Tuesday, September 4, 2018


The Village Voice's final print edition in 2017
My strongest memory of the Village Voice was the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting it won for an amazing series on AIDS in Africa by Mark Schoofs, who went on to do great work for The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica and most recently Buzzfeed.

When I was lucky enough to interview Schoofs after that great honor, he explained how he had spent six months researching the story, in large part due to the support from the newspaper and its then-editor Don Forst who spent some $17,000 on the project. Along the way, Schoofs contracted malaria and found himself briefly arrested.

But it was apparently worthwhile as it brought the paper its third and what would turn out to be its last Pulitzer Prize.

So it was sad and disappointing to find out on Friday that the longtime news outlet was being shut down. Why? Economics, of course. The same economics that killed its print edition a year ago and has crippled many news outlets at a time when the kind of in-depth, ruthless and probing journalism is needed in this country.

Mark Schoofs receivig his 2000 Pulitzer Prize
Not just because we have a president who consistently lies and attacks the press, but because so many issues -- from crime to education to the environment -- are underserved and facing real challenges.

“This is a sad day for The Village Voice and for millions of readers,” Voice owner Peter D. Barbey told The New York Times on Friday. “The Voice has been a key element of New York City journalism and is read around the world. As the first modern alternative newspaper, it literally defined a new genre of publishing.” 

The Voice, which launched in 1955, was the first of a string of so-called "alternative" papers that have done some of the most important news in our recent history. Not alternative facts, as some powers-that-be would like to put forth. But alternative journalistic approaches that take progressive issues, under-served readers and true investigations of those who have the money and influence to affect our way of life.

The Voice led to similar probing publications such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian  -- launched in 1966 by publisher Bruce Brugmann, who would declare its job was to "report the news and raise hell" -- Portland's Willamette Week, which took its own Pulitzer in 2005 for exposing former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's past sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl; and the Chicago Reader, which just this year was honored for exposing the continued use of "contract housing" to dupe low-income families.

During my time covering media and news issues, first at Editor & Publisher and then at Media Matters for America, I found many of these alternative news outlets -- the Voice among them -- to be key sources for reporting on the mainstream media in their towns and nationally. In addition to all of their hard-edged, probing and often dissenting opinion journalism, they are often the only watchdogs keeping an eye on the traditional press.

From the Houston Press detailing buyouts and layoffs at the daily Houston Chronicle -- and their effect on coverage -- to the Washington City Paper revealing how much local TV affiliates were making from the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to corporate campaign contributions.

The last edition of the Boston Phoenix in 2013
The Association of Alternative News Media now lists 107 such publications, with the Bay Guardian and the Boston Phoenix closed a few years ago, and now the Voice. At one point, that group numbered 135, according to AAN Executive Director Jason Zaragoza.

Thirteen years ago, several of the largest weeklies, including the Voice, joined forces to forge something of a power structure when its then-parent company, Village Voice Media combined its six publications with 11 others from the rival New Times Media to form a new company estimated at the time to be worth $400 million.

Fast forward to 2018 and Voice Media Group -- as it's known today -- has only five alternative outlets. It sold off the Voice in 2012.

"We lost quite a few members in the years after the recession," Zaragoza told me Monday. "But have held steady in the past few years ... Some of the larger cities have been among the biggest hits."

Of course these traditional alternative news outlets are not the only sources anymore for in-depth and opposition reporting that challenges the mainstream. There is the growing non-profit news world that includes award-winning sites like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, as well as many online outlets ranging from Democracy Now to The Young Turks

But the independence and scrappiness of the true alternative weeklies is a key element in today's journalism. While many are still going, the loss of the oldest and most well-known is a detriment.

Jason Zaragoza
"A lot of our publications were launched in opposition to or to fill the gaps of what the mainstream wasn't covering," Zaragoza told me. "Alt weeklies have really filled that gap. They also benefited from not having to be on the daily cycle."

For many of us, these were the first places we learned about the fringe world, deviant sex, hard drugs, outsider politics and gritty reality. And it was all treated with respect, in a way. Some of the first published news profanity appeared in the Voice or the Bay Guardian, while others exposed the true corporate greed in many areas, along with life in the underground -- be it music, art or transgender and bisexual experiences.

In some ways, the alternative press is the essence of all journalism -- finding out the truth without judgment and explaining it to others.

"When they are at their best, they are really highlighting the gaps in the daily paper's coverage or the biases or the ownership's conflicts of interest," Zaragoza said. "The problems alt weeklies face are very similar to the challenges all media is facing. We are seeing this at the dailies, in magazines, in all print media."

Hopefully, that doesn't mean the end of them all. But this ending is bad enough.

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