Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Breathtaking Inanity: Village Voice in "Turmoil"

Against my better judgment,* I'm veering way off the usual course here at Polis to comment on the “turmoil” at the Village Voice. See, its been purchased by the New Times company, ending a long-standing rivalry between the two competing alt-weekly chains in order to dominate what has rapidly become an obsolete media market.

The breathtaking inanity of this otherwise little league media story became evident with a quote by New Times editor Mike Lacey, who has been firing Voice people en masse since taking over last fall. His main complaint has been that the Voice writers are all commentators and navel gazers, and that they don't do any real reporting. New Times reporters do real reporting, he declared to The New York Observer. They actually get on the phone and talk to people!

"We can our wrap our hands around the throat of the beast, find out what happened, and give that to readers,"” he said. "“It'’s fun. It's a kick-ass way to make a living."

"Wrap our hands around the throat of the beast"”? A "“kick-ass way to make a living"? Is this guy serious? To my ears, that sounds as retrograde as if David Schneiderman had said when he bought the Village Voice in 2000, "“We'’re going to stick it to the man! It's a groovy way to make a living."” Lacey'’s absurd bravado is just as amateur and outmoded as the Voice's unreconstructed leftism. There'’s something sad about a fat, middle-aged man in the throes of total irrelevance talking about "“kicking ass."

Hey, no argument from me that the Village Voice has been boring and predictable for a long time now. (Of course, there'’s a smattering of good writing here and there, and even some serious reporting now and again.) But is the New Times'’ apolitical gotcha brand of journalism the answer? Doubtful.

The New Times formula goes something like this: "“Some guy we don'’t know or care about did some fucked up thing to someone else we don'’t know or care about,"” and it goes on like that for 6,000 words, because that'’s what real reporters do. They get on the phone and talk to people! And talk to more uninteresting people. And then they write a very long, shaggy-dog story about it. It's just as boring and predictable, if not more so, than "“I hate Bush"” navel gazing.

The fact is, in this era of media saturation (do I really need to use the word "“blog"” here?), and the more recently ramped up class of professional journalists out-reporting each other on war, terrorism, hurricanes, wiretapping and whatnot, there'’s very little left of the beast to get a hold of, much less its throat. In order to really do "“original reporting,"” that means reporting on the leftovers. The kids don'’t care because they'’re on MySpace. The adults don'’t care because 9 out of 10 New Times stories are beside the point to anything important in people'’s lives. On the occasion that they do break important stories --– and they do --– I have no doubt those stories could have and would have been reported elsewhere. That was the whole point of alternative weeklies back when they were important: They reported the stories that the mainstream media wouldn't touch, for whatever reasons. That environment just no longer exists, in part because the MSM does report on things it didn't used to, and anything they miss or ignore is reported to death online.

I predicted back in 2002 that the two companies would eventually merge after they were embroiled in a Justice Department antitrust investigation for agreeing to sell each other papers and shut them down in order to improve their competitive advantage (which they announced, just like that, in their own damn press release, all but using the word "‘monopoly"’!). I also predicted back then that once the merger took place, the chain would die a slow, painful death. Not because I buy into the notion that print journalism is all but extinct (did radio disappear when TV came along?), but because this particular brand of one-stop-shopping-alt-weekly journalism is a dinosaur and has been for awhile now, whether it'’s a die-hard lefty paper or a juvenile gotcha paper.

UPDATE: A few people have written to me about this post, one pointing out a typo (thank you!). Another wrote to say that it's really the business model that is the problem for alt-weeklies. This is of course the bottom line. I alluded to that by saying that "one stop shopping" weekly papers are dinosaurs, but didn't really get Craigslist, Internet porn, online movie trailers, etc. That the biz model is outmoded is unquestionably true. But if that were the ONLY problem, it could be fixed merely by changing the biz model, i.e. by going online. Many papers have created very good websites, but it doesn't fix the editorial problem. The conundrum is in evidence by the fact that Lacey et. al. are attempting to rebrand the chain while still keeping the Village Voice name. That pretty much says it all.

*I'm going to head off charges of bias right here by saying that, yes, I am biased. I used to be the editor-in-chief of a Village Voice-owned weekly paper in Cleveland.