Can Village Voice Make It Without Its Lefty Zetz?

On April 18, The Village Voice’s music editor Chuck Eddy was fired by Village Voice Media. Mr. Eddy is the

On April 18, The Village Voice’s music editor Chuck Eddy was fired by Village Voice Media. Mr. Eddy is the 17th employee to leave the paper, either by resignation or termination, since Village Voice Media—then called New Times—assumed control in November. The paper lists 60 editorial positions on its masthead.

Last week, on the April 13 edition of the radio program Democracy Now!, host Amy Goodman brought current Voice columnist Nat Hentoff and staff writer Tom Robbins on the show. They were met by the recently resigned Press Clips columnist, Sydney Schanberg, and the paper’s recently fired Washington correspondent, James Ridgeway.

The interview was a boisterous consciousness-raising session about the evils of Michael Lacey, Village Voice Media’s executive editor.

Mr. Lacey, the man responsible for much of the overhaul at The Voice since New Times completed the $400 million merger in November, didn’t appear on the program. But listeners were treated to an FM version of what’s going on at The Voice for the last four months: two sides bitterly talking past each other.

As the dissident Voice staff tells it, the new management is a bunch of out-of-town bean counters bent on dismantling a precious 50-year-old journalistic institution. The new management, in turn, depicts the paper as a haven for thumb-suckers, with a staff so self-satisfied that it refuses to stop writing left-leaning commentary and go out and do some reporting.

In tone and nuance, the standoff now suggests a battle over a decaying historic building—between a pushy, mercenary developer and a bunch of cranky cat-and-newspaper-hoarding tenants.

It wasn’t always this way. Earlier in the relationship, some Voice staffers had warily welcomed the arrival of New Times, hoping the new management would reverse an internal perception of neglect on the part of the former owners.

“The paper was not putting out stuff we had come there to be a part of,” one Voice staffer said. “There is a lot of pent-up frustration.”

And New Times, though the dominant partner, took on The Voice’s name—The Voice’s name had more cachet.

The New Times/Voice deal was approved by regulators in November 2005. In January, Voice publisher Judith Miszner resigned. Editor Don Forst resigned in December 2005. Doug Simmons took over from Mr. Forst, and Ms. Miszner’s position was taken by Michael Cohen, the publisher of Miami New Times.

The top editorial authority was Mr. Lacey, who began flying in, when needed, from Phoenix, Ariz., where he resides.

Mr. Lacey made it clear that though his chain had bought The Voice, he didn’t have much taste for the newspaper as it was constituted. If he was the new landlord, he was talking about a gut rehab at a minimum, and possibly a teardown.

At a Feb. 1 meeting, Mr. Lacey bluntly told staffers of his plans to eschew Bush-bashing commentary for local investigative pieces.

Now, the organization of the paper is being changed. Much of the front of the book is being overhauled. Mr. Ridgeway’s column has been killed, and so has Mr. Schanberg’s Press Clips column and Toni Schlesinger’s Shelter column, which provided quirky interactions with apartment and loft dwellers. The film-review budget has been cut by two-thirds, according to a source, and some film reviews are now being contributed by freelance writers from other New Times papers. According to Voice staffers, New Times has also dismissed The Voice’s three-person fact-checking department and laid off two of the five copy editors. Last month, Mr. Lacey killed interim editor Ward Harkavy’s blog, the Bush Beat. The end-page essay has been discontinued. Voice writers now have to use the New Times stylebook, and according to a source, there are words—including “meta” and “subversive”—that are now banned from the paper.

In a phone conversation, Mr. Lacey said that all the changes are designed to create space for more magazine-style reported pieces. Commentary, at least as currently practiced in The Village Voice, has no place in the New Times regime.

“I want our writers to start reporting,” Mr. Lacey said. “One of the things that happened with the Internet and blogging is that it made simple punditry in newsprint irrelevant. It’s no longer timely.”

(“Everything I do is reporting,” Voice columnist Nat Hentoff said by phone. “I have no patience for people who write off the top of their heads based on what other people have said.”)

“I’m going to change the dynamic,” Mr. Lacey said. “It’s true for any paper we operate: We have a reputation for doing hard news. We call people up and get the information. We dig the records up. If people aren’t comfortable with that, they’ll have to find employment elsewhere.

“This is so simple,” Mr. Lacey said. “It’s almost like reading See Dick Run. Our job is to go out and get the information about how the deal went down. All the punditry that goes on in your head at 2 in the morning is no more valuable than a sophomore in college debating over espresso. The deal is always more interesting and more complicated than you know sitting at your typewriter. Once you go out and start talking to people, you get a lot of new information.”

Mr. Schanberg, the media critic, said he decided to resign after Mr. Lacey told staffers he didn’t want references to outside reporting in The Voice. “I came to the conclusion he didn’t like my work,” Mr. Schanberg said. “I couldn’t work for someone where my product wasn’t respected.”

(On Jan. 3, Mr. Schanberg took on the Bush administration over the National Security Agency wiretapping story. On Jan. 17, he wrote about James Risen’s book on N.S.A. wiretapping.)

