Village Voice publisher Peter Barbey announced Aug. 31 that the venerable alternative weekly will cease publication. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Media critic

Great publications don’t die all at once, they get dismembered over time.

The Village Voice, founded in 1955, had been losing staff for more than a decade. It lost its print edition last year. And on Friday came the news that it would cease publishing altogether. Owner Peter Barbey informed staffers, “Today is kind of a sucky day,” because half of the staff is now out of a job and no news stories will be posted. Talks with prospective new owners hadn’t produced a deal. “I’ve been having conversations with other entities for months now,” Barbey said in audio obtained by Gothamist. “This is something we have to do — for some of them this is something we’d have to do before they could talk to us any further.”

Alert for American oligarchs: Here’s an opportunity to lose money running an outfit whose storied, hyped past you have no hope of equaling.

Village Voice history intersects a touch with that of the Erik Wemple Blog. In 2006 we were hired to edit the paper by its then-new owners, Village Voice Media (née New Times Media), an owner of a chain of distinguished alt-weekly newspapers. One of those titles, Phoenix New Times, served as a full-time thorn in the side of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The ownership group was terribly excited about its purchase of the Village Voice, which is where the trouble started: They were looking more for a managing editor than an editor, someone with carefully circumscribed authority over the newsroom. We resigned before editing a single story.

The company fired eight staffers just weeks later, prompting concern about the new owners. “It cuts the heart right out of the paper,” a decorated Village Voice staffer told the New York Times.

The heart of the Village Voice has been cut out many times since then. The news continues a worrying trend for big-city alt-weeklies, which have fared more poorly than their counterparts in small- and midsize towns. Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco have all seen closures.

A triple threat has undercut alt-weeklies. The desiccation of classified advertising with the advent of the Internet deprived this category of millions upon millions upon millions of dollars in revenue. As an employee of the Washington City Paper in the 1990s, the Erik Wemple Blog saw this income with our own eyes, as a parade of people bearing cash came up to the newspaper’s front desk to pay for their weekly promos. Filmmaker Dave Nuttycombe memorialized the ritual in a video on the alt-weekly’s rhythms (see 1:12). Also: Small businesses have raided budgets to build their own websites, social-media presence and to buy targeted digital ads. And whereas publications like the Village Voice once had a stranglehold on the young urbanites with loose change in their pockets, the past 15 years have seen a pile-on of competition in this space.

As recently as the early 2000s, alt-weeklies were fairly bloated with ads plus news and arts copy. The product wasn’t always the greatest; in fact, it was often awful. When the Erik Wemple Blog was circling around the Village Voice job, we dug deep into the archives, and the legend of a great weekly newspaper clashed with its actual archive. Stories were quite commonly plagued by long and pointless leads, scant reporting and a lingering question: What’s the idea here? Like other papers in this class, there was a lot of filler to spread out all the ads that poured in — the luxury of a glorious business model. Yet there was always something worth reading in that paper, and finding it was part of the sport of flipping through the pages. It might have been a music review, or a theater review, or a brief capsule in the news section about some politician. Or it may have been a long-simmering investigation that changed the city.

But there was always something. Now there’s nothing.

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