The Village Voice died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. Hardly anyone noticed because it’s demise had been so gradual, like the whittling away of a once-great public artwork over time as the elements wore it down to a smooth and shapeless veneer.
One of the first things that I did when I got off the Subway alone for the first time in ’94 was buy the Village Voice. Back then, you actually had to pay for it and the amazing thing was, it was worth every damn penny of its cost. It had a reputation for being edgy, uninhibited, groundbreaking, relevant, hip, funny, and just plain different. Porn stars getting their spotlight in the media? Check. Real astrology with sass? Check. The best movie and restaurant reviews in town? Check. Check off having to lug around a guidebook that served as a blueprint for how to plan your next week in the Big Apple as well. Half of the reason I snatched one up was because Stern was running for Governor that year and even though no one gave him a shot to beat Cuomo or Pataki, he was a legitimate Libertarian Candidate and he was given his moment in the sun every week in New York’s edgiest newspaper.
When I grabbed the copy shown above, it was not only a reminder of how things changed since the tail end of the 20th century but a shell of it’s former self as well. Those ads on the back that were the best of their kind to be found anywhere? Gone. Michael Musto’s gut-busting Gossip Column? Also gone as of earlier this year. The award-winning features that redefined bohemian life in the middle of Manhattan, as well as the boundaries of print journalism itself? Replaced by a bunch of news feeds that were in nearly every other free daily paper in this country. At the time that the Village Voice started to transition into a homogenized, slimmer version of its former greatness, I went to school down in Tennessee.
Yes, you read that right.
Even though those years spent in Nashville were nearly for naught, I did enjoy my Wednesday’s on Vanderbilt’s campus when I had some free time at lunch and could read the Nashville Scene as all the sorority girl on campus picked through their salads around me. What struck me was how similar to the Voice this paper was, even though Nashville had almost nothing in common with New York. It was great to see a thriving, local publication that featured the Music City and the arts that people flocked there to partake in but deep down, I had a suspicion that the Voice wasn’t as unique as I would have liked.
Boy, did that turn out to be true.
As I returned back to the northeast and slowly got my act together, a bunch of seemingly innocuous events took place that when combined, spelled the downfall of what was once America’a most radical publication this side of Rolling Stone. First there was this interweb/www-dial-up/modem thingy that everyone was getting into their home. It struck like wildfire, made Al Gore boast like hell wherever he went, and threatened to revolutionize and redefine anything it came in proximity with.
Which naturally, included print media.
Who needed to go places to see what was happening when you could do so from the comfort of your own home? I never subscribed to any newsgroups, listserves, or .alt’s but it was great to get the AP feed from yahoo or the latest sports news and scores from ESPN.com, anywhere and anytime. Guttenberg’s movable type made printing available for the masses but as humanity became more fruitful and multiplied over the globe, a new medium would have to get the word out more efficiently than a simple printing press. While most men were busy looking at porn, I was occupied with information and how much more of it I could soak up between my ears. I easily felt that I would never have written so much if I wasn’t able to take in what others had already published, and codified it into my belief system.
The biggest thing that did the Village Voice in however, was competition. At first, Time Out was only something that was available in London and any newspaper that someone was hawking to commuters on the way to work had a price to pay for it. Within a few years, Time Out New York became the de facto magazine for keeping up with what was going on around town and the two most popular printed dailies were available to anyone who could grab one.
Free? Really? Nothing in New York was free. Nothing. If it was, there was a catch to it or a survey that had to be filled out or a mailing list one would be put on once personal information was handed over but for over 10 years now, it was possible to get yesterday’s news in your hand without having to download it and print it out at home.
But award-winning journalism, it was not.
That’s not to say that the articles weren’t that good. Some of them were but the vast majority of the headlines and stories were condensed down to little sound bites. While this was good for picking up more news than would have been previously possible, it diminished the value of each one. Like multitasking, each byline had to be squeezed in with a pile of others with the end result being a giant collection of quantities with no lasting value. For in-depth stories that took more than 30 seconds to read, it was increasingly up to magazines like The New Yorker to fill that niche but in the 21st Century, who had time to listen to Malcolm Gladwell and David Denby espouse about the current trends of the day, unless one was highbrow and had the leisure time to polish Eustace Tilly’s hallmark every week?
This left the two publications that served the masses to weather the storm also known as the demise of traditional print media. Both the New York Post and the New York Daily News had their close calls in recent years, with the former nearly ceasing publication in the early ’90’s and the latter stumbling under some tough years under British magnate Robert Maxwell’s oversight. Whether one likes or hates the last of the old-school daily papers, it’s nearly impossible to picture a metropolis with so many stories as New York not having newspapers that are opened up and read like actual books. Tabloids exist for a reason, and that’s to sell themselves. While not as sensationalistic as their counterparts in the U.K., the ones in New York allow the City’s story to be told, rehashed, and even lambasted on a daily basis. Both papers have columnists and sports writers that New Yorkers love and hate but as anyone will vouch for, those feelings incite passion.
And passion is what drives the gears that move society.
The Village Voice lost that a long time ago, long before it also became free and could be found anywhere a box could be placed on the sidewalk. I couldn’t stand some of its headlines, the incessant cursing in the articles, and the blatant disrespect for tradition and values that the paper espoused but even as it stood side-by-side with the countercultural and beat movements it rose up with, it was the voice of an age and time that was so key in the City’s history. Fun City may have come and gone with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell but the Voice was one of the gifts that that generation bestowed on Gotham, for future generations of New Yorkers to read, ponder, and even learn from. While the journalistic format that the paper adopted will live in for generations, I feel zero attachment for the online publications that have filled the vacuum left behind by its demise. DNAinfo, Gothamist, and even HuffPost NY fill an important void today but they’ll never capture the heart, minds, and even zeitgeist of the times of this information age.
It’s an inevitable shame that the majority of the Baby Boomers will be hitting retirement age in the next few years and soon afterwards will be leaving us en masse. While there’s no stopping that, I find it hard to fathom that the Voice also has to go down along with them. Publications like the Voice have become so ingrained in the City’s collective unconscious that movies set in the Big Apple have almost always featured a scene or two in which a daily newspaper was prominently featured, as a reminder of how important they were to the image of New York. When the last of those old-school dailies folds, all the voices that had an outlet in them will be silenced, along with those who made their living telling their stories every day.
And who would want to live in a City that couldn’t even properly chronicles its narrative week in and week out for posterity?