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
, downright embarrassing
(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
. 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
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
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 even if features about Saturday
finalists are indeed speaking to readers'
lives, who wants to have that conversation in the first