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Fiber Yields to Cyber

eye on the news

Fiber Yields to Cyber

The famed Village Voice goes web-only. August 24, 2017
New York
Technology and Innovation

Earlier this week the Village Voice—the weekly paper that gave me my start in the writing business—announced the end of its print edition. The paper that invented the counterculture will now live on the Internet alone. 

Over the last half-century, digital technology has driven many publications into bankruptcy, or deported them to the cloud. But the sad fate of the Voice’s print edition has special irony: early computers played an accidental role in transforming a struggling neighborhood paper into what author Kevin McAuliffe called “the Great American Newspaper.”

On December 8, 1962, Local 6 of the International Typographical Union (ITU) called a strike against four New York City dailies; three others shut down in solidarity, effectively leaving New York without daily papers. Because it was the Christmas season, advertisers were desperate to find other outlets. Some of them discovered a thin Greenwich Village weekly called the Voice.     

At first it looked like the strike would be resolved quickly and the Voice’s advertising gold rush would be temporary. But insiders knew the main issue was not salary or hours, or even job security. The real issue was automation. 

Throughout the 1950s, Bert Powers, head of Local 6, had been following the steady development of automated typesetting. It was still a feeble technology, a whisper of things to come, but Powers could already see that automation was faster, cheaper, and easier to use. His union’s lumbering hot-type machines were direct descendants of Gutenberg’s fifteenth century printing press. If the new system was allowed into newsrooms and printing plants, ITU typesetters would lose their jobs. And so, in a kamikaze attack that wrecked the newspaper business in New York City, Powers kept the Local 6 picket lines up. 

As the newspaper strike stretched into weeks, and the weeks to months, competitors grew fat on diverted ads. Radio and TV coverage expanded rapidly. New publications, such as the New York Review of Books, sprang to life.  For the Village Voice, which had been balanced on the edge of insolvency for years, the long strike was a godsend to ad revenue and newsstand sales.

That the Voice had made it to 1963 was already something of a miracle.  When they started the weekly in 1955, the paper’s three founders—Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and Norman Mailer—knew that Greenwich Village was an international symbol of cool. Since the early 1900s the neighborhood had been famous for creative oddballs, free thinkers, and sex: a reputation like that should be easy to market.

Trouble is, they had no idea how to publish a 12-page paper. Fortunately, their friend Jerry Tallmer had worked on the student paper at Dartmouth and knew the ropes. Tallmer came on board as associate editor and, along with writers like John Wilcock and photographer Fred McDarrah, helped the Voice build a small but loyal readership, at an attractive price—an annual subscription (52 issues) cost $3.00. 

Still, it was far from certain the paper would stay afloat. One night at 2 am, Howard Smith, who wrote the “Scenes” column, noticed a light in the two-room Greenwich Avenue apartment that served as the first Voice office. Curious, he went upstairs and found the publisher, Ed Fancher, pasting mailing labels on the latest issue.  “There’s no one else to do it,” Fancher explained.  “We have no money.”

Thanks to postdated checks and a couple of timely loans, however, the Voice kept its lights on. By the time I got my first byline in 1966, the paper had become an integral part of the downtown scene. If you were looking for an apartment, you had to get to the Voice real estate listings first, which meant joining the Wednesday morning crowd at the Sheridan Square newsstand, the first place in Manhattan the Voice was delivered.

The Voice was required reading for anyone searching for an alternative to Walter Cronkite or the New York Times. And while you were reading Voice stories about civil rights, the underground cinema, anti-war protests, off-Broadway theater, oppressed poets, radical artists, hip music, and the hidden truth about Karl Marx, you would be treated to a close look at neighborhood intrigues. No matter how far afield front-page headlines might roam, the Voice never abandoned its role as a chronicler and protector of Village life. Community board meetings were reported in detail. Malevolent developers were spotlighted long before they could carry out secret plans for that empty lot on Charles Street. Ed Koch began his climb to City Hall by beating Carmine DeSapio in a race for Democratic district leader of the Village, a victory that would not have been possible without support from the Village Voice. Much of what’s gone wrong in crowded, overbuilt Greenwich Village today can be explained by the fact that the community no longer has an outspoken and influential paper like the Voice defending it.  

Fancher and Wolf shook off challenges from competing weeklies like the East Village Other and the Soho News but lost control of the paper to Clay Felker in 1974. It was bought and sold several times in subsequent years. I stopped reading the Voice in 1996 when it became a free paper, distributed in sidewalk vending boxes. 

Still, I’m sorry to see the print edition go.  My memories of the Voice belong to a world of paper and ink. However, the current owner, Peter Barbey, is probably making the right move. When Barbey bought the Voice a couple of years ago, I told him I admired his courage. Buying a print paper was a chancy move. The tide of technology cannot be reversed.  

The ITU’s 114-day strike that helped elevate the tiny Village Voice to the best-known weekly in the country destroyed three daily newspapers and delivered a devastating blow to bigtime journalism. But in the end, none of it mattered: union chief Bert Powers couldn’t stop automated typesetting or the advance of word-processing programs. In 2017, nothing can save print editions from their own inevitable fate, even though typing online is like writing on air.  What can be created and saved with the click of a mouse can be deleted just as quickly.

For the time being, none of these concerns matter, either, for digital technology is the undisputed champ of the communications world. Paper is going the way of papyrus, parchment, and linotype machines. Now it’s the Voice’s turn to yield.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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