Alt-‘s Not Dead! But Are Downtown Alt-Weeklies Headed for Retirement?

LAST MONTH THE top two editors of The New York Press quit. Nothing new there. Two previous editors had done the

LAST MONTH THE top two editors of The New York Press quit. Nothing new there. Two previous editors had done the same. Except when they quit, they’d done so in dramatic fashion, over journalistic principle or pique. Jerry Portwood and Adam Rathe, on the other hand, quietly departed for jobs at Out and The Daily News, respectively. Publisher Tom Allon quickly announced that they would be replaced by Marissa Maier, a features writer for the Hampton’s community paper The Sag Harbor Express. A week later, rumors began to circulate that the paper was for sale, and Mr. Allon appeared to be in no hurry to deny them.

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That the story broke in The Village Voice, once the Press’s newsprint nemesis, didn’t merit much attention. Both papers have bigger antagonists these days.

So, as it happens, does their glossy rival. Two months earlier, after shrinking its staff by 20, Time Out New York sold a majority stake to a U.K. private equity firm, Oakley Capital, for $23.2 million. Alison Tocci, the company’s long-serving president, departed for the presumably greener pastures of the City Parks Foundation. She was replaced by Aksel van der Wal, a consultant for Oakley.

Things appear little better at The Village Voice, which lost a senior editor, Stacey Anderson, this week. Even casual readers notice that the mother of all alt-weeklies looks a bit thin lately—little more than a cover story, a handful of reviews and Musto. The paper never recovered from a parade of exits—Nat Hentoff, Robert Christgau, Lynn Yaeger, Chuck Eddy, Wayne Barrett—and is operating with just over half the editorial staff it had before being acquired by New Times Media.

BACK WHEN CRAIG NEWMARK was still in grade school, New York’s archetypal young strivers in need of rooms to rent and futons to flop on congregated at The Village Voice delivery spots on Tuesday afternoons to shell out a dollar for first dibs on the classifieds. Along with the listings, they got a primer on their new hometown: a Joe Conason investigation of a money-laundering landlord, say, and an Ellen Willis column on how to love the Sex Pistols and still be a feminist.

Time Out editor Tony Elliot visited around that time, then a budding publishing mogul in Camden kid’s clothing. On his first night in town, he sat in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel and flipped through The Village VoiceThe SoHo Weekly and The New York Times, wondering, “What the fuck do I do around here?”

A similar complaint had inspired him to create Time Out in London five years prior, a single broadsheet folded into a pamphlet, with listings for Joe Cocker and Jethro Tull shows and a section for activists called “Marches / Meet the Fuzz.” Time Out’s greatest achievement would be in “information architecture”; it took the same event listings that often appeared in advertisements in competing alt-weeklies, organized them into categories and ran more than anyone else—as many of them as the magazine’s writers could churn out. Most important, it soon began printing them in a glossy format that was more attractive to advertisers and justified a steep newsstand price.

By 1995, when Mr. Elliot was finally able to scrounge up the capital to take on New York, his number one target, The Village Voice, was losing its downtown dominance. The paper had remained virtually unchanged for years, while the continually replenishing class of young people populating lower Manhattan had altered radically.

Meanwhile, the conservative publisher of the Baltimore and Washington City Papers, Russ Smith, had established a free alternative to the alternative in The New York Press.

The New York Press defined itself in opposition to The Voice opposition and in opposition to most alt-weeklies,” said the paper’s former editor Sam Sifton. “So if the job of the alt-weekly was to find banks that were redlining poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, in this brash, bratty, way the job of The New York Press was to say, ‘But we don’t live in the Bronx.’”

The Press was often described as the conservative alt-weekly, but the characterization mostly made sense relative to the fastidiously P.C. Voice. It was more of a riotous jumble. Alexander Cockburn, fired from The Voice for taking an Arab studies grant (and, according to rumors, for criticizing Israel), found a home at The Press. Taki Theodoracopulos’s society writing sympathized with the aristocracy, and Jonathan Ames’s brash sometimes-sex column was only as rude as it was addictive. Mr. Smith had a weekly column, “Mugger,” which took shots at city politicians and restaurants and the occasional Duane Reade cashier—but mostly at The Village Voice.

“It was so transparently commercial, this anti-Voice fervor Russ would try to whip up,” said Jim Ledbetter, then the Voice’s Press Clips columnist. “It struck me as a little unseemly, even where it was valid.”

The rivalry soon spilled out of the columns as the two papers’ edit staffs engaged in a turf war after hours. The Voice laid claim to the Scratcher bar, on East Fifth, and New York Press writers stuck a flag in the ground at 288 Elizabeth Street (now Tom and Jerry’s).

If the two papers represented competing countercultural visions of the city—stridently progressive and brazenly misanthropic—their new rival, Time Out New York, took a pass on the question altogether. Its goal was less to shape the city than to sample it.

To pre-empt Time Out’s incursion, The Village Voice began giving away its listings section for free on Fridays. Six months later, in response to the Press’s rising influence and falling circulation, the paper went completely free.

