If there’s a future for The Village Voice, it’s digital

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

After more than 60 years, The Village Voice is stopping the presses. Peter Barbey, the Pennsylvania-based owner who purchased the paper in 2015, announced the decision at a brief staff meeting today. The Voice will end its weekly print edition, the company said in a statement, but will “continue as a brand with its digital platform as well as a host of new events, products, and initiatives.”

In an ideal world, the Voice would return to its glory days and fill the Gawker-sized hole in the current digital media landscape, and if that is Barbey’s goal, then a pivot away from pricey print makes sense. The Voice has reported double-digit increases in Web traffic since its site was redesigned in May. Playing out the optimistic approach, one could see a deep-pocketed owner committing to a strategy that pours resources into reporting and recaptures the adversarial approach that made the Voice an indispensable star in the firmament of New York journalism.  

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Continuing down the current path of free distribution amidst dwindling print advertising is untenable. So while journalists responded to the news on social media with hoary remembrances of the Voice’s glory days, Barbey’s decision may be the Voice’s only chance at remaining viable. The question, of course, is how and whether the publication (even one as legacy-rich as the Voice) can command the attention, and the ad dollars, it will need to survive in the digital realm, where competition is even more brutal.

 

The end of the Voice in print represents a symbolic death knell for the print arm of the alt-weekly industry, of which the Voice, founded in 1955, is the most storied member. The collapse of the business model, as Jack Shafer wrote almost half a decade ago, has come in spurts, with classified ads heading online, record companies scaling back ad buys, and retailers shifting their focus to digital. “[B]usiness has moved online—and so has the Voice’s audience, which expects us to do what we do not just once a week, but every day, across a range of media, from words and pictures to podcasts, video, and even other forms of print publishing,” Barbey said in a statement. “This decision will allow us to move forward more freely in our pursuit of all of those avenues so that The Village Voice brand is not just once again viable, but vital.”

Though the financial obstacles to publishing a profitable physical paper are well known, Barbey recently said he was committed to the endeavor. In a talk at Columbia Journalism School in March, Barbey seemed dedicated to maintaining a print product, citing the model of a Gutenberg printing press he keeps on his desk and floating the idea of relaunching the Voice as a broadsheet. But he also acknowledged that digital properties like Gawker and Gothamist had balkanized something of the Voice’s gritty, alternative ethos. (Barbey did not respond to phone and email messages from CJR.)

So far, however, the once-venerable home to Norman Mailer, Wayne Barrett, and Robert Christgau has so far failed to rise to the occasion under Barbey’s leadership, and industry boilerplate about special events and modern digital strategy does not inspire optimism. Despite the best efforts of a staff working under a rotating stream of top editors, The Voice as a print product has ceased to be a vital part of the New York media ecosystem.

As the Voice continues on in digital form, it will do so without at least some of its current staff. “The Village Voice is weighing a number of scenarios with a firm timeline to be released in due time,” read a statement given to CJR. “There will be staff adjustments and layoffs in the near future. A regrettable, yet necessary, outcome.”

The impulse to bemoan the print demise of one of journalism’s icons is tempting and most likely warranted, but Barbey argued that it was necessary. “The most powerful thing about the Voice wasn’t that it was printed on newsprint or that it came out every week,” he said. “It was that The Village Voice was alive, and that it changed in step with and reflected the times and the ever-evolving world around it. I want The Village Voice brand to represent that for a new generation of people—and for generations to come.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.