outlived many of its children, the network of other free urban papers that adhered to the model the Voice created. But it couldn’t survive the implacable, unstoppable decay of the print advertising that once sustained alt-weeklies nationwide.
In recent years, those forces have claimed the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Philadelphia City Paper, and many other once-mighty brands, a media mass extinction often dubbed the alt-weekly death spiral. Shuttering the Voice in print isn’t so much the end of an era as it is an exclamation point on this phenomenon, and an opportunity to formally mourn what the alternative media once provided—the voices it nurtured, the storytelling techniques it pioneered, the sense of community it helped create.
But the good times for alt-weeklies have been over for a long time, and most of those who paused to praise the paper on social media admitted as much. “The Voice I'll miss hasn't really existed for a while now,” a journalist friend told me over email, “and even if it did, I would be reading it online anyway.”
Many of those tributes also point to the Voice’s tradition of fearless no-guff progressive muckrakery, which most alternative weeklies shared, and whose loss is now acutely felt. The hard-boiled truth-to-power takedown of malfeasance was a key ingredient of the alt-weekly recipe, and many alts were out first on big stories that dailies later received credit for.
The Village Voice was exposing Donald Trump when no one else was paying attention. pic.twitter.com/UvmzMpGheS— John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) August 22, 2017
Others fear the deepening of America’s “news deserts” in the wake of the Great Alt-Weekly Die Off, especially in smaller markets, where two rival daily newspapers became one, or none, leaving behind a rag-tag fugitive fleet of online outlets, often self-funded or nonprofit in nature, scrambling for purchase in a hostile business environment. That’s what’s happening in my home market of Baltimore, where my former employer, the 40-year-old City Paper, awaits its date with the reaper. The paper is now owned by the same conglomerate that owns the Baltimore Sun, a curious and unfortunate situation to be in, as the company has promised to close it by the end of the year. In the meantime, a couple of City Paper staffers are ramping up a nonprofit “guerilla newsroom” to help fill the gap.
They’ll need all the help they can get. The shortage of smart, professional digital newsgathering in smaller American cities is a real problem with no immediate solution on the horizon; sadly, the number of eyeballs likely to land before a local story online isn’t enough to generate the income that would justify making it. In the longer term we probably can’t crowdfund our way out of that. But old-timers might recall that, even in their glorious futon-store-advertisement-glutted heyday, alt-weeklies were never all that big on actual news. In a pre-internet era, the weekly publishing schedule meant that most alt-weekly writers were free to roam about gathering string for eccentric features of their own devising, untethered to news cycles or any other outside logic. News was something of an accidental byproduct of this process.
The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances. The alternative media was the informal archive of the city’s id, a catalog of fandom and contempt that limned the contours of the populace. And this part of their role, as it turns out, is a lot harder to replace in the digital era.
Like so many of the fortysomething-and-up journalists lining up to drop flowers on the grave of the Voice now, I’m a product of the alt-weekly farm-team system, so I’m partial to the model. But before I worked at Baltimore’s City Paper, I was a reader, a newcomer in a truly strange city, and the publication was the smart-ass and sometimes scary Baltimore-born pal I craved and needed.
This was always baked into the alternative media vision: The Voice started out as a humble neighborhood newsletter (albeit one with a lot of literary heavyweights behind it), full of gripes and insights about stuff happening next door, and the best of its descendants shared a sense of hyperlocal mission—the idea that a publication with a very low bar of entry could transform a diverse mob of strangers into neighbors and citizens.
Alt-weeklies didn’t just provide pages of cultural event listings; they handed you a kit of tools for unlocking the city’s treasures and weird underground delights, then grabbed your hand and made you check it out. They showed you filthy drawings, amazing bands, local oddballs, and everything else that a straight newspaper wouldn’t, or couldn’t. And they did it for free, asking only for your forbearance as you waded through the 1-900 sex-line ads and adult services listings that paid for the forests of newsprint.
As many critics noted, the alt-weekly biz was kept aloft by some seriously skeevy advertising revenue, and the overall progressive vibe of the papers did not entirely disguise the fact that, even in majority-black cities like Baltimore, their content often appeared to be written entirely by and for young white goobers such as I. Guilty on both counts. But less has been said about how the free papers reached readers now widely ignored by online platforms: Going through the weekly mailbag circa 1992—this was actual physical mail, kids—I saw the kind of generational and socio-economic diversity that few media platforms now command. We got heaps of letters from older readers in all parts of town, who often wrote faithfully just to express their displeasure. But they kept reading, and the paper really did function as a kind of urban commons, a place where all residents felt they had earned an equal say, simply be dint of living here. The migration to digital and the rise of social media atomized this audience, and the online startups that have emerged since have not been able to reassemble it.
The Voice brand will live on, for now, though its connection to its host community and its future role as a digital outlet serving a borderless audience is hazy. But it’s not entirely hopeless: Outlets like Seattle’s Stranger, the Chicago Reader, and Raleigh-Durham’s IndyWeek, to name just a few plucky survivors, are still in the game, telling important stories and adapting to the post-futon-store revenue era. Many other cities are finding ways to keep the buccaneering spirit, if not the physical medium, of their vanished local weeklies alive, often via NPR-style nonprofit models and various jerry-rigged funding streams.
And, more broadly, the alt-weekly itself may never die: It passed its genes on to internet, which absorbed the tone and M.O. of the format as it devoured its business model. But for journalists and fans of cities alike, all these empty boxes on so many street corners stand as a stark warning: Think about all the voices that you just stopped hearing, and ask yourself where they all went.