Monday, October 24th, 2005

Eulogy For The Alt-Weekly

At just after midnight this morning, 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% 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% stake in a new LLC while Village Voice Media would take 38%. A plurality, if not a majority, of the new LLC board would be venture capitalists.

Today’s New York Times confirms the details of this arrangement. It also cites 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 50s 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. (For my rant back then, click here and scroll down to the October 7th screed.)

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.

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?

I wrote this in 2002:

Alt-weeklies mostly emerged as a way of meeting great goals: 1) providing a progressive foil against the mainstream, 2) representing lefty politics, and cutting-edge arts and culture of local communities through covering stories never told by the corporate mainstream media, and 3) building an enlightened business model — by becoming a marketing vehicle for local, small businesses, and people-connecting mechanisms (i.e. personal ads!) — in other words, being a manifestation of the whole “small is beautiful” ethic.

The merger of NT and VVM shows how far we’ve come.

James Larkin says, “I’m doing it because I love good journalism. I want to have newspapers in the most exciting markets in the country. This is not a financial play.”


You can take your Murdoch complex, take your “newspapers in exciting markets”, and go run them into the ground.

I’m gonna pour a little out on the sidewalk for the alt-weekly, then I’m gonna go try and find me a real alternative.

posted by @ 7:25 am | 18 Comments

18 Responses to “Eulogy For The Alt-Weekly”

  1. Charles says:

    You put this beautifully, Jeff, even though nothing about the state of affairs is beautiful. I suppose it’s vain to hope that internet venues can do anything to compensate for the loss of truly alternative print papers, but I’m still going to indulge myself in order to maintain my composure. As a long-time reader, let me also say thanks for your words, not only here, but throughout your career. I’ve linked to you on my own blog as a way of expressing that gratitude.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m so bummed about this, not even looking again at Tom DeLay’s felonious smile in his mugshot could cheer me up.

    Our Voice has been stifled by the plunderage of the Village. Doesn’t sound like New Times at all.

    Now, with the hopelessness spewed out, let’s all heed Jeff’s website header. We can’t let this bullshit stop us, and we won’t let it stop us.

  3. cherryl says:

    jeff, i noticed the proliferation of porn/sex/call girl ads in the voice too. although i live in north carolina i read it and was thinking about getting a subscription, until i read this blog entry.

    you’re right, the alt-weekly is dead, save for little attempts like mine for an independent weekly voice. my newsletter is very new but will soon expand to an alt-weekly zine status.

    i am currently writing an open letter of disgust to an “alt” weekly here, Yes! Weekly, that recently picked up an Ann Coulter column! The editor says it’s to basically balance the voice of the paper and some other bullshit. Whatever.

    it’s getting to the point that, unless you are already online and familiar with rss, you are left with the same dumbed down news rotating every twenty minutes between Fox and CNN, contributing to an ever widening gap between the “scholars” — a term I HATE BY THE WAY and only bullshit ass posers call THEMSELVES scholars (with the exception of Adisa Banjoko!) — and the proletariate.

  4. Oliver says:

    Jeff – if New Times owns 25%…who owns the remaining 75%? I was always under the impression that New Times owned a lot more than that but not because I had hard numbers on it.

  5. Jeff says:

    They are a bunch of teeny self-owned indies, ala the BG but smaller (e.g. the Independent in Raleigh/Durham, Creative Loafing in Atlanta, the Stranger in Seattle), and small corps like the Metro (San Jose, Santa Cruz, SF).

    There is certainly no other indy or corp that will come close to the national size, content and advertising might of the new VVM if the merger goes through. Clear Channel is a perfect statistical analogue–they control roughly 25% of the ears and revenue in radio.

    Statistical analogue is important, as opposed to ideological–because I’m certain the staffs of the current VVM are not going to go down an NT-style homogenization without a fight. The Voice’s union suddenly becomes much more important in everyone’s equation. This is a point I didn’t make that forcefully in the piece above.

    But the size question is important in understanding what the battle ahead may look like.

