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Eulogy For the Alt-Weekly

What happens when the 'alternative' newspaper is no longer alternative? One writer shares his opinion on the New Times deal.
 
 
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At just after midnight on Monday, October 24, the Village Voice announced that its parent company, Village Voice Media, will merge with the New Times.

That means that competition in the "alternative weekly" sector has been all but eliminated. The New Times is adding magazines like the Los Angeles Weekly , City Pages , and Seattle Weekly to its list, and will command 25 percent of the market.

It is now the Clear Channel of alt-weeklies.

There is no longer anything "alternative" about the alternative. The long goodbye to an oppositional politics and aesthetics begins now.

This deal was first reported as more than a rumor in the San Francisco Bay Guardian over a month ago. The BG reported that the New Times would take a 62 percent stake in a new LLC while Village Voice Media would take 38 percent. A plurality, if not a majority, of the new LLC board would be venture capitalists.

The New York Times confirmed the details of this arrangement. It also cited New Times CEO James Larkin as saying that they expect to buy out the VCs in 5 years. Apparently, the new company will be called Village Voice Media, but clearly the Voice will be changing to become more like the New Times, not the other way around.

Current union contracts with the Voice would be honored -- and that, friends, is another story in itself. But others would likely be dealt with nastily. Earlier this year, there was a bruising battle at Cooper Square over union givebacks that resulted in small concessions from union members, and deep cuts in rates to freelancers.

This is no small matter -- the Voice once paid the best rates in the industry. By contrast, New Times freelancers received much less, and largely remained a point of entry for new writers. This merger is likely to push freelancer rates even lower, as NT execs ask editors why they are paying so much for mere "content". Writers, after all, are worth much less than a dime a dozen.

In the meantime, David Schneiderman, the man who sold the Voice, is reportedly ready to receive a cool half mill as a bonus to close the merger deal, and will become the VP of online operations.

Peter Scholtes at the City Pages sounds an ominous note on the future of the merger:

"…the first business decision of the long-rumored new company, which now owns City Pages? Feed the scoop to the New York Times, not its own reporters. So much for our vaunted "online efforts…"

From the point of view of the principals, the NT/VVM merger is the next logical step in rationalizing the industry.

Here's a business that started in the McCarthyist 1950s as a true alternative -- the papers used to be called "undergrounds" -- and took flight during the "whole world is watching" media explosion of the '60s. Lots of assholes got exposed, lots of rebels got their shine, and lots of cutting-edge culture got introduced to the world. Then, just like a lot of lefty orgs in the '70s and '80s, the alt-weeklies began to implode. Those decades were rife with purges, shakeouts, closures, and union-busting drives.

All these burned bridges were long forgotten by the go-go '90s, when dot-com money flooded alt-weeklies across the country. That's when VCs started checking out the scene, and corporate hounds like Larkin started moving in.

(This period also led to the rise of a new generation of writers -- one much more clean-scrubbed, signifier-savvy, overeducated, and arch-browed than the drug-slammed, whiskey-swilling, ink-stained renegades of an earlier era. The New New-New Journalists were culturally sharper and, much too often, politically less committed. They could take apart a movie or a CD for you in a smarter, funnier way than any overly earnest hippie ever could, but they couldn't tell you why they were getting paid so poorly for it, or organize anything more impactful than a kegger. And yes, I absolutely include myself in this not-so-wild bunch.)

But then the bubble burst, and everyone was assed-out again. Since then, the NT and VVM have been slowly coming together in a death dance.

In October of 2002, NT and VVM cut a deal to split markets -- not at all unlike what radio has done after consolidation: here's your turf, here's mine. NT closed the LA New Times and let VVM and its LA Weekly imprint have the run of the place. In Cleveland, VVM shut down its Cleveland Free Times so that NT could rock on with its Cleveland Scene title.

What media conglomerates began to learn after 2000 was that it wasn't enough to be the big daddy, to have collected all the pieces on the Monopoly board. Properties actually had to make money, and after the bubble, there was a whole lotta head-scratching going on.

In the San Francisco Bay area, an area not big in numbers but huge in mindshare, the NT decided to go after the independent San Francisco Bay Guardian in a big way -- through predatory pricing and conglom-to-conglom sweetheart deals -- essentially offering heavily discounted ads to tackle the market. (Note that this is the same company that now blames freebie Craigslist for its financial woes.)

By all accounts, this has caused all three major weeklies -- the NT's SF Weekly and East Bay Express , and the Bay Guardian -- to suffer heavy losses. Staffing-wise, the BG is a skeleton of what it was 5 years ago; it keeps going not because its staffers are inspired by the paper's maverick mythology, but on the backs of its freelancers who must sometimes wait longer than 6 months for an actual check. And if the BG account is to be believed, the NT/VVM merger may actually force the NT to close one or both of its titles here.

While predatory pricing undoubtedly is a factor in the Bay Guardian's falling financial fortunes, the impact of Craigslist and on-line personals and sex ads, as well as younger audiences going to the Internet in droves, have contributed to the ongoing decline of weeklies across the country.

In the meantime, the thing that got the alternative press going in the first place -- content -- suffers.

The Voice, sort of the alt-weekly of record, has been undergoing an extreme makeover during the past 3 years, heading towards a NT template: shorter, less substantive pieces, writing that veers toward breezy over deep, less investigative and more pop-cultural. Some of the changes have been good, a necessary updating for a new generation of readers. Others have left great writers like Gary Giddins (and many others who, unlike Giddins, decided to stay) completely denatured.

With 100-word reviews and 500-word news bits, lots of brilliant writers have been basically reduced to adding sugar to the kool-aid. The only good news here is for younger writers: there's going to be lots of opportunity for you, especially if you don't aspire to pay rent and feed yourself, if you're bored with fighting City Hall, and you love Kenny Loggins.

But when the paper becomes only about selling the latest CD, concert ticket, movie ticket, sex toy, or call-girl service, what the hell is "alternative" about that?

Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. This essay originally appeared on his blog .