When I heard that the Village Voice was going out of business, I thought: “Too bad. The Voice saved my life. On the other hand, what has it done for me lately?”
That's a tad cold, but consider: my Village Voice died in 1974, and again in 1979. Ever since, I’ve been reminding myself that newspapers are not causes, but conveniences. Hard as it may be on needy scribblers, papers last only as long as people want the services that they provide. I don’t hold with the theory that The Walking Dead is really about newsprint in the twenty-first century, but there’s no getting away from the fact that newspapers are instant artifacts. Buy a paper, and two hours later, the headlines haven’t changed, the way they do on a smartphone.
If “location” is the secret of real estate, then timing is the secret of starting a newspaper—and the secret of selling it, too. The Village Voice’s three founders—Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and Norman Mailer—timed things exactly right. When the Voice hit the streets in 1955, its competition was The Villager, a great news source for bake sales and flower shows. The Voice focused on the disconnected segments of downtown arts and politics. Suddenly, the shadow world of Greenwich Village counterculture, with its roots in the nineteenth century, had a clearinghouse, a way of keeping in touch with the public and with each other.
Mailer bailed out early, but Fancher and Wolf realized that their skinny weekly had a potential readership that went far above 14th Street. Bohemians were old hat, but Beatniks were big news. There was a growing national counterculture that needed a newspaper, too, and the price was right: a one-year subscription cost $3.
Countercultures are populated by creative, energetic, idealistic paupers, and the Voice fit the bill; by the early 1960s, the paper was just getting by. Then it caught a break: a four-month newspaper strike shut down the New York dailies. Desperate advertisers flocked to alternative papers, including the Voice, which began reaching new readers and advertisers. From then on, the Voice made money—lots of it.
When I moved to New York in 1966, the Voice was thriving, a must-read for hippies, peaceniks, guerrilla-fashion fans, politicians, and a radical salad of activist organizations. The Voice classifieds were required reading, especially if you needed a place to live. That summer, I was working at a real estate office on Christopher Street. On Monday mornings, my job was to take a list of available apartments to The Villager’s advertising desk. The boss believed that Villager readers (“educated, employed, and sane”) were a better bet than the oddballs who read the Voice.
Then, early one Wednesday morning, we were crossing through Sheridan Square when the boss stopped short. A big crowd had gathered around the newsstand, and they were waiting for the Voice. The paper was dated Thursday but distributed on Wednesday. Word had spread that Sheridan Square, directly across the street from the Voice office, was the first newsstand to get the paper. To have any hope of finding an apartment in the classifieds, you had to be first to call; to be first to call, you had to get your Voice at Sheridan Square. Around 10 a.m., circulation manager (and author of the Voice’s “Wheels” column) Dan List pulled up with a car full of papers hot off the Weiss Brothers printing press in Newark. The boss watched the crowd scrambling for papers and said, “No more Villager. From now on, we advertise with the Voice.”
By the time I started writing regularly for the Voice in 1968, the advertising department had grown enormously. Like other Voice writers, I knew the paper was making money, and that we weren’t being paid much. Selling one article to Esquire was the monetary equal of 20 articles in the Voice. Personally, I didn’t care. My payback came from having the freedom to write what I wanted and to publish in other papers and magazines. Once my byline appeared in the Voice, I could give up day jobs and make a living at the keyboard. The Voice saved my life.
But nothing gold can stay. Fun has an expiration date, as Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf were well aware. To start and build the Voice, they had staked everything on a roll of the dice, and won: the paper had become a huge success. The Village itself, however, was no longer the only counterculture community in the city, and developers were knocking at the door. Voice city editor Mary Perot Nichols had defended the Village with passionate and powerful journalism. She had helped stop “master builder” Robert Moses from running a highway through Washington Square, and from building a six-lane expressway through SoHo.
But neither Nichols nor the Voice could stop the Village from changing in other ways. The definition of “counterculture” now included heroin and speed. Residents were complaining about noisy crowds on MacDougal Street and hippies in the parks. Hotter, hipper, cheaper neighborhoods, such as the East Village and SoHo, had sprung up, and they had their own weekly papers.
Now the old paper and its later giveaway versions are gone for good. The smartest business decisions that Fancher and Wolf made were to start the paper when they did and to heed Bernard Baruch’s advice (“I got rich by selling too soon”) and to sell it when they did. The smartest thing that The Villager did was to make itself useful, going beyond bake sales and flower shows while continuing to cover local news. The Villager is still in business.
The Voice doesn’t need an epitaph; it’s a victim not of failure but success. The culture wars that gave rise to the paper are over. Civil rights, experimental arts, cutting-edge music, new frontiers in theater and film, and the rise of feminism, gay rights, and the environment; overturning tradition-bound morals; radical politics—all have found a place in today’s America. For years, the Voice debated these issues alone. Now the war is over, and the Voice has gone home.
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