The Village Voice, New York’s Pulitzer prize-winning alternative weekly known for its muckraking investigations, brash political reporting, exhaustive arts criticism and anxiety-laden cartoons, is going out of business after 63 years. Last night, New York cultural figures, among them the guitarist Lenny Kaye, came out to salute the publication’s passing.
The paper’s publisher, Peter Barbey, announced on Friday that the pioneering paper is ceasing publication entirely because of financial problems, a year after it stopped circulating in print.
“This is a sad day for The Village Voice and for millions of readers,” he said in a statement, released after the closure was announced to the newsroom staff.
The Voice’s second, digital death comes three years after Barbey, publisher of a regional Pennsylvania paper, bought the storied publication in the hope of rescuing it from years of management turmoil, circulation and advertising losses that had reduced the original ledger of the counter culture to a condition of grave infirmity.
Barbey tried to stem its losses by abandoning the Voice’s print edition last summer and publishing only online – a move that removed the paper from the sidewalk distribution boxes that were a fixture on New York street corners for generations.
But the switch to digital, as other publications have found, left a publication founded in 1955 by a group of investors including writer Norman Mailer, untethered to the physical world and still incapable of staunching the financial bleeding.
Barbey said on Friday that his optimism that the Voice could be saved was no more than an illusion. “Where stability for our business is, we do not know yet,” he said. “The only thing that is clear now is that we have not reached that destination.”
The company said it would retain eight of its 18 remaining staff to ensure that the publications’ six decades in production would continue to exist online as testament “to one of this city’s and this country’s social and cultural treasures”.
The Voice was the country’s first alternative news weekly and once had a weekly circulation of 250,000. Along the way, it received three Pulitzers and became known as home for some of New York’s best investigative journalists.
But it was most admired for its cultural criticism and as a beacon for bohemian life centered around New York’s Greenwich Village. The Voice became widely admired for the music criticism of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus, who last week published Real Life Rock Top 10: Memories of Aretha, a typically esoteric ramble through the outer reaches of pop culture.
Among the young writers drawn to the intellectual milieu of the Village Voice was Lenny Kaye, periodic music critic and guitarist with the Patti Smith group. Reached yesterday evening, Kaye told the Guardian that the final loss of the Voice meant that a period in New York history had now truly passed.
“For a time in 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s, the Voice was the only voice of the counter-culture. It was a window into an alternative universe that became our universe. In its time it was almost the sole arbiter of culture and taste for the arts, progressive politics and the lifestyle that came attached with them.”
Kaye, who met Smith in 1971 when she tracked him down to a New York record store after reading an article he’d written in Jazz And Pop magazine, said the Voice and its counterpart, The East Village Other, was where they learned about what was going on “not only in New York, but happenings that were going on under the radar across the country.” It was, he says, “the lifeline of the counter-culture.”
It was also where Smith and Kaye found their rhythm guitar player Ivan Krall and where they advertised their upcoming gigs.
Reading the Voice “was literally how we functioned,” he adds. “Of course I feel nostalgia for it because it was so much a part of my growing up, it helped me set my ideals, and introduced me to a cast of characters who I used to make my cultural personality out of.”
One of his favourite columnists, he recalls, was a writer named John Wilcox who wrote a column titled The Village Square about the cafes, the people he met, and the mundane aspects of life in Greenwich Village. “He gave me a window into a bohemian life I wanted to live.”
Kaye is wary of the nostalgia that customarily envelopes the passing of this or other similar cultural landmarks from a previous era of New York life, like when CBGB, the famous punk venue, was meticulously and lovingly refashioned as John Varvatos clothing and vintage hi-fi store.
Others institutions have been less fortunate but few have been hit harder than New York’s free alternative papers. Screw, a weekly pornographic tabloid, closed in 2003. The New York Press, a rival to the Voice, stopped publication in 2011. Circulation drops are threatening New York’s two remaining tabloids, The New York Post and The Daily News, which laid off half its editorial staff in July.
“The twenty-first century has started and these are the institutions of the twentieth century,” Kaye points out. “It was wild, sure, but the Village Voice was just the banner. It was the people who wrote for it, and the people who interacted within it, that made a difference to the culture.”
In each new era, people find their own new places to rally, Kaye predicts. “I’m not sure if the brand at this point was so different from a million other things, but people in the present day will find their outlets, too, and get the information out there in a different way.”