  6. Rizoh says:

    Jeff I’m almost certain someone is going to step up and fill the shoes.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Print media is dead, a relic from the days of yore, a one-way conversation couched in tweedy tones and spoken through frozen moustaches. As for the alt-weeklies being “underground”, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who reads them as living somehow “underground,” unless, of course, you consider middle class college graduates who still live in the mother’s basement “underground,” which maybe you do, since maybe it’s you. The Village Voice is not some mimeographed samizdat being passed around the streets of Moscow circa 1947. If you want to be “underground,” below the channels of mainstream communication, hang out in front of your computer and pick fights with other faceless, voiceless losers like myself. But that won’t last for long, either. The Internet will be co-opted by the Evil Lizard Warlords soon enough. You’ll have to pay. So enjoy and don’t bemoan The Village Voice. Whatever you think the Village Voice is/and/or/was it probably wasn’t. Nothing ever is. Everyone wants to make money, buy a house, go on vacation, drive a nice car. The terms “alternative” and “credibility” are for those who aren’t dodging gunfire. One day, if your lucky, someone will make you an offer for your website. I suggest you take it and buy a nice piece of property in Wyoming.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Wow…looks like new media hypesters are as bad jerk-offs as the tweed tones.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t understand what you said Mr. Anonymous. Something like the new media hypesters are jerk-off’s just like the tweed tones. I don’t get it. Who do you think is the jerk-off. Am I the jerk-off? Oh, I’m the jerk-off. Now I get it. Except I’m not a new media hypester. Like I said, everything get’s co-opted sooner or later. One day the internet will be old and stale just like print. If anything, I am, if I can use your parlance for a moment, a de-hypester. I just wanted you to know that. And another thing: I don’t mind if you call me a name. I’ve been called a lot worse. So feel free to call me whatever you want. May I suggest buffoon? That’s a good one.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t understand what you said Mr. Anonymous. Something like the new media hypesters are jerk-off’s just like the tweed tones. I don’t get it. Who do you think is the jerk-off. Am I the jerk-off? Oh, I’m the jerk-off. Now I get it. Except I’m not a new media hypester. Like I said, everything get’s co-opted sooner or later. One day the internet will be old and stale just like print. If anything, I am, if I can use your parlance for a moment, a de-hypester. I just wanted you to know that. And another thing: I don’t mind if you call me a name. I’ve been called a lot worse. So feel free to call me whatever you want. May I suggest buffoon? That’s a good one.

  11. Anonymous says:

    As a casualty of a former New Times merger myself, I know exactly what Larkin and Lacey are capable of doing to a newspaper and its staff — and it’s not pretty. In fact, more insulting, ruthless people could hardly be found outside of an Enron.

    Perhaps it’s time for some real alternatives to spring up and take on the corporatized dinosaurs that now abuse that title.

    Ten years ago, when I attended my last AAN convention, it was already clear that there was nothing alternative about the business practices of the Alt. Weeklies. Almost all the people in positions of power at these newspapers were men — and were white. The hippies who founded these rags had given up the ghost early on.

    Face it, the business model of giving blow-jobs to record companies, and film distributors for lucrative advertising is hardly alternative. Plus the weeklies have been making a good deal of their profits off the backs of hookers for years. Publishers will say they are protecting free speech by running sex ads, but, when it comes down to it, they’re much more like pimps than patriots.

    Recently, the publisher for whom I currently work told me that he had finally discovered that dirty, little secret of publishing success: pay the writers nothing. The alternative weeklies, like many industries, have done good business paying writers little or nothing. And, now, with fear as an incentive, they will be able to exploit this dirty secret in ever more-effective ways.

    Of course, the I-me-mine, self-serving journalism that has evolved in the weeklies over the past two decades is pretty shopworn. How many more times can anyone read a review of a CD or art opening that somehow relates to a personal trauma in the writer’s youth without wanting to vomit? Add to that the smart-allecky smarm and libertarian viewpoints many of the weeklies now spout, and there remains little reason to pick them up.

    Mostly, I think the New Times corporate take-over shows that it’s time for someone, or many someones, to come up with a new newspaper model worthy of the alternative moniker — while print journalism still viable at all.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think buffoons would be insulted by the comparison.

  13. julene says:

    When I was working at SF Weekly and New Times bought it, they promised they wouldn’t purge the staff.

    Three months later, two original people remained. Lacey is an arrogant, ignorant cowboy, and this is a sad day indeed.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “I think buffoons would be insulted by the comparison.”

    I didn’t know that you speak for the buffoons. But I think you’ve definitely found your voice.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Jeff, right? Jeff it is. If your poorly-written, amorphous rant is typical of the alternative style of journalism which you lament is disappearing, well, let’s just say the market may be right. And by right, I’m saying that the young don’t find you relevant, or better than what they could pick up from a national news source or a blog. So don’t blame New Times for finding an viable alternative to your alternative. They’ve evolved. You haven’t. And you regret it. They do quality work. You don’t. And please recognize, that ‘independents’ like SF Bay Guardian, are bankrolled by unseen big bucks. Money is behind both types of alts; one just knows how to do a better product that more readers gravitate toward.

  16. Jeff says:

    How old are you, Mr. Anonymous?

  17. Jeff says:

    I mean, I’m sorry if I came off as a little in-your-face, Mr. Anonymous, but thanks for dropping by. Next time you do, you might spend a little time and check out the site. You might learn a few things about “the young” that could help you understand those whipsmart, bright-eyed, beautiful things you’re underpaying who are pitching you in your editorial meeting.

  18. Dace says:

    “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?”(end quote)

    Hell, when the consumers are consuming, of course the media is going to flip-flop to whatever they’re buying. Thus continues our not-so-slow slide into ignorance.

    Thanks for writing that blog entry — I originally came across it via I look forward to reading your other entries

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