The Cowboys and the Village Voice

In January 1991 I represented New York Press at a weekend conference of alternative weekly editors, hosted by wealthy liberal Smith Bagley at Musgrove Plantation, his gorgeous 600-acre estate on St. Simons Island off the southern coast of Georgia. Bagley is a grandson of R. J. Reynolds and, like the anti-tobacco crusader Patrick Reynolds, atones for the family legacy by putting some of his share of the guilty geld into progressive causes. He was a big backer of both Carter and the Clintons, not to mention Fidel Castro. (As wild-hair Reynolds heirs go, neither Bagley nor Patrick holds a candle to my personal fave, R. J. (Josh) Reynolds III, who used his considerable fortune to fund psychedelic research, found the Sufi Institute, and support the work of ufologists, psychic Uri Geller and weird-science legend Andreja Puharich. He died in 1995 of, naturally, smoking-related cancer. I smoke Camels in his memory.)

Bagley had brought together alt-weekly types from around the country to confab on how we could use our papers to fight the tide of Republicanism sweeping the land. Looking around at the motley assemblage in their Birkenstocks and peasant dresses–alternative journalism was thick with aging hippies and younger neo-hippies in 1991–I was skeptical. In truth, I was only there because my boss, a neocon with no time for hippies or progressives, had sent me, his resident middle-aged boho, in his stead. I suspected that Patti Calhoun, editor of the Denver weekly Westword, was there for a similar reason; her bosses, New Times founders Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey, were no doubt too busy building their empire.

By Sunday afternoon, when I was invited to join some of the others in the hot tub to discuss how we could end the Persian Gulf War–who knew it would end within a month all by itself?–I’d pretty much had enough of the knee-jerk political palaver. I commandeered a rental van, shanghaied Calhoun and a couple other skeptics, and drove across the causeway to the mainland, where we found a quiet bar and I, at least, got fairly drunk. We returned to Musgrove in time for a grand Southern-style banquet, served by a black staff in formal attire, who after dessert entertained us by singing–I am not making this up–some Negro spirituals. I was quite plastered by this point, and have vague memories of behaving rather badly.

I didn’t attend another alt-weekly gathering until a decade later, when Larkin and Lacey hosted the annual conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Phoenix, AZ. It was summer, the temperature at noon was somewhere around 150 degrees, and I spent much of the conference up to my earlobes in the hotel pool. Still, I noticed how much the alt-weekly crowd had changed since I’d last been among them. Their politics were still predominantly liberal, but it was an altogether more businesslike affair. They could have been any group of corporate professionals, trading marketing techniques and business cards. The only old hippie in sight was the Bay Guardian’s Bruce Brugman. Few bohos, more Bobos, and many Babbitts.

I thought about all this watching the recent annexation of the Village Voice Media chain by Larkin and Lacey’s New Times empire. Alt-weeklies have been forming themselves into chains for years. But this new beast is by far the largest, a 17-city conglomerate with papers in New York, L.A., Miami, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco (I could hear Mr. Brugman’s howls of outrage all the way in Brooklyn), Minneapolis, Denver and elsewhere, for an estimated combined readership of four million.

Obviously, alternative journalism has come a long way from the days when it was all college kids and counterculturalists starting free papers to bring hip readers the news their staid local dailies wouldn’t cover. And even in the halcyon 1970s it was the tough-minded businessmen who really made a go of it. Like Jann Wenner, whose Rolling Stone in its heyday was unarguably the best alt-media platform in the country. And Larkin and Lacey, aka the Cowboys. Starting as college students in 1970 publishing a very good and raucous weekly in the backwater market of Phoenix, they built their empire by applying the old-fashioned newspaper principles of muckraking investigative journalism and aggressive, sometimes ruthless competition for market dominance.

The Cowboys have taken over the flagship Village Voice at an interesting moment in the paper’s history–its fiftieth anniversary–as well as a crucial juncture in the life of the Downtown Manhattan milieu that gave birth to it. When Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer founded the Village Voice in 1955, Greenwich Village was the capital of bohemian America. The paper the trio created really did give “voice” to the bohos, lefties, arty types and intelligentsia who lived and worked Downtown. It was grandly messy, long-winded, hyper-articulate, argumentative, sometimes obtusely personal, often self-contradictory. It was, as the saying goes, the ultimate “writer’s paper.”

