Village Voice changes hands again as alt-weeklies continue their slide

October 12, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

The sale of the Village Voice Monday to a wealthy out-of-towner hardly qualifies as big media news. But it marks one more chapter in the long decline of the alternative weekly category — along with its most famous title.

Buyer Peter D. Barbey is president and chief executive of the Reading Eagle. But his family (#48 on Forbes Richest list) made most of its money in other ventures. The purchase came through an investment company Barbey controls — not the newspaper.

The Voice and five other weeklies it owned were sold in 2005 to New Times Media, whose flagship was a wildly successful paper of the same name in Phoenix. Soon after, the ad base for the alt-weekly group began to crater. Staples like night life, head shops, natural foods and massage/escorts all were ripe for migration to specialized websites.

New Times was one of several expanding chains that had grown too fast and needed to pull back. It was sold (to a management group populated by Voice Group execs) in 2012. That group sold two other of its 11 remaining titles within the last year — in Minneapolis and St. Louis.

A younger generation of journalists won’t even remember the Voice in its glory days — and that’s a part of the alt-weekly problem. Loyal readers aged in place, and young adults were less attracted to the format.

The summer after college I spent working in New York (1969), the Voice was a big deal commercially and editorially. People would line up around the block to get a first look at its apartment listings. The weekly had a stable of influential critics and top-notch, left-leaning commentators and investigative journalists.

Issues routinely ran to 200 pages-plus (as they did at New Times through the 1980s and 1990s.)

The last decade washed out the few remaining Voice contributors of that era and others writers and editors with long tenure and substantial salaries.

Joe Pompeo of Capital New York reported in his story on the sale that the newsroom is down to about 10.

Weeklies, accustomed to big reports without much of a time peg, seem to have had a particularly difficult transition to a mixed digital/print publishing model. Dailies at least had breaking news chops they could retool, and monthlies (notably The Atlantic) made an asset of invention from a standing start with well-conceived digital sties and strategies.

But even the most battered of titles often are worth something to someone — think of Newsweek passing to audio electronics entrepreneur Sidney Harman and then to a company with Korean ties or Mort Zuckerman’s stewardship of U.S. News and World Report and the New York Daily News.

In his short tenure at the Eagle, Barbey was dinged by a local blogger for an over-the-top, self-interested defense of requiring that legal notices be printed in newspapers. He may welcome a Big Apple platform for his views.

Best case — Barbey will also infuse some money and editorial vitality into the Village Voice. But I wouldn’t look for a turnaround — new times, if you will — given how much the business base for the Voice and similar publications has deteriorated.