Mr. Lacey is currently interviewing candidates for a permanent editor—his most recent interim editor, Doug Simmons, was fired last month. According to one staffer, more than 50 candidates have been considered. Mr. Lacey declined to name potential selections, but said he is considering applicants from national magazines, daily papers and alternative weeklies, and hasn’t set a timetable for his decision. He is not limiting his search to New York City–based candidates.

“That would be a real plus, but ultimately, it’s the writers who have to know New York City. It’s not like any city is unknowable, or unlearnable. The question is: Will they put in the effort to work all the time to grasp this place?”

Once he lands his new editor, Mr. Lacey said the role of a weekly paper such as The Voice is to set the agenda, not comment on it.

“All that chatter, all that blogging—it’s people writing about what other people have reported. We can our wrap our hands around the throat of the beast, find out what happened, and give that to readers,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s a kick-ass way to make a living. We have found a way for all the troublemakers at the back of the school bus to make a living. You want to sit in your room and ruminate? Not on my nickel.”

Can Mr. Lacey’s new rumination-free, troublemaking Voice convince a new generation of readers accustomed to getting their classifieds on Craigslist, their music reviews on Pitchfork and their dose of political commentary from The Daily Show to not pass by the free stacks that wait lonesome on Village corners?

“When Dan Wolf was the editor, you would find conflicting points of view in every issue,” said Ed Koch, a friend of Voice founder Wolf. “After his departure, I thought The Voice became much more radical in its point of view and more uniform. When it becomes predictable, you ignore it.”

“The original Voice was an iconoclastic newspaper,” said New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, who covered city politics for The Voice in the early 70’s. “Increasingly, the paper became predictable. You would pick up a headline and know what’s in a story. Despite the fact it’s now free, you’d walk by it and not read it because you’d know what’s in it. I suppose I’m being unfair because I wasn’t reading it that often. And maybe I missed it, but there were few surprises.”

For some, The Voice has remained relevant on beats, including labor, class and politics. “Wayne Barrett I read closely,” said Patrick Healy, The New York Times’ chief New York political correspondent. “He is a real institution on the political beat.”

But current and former Voice staffers see New Times’ focus on local reporting and seeming disinterest in national politics and commentary as an abdication of duty, of a dismantling of their institutions. And it was Mr. Lacey’s March 31 firing of Washington, D.C., correspondent James Ridgeway, a 30-year veteran of the paper, that has been the clearest signifier of that new direction.

“It just didn’t make sense that we have an office in D.C. when what we needed to do is concentrate on New York City,” Mr. Lacey said.

“[Mr. Lacey] wants to cut the budget and fatten profits,” said Karen Durbin, The Voice’s editor from 1994 to 1996. “I hate to be blunt about it, but it makes my blood boil. The paper always did national and international coverage. It was part of who we were, and part of who our readers are.”

As editor, Ms. Durbin sent Mr. Ridgeway to Haiti to file dispatches on the civil unrest there. “The Voice always stood on two pillars, politics and culture,” she said.

“What the new owners haven’t grasped yet,” said staff writer Tom Robbins, “is that New Yorkers care more about what’s going on in the Bush administration than they do what’s going on in the Bloomberg administration.”

Mr. Ridgeway, a Newspaper Guild member, has retained attorney Jan Constantine and is currently considering legal options to fight his dismissal. “We’re reviewing our options,” Ms. Constantine said by phone April 17. She said she’s been retained by Voice writers worried about their job security and further dismissals.

“Well, I think all journalists should check their ego at the door,” Mr. Lacey said, when asked if Voice staffers might be angry about giving up national ambitions. “The history of this business is filled with people who have to turn their heads sideways to fit through a door because their ego is so large. Humility never hurt anyone.”

But it’s hard to achieve a state of humility through force. For one thing, a newspaper with radical staff changes is a grim place to show up each day. On April 17, online managing editor Nathan Deuel quit to take a position at Rolling Stone. On April 6, Web manager Akash Goyal also quit the paper, according to a source.

“There have been many good music editors, but Chuck Eddy was the most efficient, most professional I worked with,” said Voice senior editor and rock critic Robert Christgau on April 18. “He was fabulous to work with. He was the only editor who got his sections in not on time, but ahead of time. He was so easy to work with. He was great.”

Fortune may be bracing for another senior-staff departure. The magazine’s star Enron reporter, Bethany McLean, has held talks with The New York Times Magazine and the still-unnamed Condé Nast business title, according to sources close to Ms. McLean.

“I’m totally happy covering the Enron trial,” Ms. McLean said by phone from Houston on April 18. “I’m not planning to make any decisions until the trial is over. It’s the final chapter to this Enron saga. I’m really grateful to Fortune to let me spend the time to cover it.”

Last month, senior editor Daniel Roth departed for the Condé Nast magazine, helmed by Wall Street Journal alumna Joanne Lipman.

At Fortune, Ms. McLean was recently promoted to editor-at-large. A Fortune spokesperson said the promotion wasn’t made in an effort to counter a competitor’s offer.

“Like all our writers, we value Bethany highly. As with all our writers, we want to make sure she’s happy. But any recent changes in the editorial structure is not specific to Bethany.”

—G.S. Can Village Voice Make It  Without Its Lefty Zetz?