Turning the Voice Into a Newspaper

The big shakeup at the Village Voice, despite the protestations of the staff there, might be great news.

Lately the Village Voice has been in the news almost as much as the New York Post ‘s gossip troll Jared Paul Stern, already an instant legend for his ham-fisted attempt to shake down billionaire Ron Burkle.

The alt-weekly kicked things off in late February, when its lunkheaded boy wonder, Nick Slyvester, made up parts of a story on dating, and got busted by one of the people he interviewed for the piece. The episode eventually got Slyvester canned, and on March 14, Doug Simmons, the newspaper’s acting editor — having run and then retracted the story - was shown to the door himself.

Earlier, Sydney Schanberg, the Voice’s eloquent and acerbic press critic (and Pulitzer Prize winner), resigned from the paper, and this week, the paper fired longtime Washington correspondent James Ridgeway and music editor Chuck Eddy. As the New York Observer wrote this morning, “Mr. Eddy is the 17th employee to leave the paper, either by resignation or termination, since Village Voice Media — then called New Times — assumed control in November. The paper lists 60 editorial positions on its masthead.”

The Observer is right to trace the imbroglio back to November, when the Voice was acquired by New Times Media, a chain of 17 alternative newspapers across the country, for $400 million. New Times had a reputation for a straightforward, no-nonsense business style — something Voice staffers are clearly learning first-hand.

Michael Lacey, the editor of New Times (and now executive editor of Village Voice Media), gave a brauva performance in an interview in the Observer today, spelling out the thinking behind ditching Ridgeway and Eddy, and announcing plans to retool the front of the book, in addition to cutting the paper’s fact-checking department and two of its five copy editors. In March, Lacey also spiked Ward Harkavy’s blog, the Bush Beat.

The choice quote from the Observer piece came from Lacey himself, who complained:

“All that chatter, all that blogging — it’s people writing about what other people have reported.”

Lacey wants his employees to be the reporters that break the news, not the commentators weighing in on other people’s work. “We can wrap our hands around the throat of the beast, find out what happened, and give that to readers. … It’s fun. It’s a kick-ass way to make a living. We have found a way for all the troublemakers at the back of the school bus to make a living. You want to sit in your room and ruminate? Not on my nickel.”

That’s refreshing, and the kind of outlook we don’t hear from many editors these days. And for the record, Voice staffers don’t like it one bit. Twenty of them signed a letter protesting the firing of Ridgeway, defending his past accomplishments as a reporter and calling his firing “shameful.”

While we certainly agree that New Times’ handling of Ridgeway’s termination was pretty ham-handed — a guy with Ridgeway’s pedigree deserves more respect than just being unceremoniously dumped on the street — we also can’t say that we’re going to miss his column. Ridgeway’s weekly “Mondo Washington” column was, in many ways, emblematic of the stale, predictable lefty claptrap that rendered the paper hardly worth paying attention to in recent years.

It’s not that the column was poorly written or factually challenged — it was neither. It’s just that Ridgeway rarely had anything new to say. Even though he had a week between columns, he was seldom able to add anything either new or newsworthy to the subject of the day. So we got pieces that were little more than a summation of, say, Josh Bolten being named White House chief of staff, or the Moussaoui terror trial, or whatever other issue was roiling Washington that week.

Likewise, much of the paper’s other content, as Lacey has so bluntly pointed out, has suffered from a surplus of righteous indignation while often lacking an interesting hook. Too often, simply glancing at the headlines as you walked past a free-distribution box on the street told you just about everything you needed to know about the content of that week’s issue.

That said, we’re not so sure that cutting national and international news out of the paper completely, as Lacey appears intent on doing, is a good idea. New Yorkers, while often surprisingly parochial, are also often more interested in national or international politics than they are in their local leaders. But then again, it’s not like the Voice’s national coverage was so hot to begin with.

Given all this, we’re holding out some hope that maybe the Voice can, in some way, go back to the era of the late, lamented Jack Newfield, who for 24 years wrote about local politics, and local corruption, for the Voice in a way that made people stand up and listen. While some of the old-timers on staff might not like the changes afoot, a little new blood might just make the Voice worth reading again. It’s not like there’s a dearth of young, talented and hungry writers in this town — or a dearth of unexplored stories waiting to be told.

So we wish the Voice well. After all, when your only local alt-weekly competition is the perennially moribund — and perpetually unreadable — New York Press, you can hardly lose.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.