Decline of the Village People
David Blum's first 100 days at the helm of America's first alternative newsweekly passed by largely unnoticed. Not just the Dec. 20th anniversary, mind you -- the first 100 days themselves.
I'm ashamed to admit that I was optimistic when Blum was hired to run the Village Voice. Like hoping the third Matrix movie wouldn't suck, it wasn't impossible that Blum could breath new life into the stale, irrelevant weekly. After all, he arrived at a good time -- at the end of 2005, the Village Voice family of alt-weeklies was acquired by New Times Media, a larger chain of alt-weeklies. The new overlords cleaned house immediately by sacking veteran writers Richard Goldstein, Robert Christgau, Chuck Eddy and James Ridgeway, among others. For me, a former alt-weekly editor who once competed with the Voice, this culling was acceptable. Welcome, even.
Furthermore, the 50-ish Blum is relatively young. His predecessor, Don Forst, was rumored to have cut his teeth under William Randolph Hearst himself.
Unfortunately, Blum is playing by the book. Instead of questioning the role of the alt-weekly and -- fingers were crossed -- even reinventing the form, he's taken the predictable route of pandering to a famously liberal readership. His 13 covers have been toothless at best, downright embarrassing at worst.
(And then there's Nov. 7th, when Blum went for broke. Not only did he run a disenfranchised black man on the cover, but a disenfranchised black man in a wheelchair. It felt like 1992 all over again, only without the good writing.)
To his credit, Blum seems determined to restore the paper's tarnished reputation for serious reporting. But... As noted by Gawker and confirmed by a colleague, he's been recruiting a disproportionate number of j-schoolers from Columbia University, where he teaches journalism. Hiring youthful writers isn't a mistake -- as long as they're talented. But when Blum's experienced journalists can't even land the story, how can we expect brilliance from the untested whelps?
Much has been written about the greying of newspaper readership. Alt-weeklies are at particular risk of obsolescence. Exactly those things that the free weekly tabloids once did well -- and solely -- are now done better elsewhere. Provocative first-person stories are commonplace in this blog-infested world, and cultural listings are offered by websites and, increasingly, targeted email newsletters such as Flavorpill. Classified ads and even adult advertising have migrated to the free, immediate and vastly more effective craigslist.
What's an alt-weekly to do?
In April, 2005, I interviewed Village Voice executive editor Laura Conaway for the Guardian. First, I must confess a certain fondness for Conaway. Like the newspaper she toils for, Conaway is an earnest liberal. The definitive "good liberal," in fact, who lives in Brooklyn with her wife and their child and lights up when discussing hot-button left-wing issues.
When asked about the future of alt-weeklies, the Voice in particular, she told me, "One of the things that we...continue to invest in, is reporting. When we serve up a piece of reporting, it connects with our readers... lives. It covers their lives."
That may have been true under Forst, an old-school New York tabloid editor whose tenure saw many awards and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2000. And it may be true under Conaway herself, who has been responsible for some of the Voice's high-profile series. But even if Blum and Conaway see eye-to-eye (which is highly questionable), for how much longer can the latter tolerate the former's misguided attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate?
And even if features about Saturday Night Live and American Idol finalists are indeed speaking to readers' lives, who wants to have that conversation in the first place?