After months of speculation, innuendo, hand-wringing and hollow denials, it was announced last week that New Times, the Phoenix-based publisher of 11 alt-weeklies, has acquired Village Voice Media, publisher of six, among them the Village Voice and the LA Weekly. The new entity, which will be called Village Voice Media and have as its flagship the mammoth Village Voice, is poised to control 14 percent of the alt-weekly market, and thus is subject to Justice Department approval on anti-trust grounds.
Prone as it is to hysterics, the alt-weekly community took the news badly, particularly the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which remains embroiled in a nasty scrap with New Times’s SF Weekly over predatory pricing, and earlier broke the story of the planned merger. Industry-wide, questions were raised about a possible homogenization of content, lamentations howled over the impending death of independent media, and fears uttered about whether dirty business practices, such as predatory pricing, and in one instance, illegal collusion between New Times and VVM, which occasioned Justice Department intervention, will spell the end for smaller papers.
The new VVM denies that a content boilerplate will be instituted, though New Times rightly takes a good deal of heat for similarly outfitted publications. It also denies that the merger will signal an ideological shift for either VVM papers (yelling post-hippies) or New Times papers (neutral muckrakers). As Howard Kurtz wrote in the WaPo, “In terms of sheer feistiness, the papers may not be that far apart. A Voice writer recently slammed President Bush’s “cluster of neocons and religious nuts and military industrialists.”
Actually, hold up a second. Maybe there is an ideological war in the offing, at least judging by this statement by New Times executive editor Michael Lacey: “Perfectly good journalism is commercially viable. You have to give them well-written, well-reported stories … not people doing raving opinion pieces about how outraged they are.” Wait, isn’t that what the Voice does? Conventional wisdom holds that if you want raving opinion pieces about how outraged people are, you go immediately to the Voice. Or to the dozens of other alts who are constitutionally unable to recapture a niche in a web-based world.
Which leads us to the mournful death-of-indie-media knell that sounds hourly in alt-weekly offices across the country.
Alt-weeklies can’t so much as take a crap without going cold with concern for the future of independent media. But the fact is, this is becoming less and less valid a concern. What the industry people don’t seem to understand—and never is this more evident than at the annual Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention—is that it isn’t enough to be merely independent anymore. It’s more important to be good. Scores of aging alt-weeklies are struggling, not because corporations suck and people are illiterate, but because they refuse to ditch the late ‘60s business model, take some chances and get with the times. You can hardly blame Young Children and people for not wanting to read some painfully earnest weekly shrill-a-thon against Bush, or embarrassing attempts by tired, 40-something ex-scenesters to come across as hep for the kids. If the New Times model takes hold and what readers get is more nonpartisan investigative journalism and less tired posturing, fair enough.
But that seems to be lost on just about everyone, particularly the Boston Phoenix’s new media critic, longtime Boston Globe staffer Mark Jurkowitz, who last month worried that “A Village Voice/New Times merger could establish what both chains are supposed to despise.” His piece decrying the possible merger caused New Times’s Lacey to observe how the Phoenix is “one of the first alt-weeklies to acquire several publications, radio stations, and other holdings while, apparently, shedding its sense of irony along the way.”
There’s another problem. So far, only Seattle Stranger editor Dan Savage seems willing to acknowledge that being owned by a large, independent newspaper chain is no less corporate—and probably less so—than being owned by a bunch of bankers who trade in Halliburton stock. “Excuse me?” he blogged on TheStranger.com. “Prior to being purchased by New Times, VVM was owned by Goldman Sachs, Weisspeck & Greer, and Canadian Imperial. Prior to being owned by that collection of anti-establishment investment bankers, the Voice and its sibs (including Seattle Weekly) were owned by pet-food magnet [sic]—and billionaire investor—Leonard Stern. Prior to being owned by Stern, the Voice was owned by that right-wing whack-job Rupert Murdoch. With its purchase by New Times, the VVM chain will be owned by a smaller, more anti-establishment corporation than it has been in years.”
Things change. Back in the day, alt-weeklies were at the forefront of everything. They’re not anymore, and it’s really no one’s fault but their own. If they have such a hard time coping with the fact of their own creeping obsolescence, how can they be expected to parse the wider meaning of a New Times/VVM merger without resorting to self-pity and boilerplate anti-corporate angst?