Fifty years is a long time. As the Village Voice passed through many hands, in terms of both owners and editors, it inevitably grew away from its anarchic early spirit; for much of the last quarter-century the editorial was so programmed in dreary doctrinaire leftism and dour political correctness as to be utterly predictable and unintentionally self-parodying. During the reign of the last editor, veteran daily newspaperman Don Forst, some of the worst excesses of groupthink were restrained, but editorially the Voice has wanted a good, hard shake for a long, long time. Even when I was directly competing against it as the editor of New York Press, I couldn’t resist wishing the Voice would wake up.

Lacey, who oversees the editorial of all New Times papers, might be the Cowboy for the job. Although New Times papers have been justifiably accused of taking a cookie-cutter approach to cultural coverage, they do excel at local political reporting, Lacey’s passion. That’s a beat long downplayed at the Voice in favor of vaporous pontificating about national and world affairs. Interviewed recently in the New York Observer, Lacey indicated that whoever edits the new Voice (managing editor Doug Simmons is currently filling in for the departed Forst) will have the mandate to pry writers away from their desks and Internet connections and put them back on the streets, which cannot be a bad thing. No doubt some deadwood on the masthead will be cleared. But a quick scan of other New Times papers suggests that Voice loyalists’ fears that all lefty thought will be purged are exaggerated. There will probably just be less lazy, bumper-sticker cant, which will also be a very good thing.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the mordant symbolism of the Voice’s becoming another franchise of a Phoenix-based chain at this moment in history. Because in a very real sense the same thing is happening to Downtown Manhattan as a whole.

After decades of economic decline, capped by the traumatic blow of 9/11, New York City is in the midst of a wholesale make-over. Like many other cities who saw the bottoms drop out of their old economic bases, the city has been theme-parking itself. Mayor Bloomberg has expanded and accelerated the quality-of-life sprucing-up begun by Rudolph Giuliani. Crime is way down. Tourism is back up to historic highs. Americans For More Civility recently named New York City–New York fucking City!–among the nation’s friendliest. Times Square is disneyfied. Where there was once crumbling waterfront, we’re getting leafy parks and cruise ship docks. We’re adding hotel rooms at breakneck speed. We have all the chains now–Starbucks galore, Olive Gardens, K-marts, Targets, Trader Joe’s.

Riding the crest of the nationwide housing boom, the city’s residential real estate market has soared. Whole blocks of dark old Manhattan have been gouged out to make way for glittering new glass-and-steel towers, where the condominiums go for $5 million, $10 million, $40 million. “Undulating glass” is the latest architectural trend, making some areas of Manhattan look like a sci-fi Miami Beach.

Manhattan is well on the way now to becoming an urban playground for affluent tourists and elite residents-as-tourists. Much of its funky old charm is being scrubbed away in the process, preserved only as design elements in theme restaurants, hipster bars and tourist-trinket shops. The change is especially evident Downtown, where there was the most opportunity for real estate expansion and the NIMBY political resistance was weakest. As Lower Manhattan becomes a bedroom community only well-heeled professionals and their trust-fund children can afford, the lefties, arty types and intelligentsia are being priced off the island. Walking the streets of the East Village or Lower East Side today, I see fewer and fewer bohos, more and more Bobos and Babbitts.

Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, God rest their souls, wouldn’t recognize the place. (Mailer still totters around Downtown sometimes, but who knows what he sees.) It’s not America’s Bohemia anymore. It’s more like Cleveland By the Sea.

So a Village Voice operated like a Starbucks franchise would seem to fit right in. Maybe the new bosses should consider amending the paper’s name to the Potemkin Village Voice.

JOHN STRAUSBAUGH wrote and edited for the alt-weeklies New York Press and Baltimore’s City Paper from 1978 through 2003. His next book, Black Like You, will be published by Tarcher/Penguin in June.