Fate of 'Voice' could impact all alt-media

Have alternative papers jumped the alternative shark?

Have alternative papers jumped the alternative shark?

The short answer is no, but the question has been rising from the lips of media critics since last October's merger of New Times and Village Voice Media (VVM), which brought 17 alternative papers under the VVM ownership umbrella.

That sparked the obvious observation that media consolidation is striking the alternative media world, the one venue where independent ownership should ideally persist. New Times' editorial leadership is famous for instituting template-like editorial philosophies in all of its papers - including a distinct lack of the liberal slant that governs most alt-weeklies - fueling fears that the quirk factor of papers it bought would soon be under attack.

New-media mavens have argued that the hand-wringing is a moot point because the proliferation of blogs and low entry-cost Internet publications has rendered the idea of a single alternative news outlet in each city quaint. But while Web writers may have assumed the anti-establishment attitude of alt-weeklies, they have not, in most cases, coupled that with the serious investigative journalism that makes up the second pillar of the alt credo.

Entertainment journalist Nikki Finke, a columnist for the alternative LA Weekly, says the Internet has not been able to compete with alternative papers in terms of editorial quality.

"We go where mainstream papers fear to tread, we unearth what mainstream newspapers try to hide, and, in my case especially, we insult who mainstream newspapers fear to offend," she says via e-mail. "But we do it with real journalism, which is what separates us from the average blogger. How can there ever be a diminishing role for that?"

But even if alternative papers themselves still have a place, the soap opera that has taken place since New Times leadership - specifically, executive editor Michael Lacey - has begun remaking the venerable Village Voice has sparked concern about the future of America's flagship alt-weekly.

Jessica Bellucci spent more than five years as the Voice's sole PR person before taking another job shortly after the merger. Much of her time was spent pushing the paper's stories, Web site, and brand out to national and international media, a task aided by the fact that she was even allowed to sit in on editorial meetings. She is diplomatic about her reasons for leaving, but VVM's new leadership has clearly not prioritized its public image; Bellucci has not been replaced.

That is unfortunate for Lacey, who has been attacked as a jerk by some of his former employees while he shakes up the Voice's staff. Sydney Schanberg, a journalism veteran who wrote a media criticism column for the Voice until Lacey came on board, says he left the paper because he became convinced that Lacey was not interested in his work.

"I don't think he understands New York and its interest in the press," Schanberg says.

PRWeek could not reach Lacey for comment. But he defended his plans in a column in the San Francisco Weekly last September, writing, "At New Times, our writers have a virtual blank check to explore the issues in their communities without the burden of a political agenda."

Lacey's methods for reorienting the paper may have been abrasive, but his goal is consistent with New Times' philosophy. He has said that he wants the Voice to focus more on well-researched local journalism, and less on commentary and national stories.

Interestingly, former Voice employees say the issue of alt-media consolidation itself was not on anyone's mind after the merger; instead, most were just concerned with their ability to do their jobs. The Voice itself is the keystone brand in the entire alt-weekly world; its future, and that of VVM as a whole, will play a large part in determining whether another generation will read alternative papers or read about them in memoirs.

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