“What that did was move us up into a different category to compete with New York magazine, leaving The Voice in a life-and-death struggle with The New York Press,” founding editor Cyndi Stivers said.

Time Out New York never saw downtown as a contested terrain; instead, it was an amusement park of things to try and discover. The magazine, which had built-in cred as the London “bible” beloved of young Americans backpacking or studying abroad, sought to be a handy decoder ring for the city. 

Time Out brass thought they could target the advertiser-elusive Gen X by hiring a young staff to write the magazine, but it never quite provided significant news or feature space for their ambition.

“American journalists hate doing information reporting,” Mr. Elliott said. “You don’t win Pulitzers doing information reporting, but readers really value it.”

As a result, the magazine suffered from considerable attrition, training generations of editors who quickly decamped for greener pastures (two early hires, Brandon Holley and Adam Rapoport, now head up Lucky and Bon Appetit, respectively).


THIS IS THE PART of the story where the Internet comes along and ruins everything. Plenty of publications thinned out during the late aughts, but alt-weeklies suffered more. They were more dependent on classifieds and listings, which were easily served up by Craigslist and Yelp. Meanwhile, the idiosyncratic content that gave the papers their cred could be found in countless blogs.

Mr. Smith returned to his native Baltimore in early 2002—shaken by 9/11, according to former colleagues—and sold The Press to Avalon Equity Partners, run by David Unger. The Voice remained the enemy, but staffers found a more troublesome adversary right in the newsroom.

One set of editors, Jeff Koyen and Alexander Zaitchik, still fresh from a stint in post-Velvet Revolution Prague, clashed with Mr. Unger over a cover story by Matt Taibbi entitled “The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.” Mr. Koyen elected to leave rather than apologize for the humor piece.

Their replacements, Harry Siegel and Tim Marchman, refugees of The New York Sun, wanted to bring reportorial and intellectual rigor to the bratty weekly (and shift its focus to competing with The Observer, a weekly if not an alt-one). But when Mr. Unger forbade them from publishing the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, they resigned in an eloquent tantrum.

The same month Mr. Siegel was hired at The PressThe Village Voice was entering a period of attrition following its purchase by the alt-weekly conglomerate New Times Media. What New Times also brought to The Voice was the architecture of a web-based media company, a network of websites that enjoyed revenue from, a Craigslist competitor that has come under fire for erotic services listings that some have claimed enable prostitution.

After slashing costs—many reviews, for instance, are now syndicated to properties around the country—and running through five editors in two years, New Times-turned-Village Voice Media executives imported Tony Ortega, an accomplished investigative reporter and the editor of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, for the top job.

Still, noted Mr. Ledbetter, “It’s very hard to do consistent serious journalism, and there’s some question with the owners that that’s what they want, although there’s been some instances of it in other markets.”

TIME OUT HAS LONG been criticized for its clumsy digital efforts, which lagged due in part to unsuccessful partnerships with City Pages and Vindigo (a tech bubble victim) and empty coffers.

“It really pisses me off,” Mr. Elliott said. “I don’t think we need anyone to tell us how to do it; we had very limited resources.”

Meanwhile, the company lost New York to New York, which turned listings into Ellie-worthy service content, with beautiful photography and the editorial manpower of a full newsroom.

“If you’re talking about a good city magazine, there’s more to a city than restaurants,” Mr. Elliott noted pointedly of his glossy competitor.

The Oakley Capital infusion leaves Time Out with about about $12 million to invest in digital. The company plans to restructure its editorial process: writers will file their reporting to Time Out’s database of listings and reviews, which will be sorted and repackaged for the print editions. Time Out New York has a print circulation of 150,000, which Mr. Elliott expects will level out at 100,000. Planned expansion to Paris and Berlin will be online-only.


AS FOR THE NEW YORK PRESS, Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon gave it another lease on life when it acquired the paper from David Unger, folding it in with a stable of community publications—West Side Spirit, Our Town East Side, Westsider/Chelsea Clinton News—where he cut his teeth as a reporter and editor.

One rumored plan is to sell off The New York Press name and bring back the community paper Our Town Downtown, a title that might be a better fit for Ms. Maier.

“She has a great eye for downtown stories,” Mr. Allon said, though he would not comment on the Our Town plan.

Such a shift would make sense: The New York Press’s contrarian reputation has little in common with the straightforward community reporting found in the other Manhattan Media titles. Likewise, downtown New York no longer harbors the contrarian population who gave The Press its reputation.

“We’ve learned that Lower Manhattan isn’t as young as it used to be,” Mr. Allon said. “It used to be, that was where you went when you were part of the creative class.”

“Manhattan gave itself over to the moneyed classes during the Wall Street boom, so the kind of dig-your-heels-in, us versus them, class-based politics epitomized by The Voice barely exists anymore,” Mr. Ledbetter agreed.

Alt-weeklies have to contend not only with a changing media landscape, but with such sweeping demographic shifts as well.

As Mr. Allon noted of the sort of New Yorkers who were once the core readers of such titles, “All those people have moved to Brooklyn.”


Alt-‘s Not Dead! But Are Downtown Alt-Weeklies Headed for Retirement?