A Changing Voice Newspaper: The Village Voice, granddaddy of the alternative press, is remaking itself. And, surprise, it's taking on the trappings of the mainstream press.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Tuesday night at Astor Place and out of the roiling, end-of-the-workday crowd a young woman snatches the latest copy of the Village Voice from a pallet dropped off in front of the local Starbucks.

The hand belongs to Deanna Leiphart, a slightly harried, 30-year-old blonde, once of Baltimore but now desperately seeking a New York apartment.

"They have the best list of apartments," she says of the Voice.

Everybody knows that. You want night life, you want to know where the bands are playing, you want to find a cubbyhole to call your own, you turn to the Voice.

Drew Sean, 22, gets his news from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. "But I want to buy a sampler," he says, holding the latest issue.

Is this the same Village Voice that was the virtual house organ for the Beat Generation and the baby boomers who came afterward, the paper whose attitude, tone and style made it perhaps the most emulated publication of the last 50 years?

Yes and no.

Begun in 1955 as a 5-cent neighborhood newspaper with the help of novelist Norman Mailer, the Voice is the granddaddy of the alternative press. Russ Smith, who helped found Baltimore's City Paper, used it as a model not once, but twice. But times change. The great social wave that carried the Voice far beyond the hip, bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village washed out long ago. The market it once owned is now Balkanized. Pop culture screams from every angle.

Check any newsstand. There is Out, Gay Times, Genre and Diva; Spin, Vibe, the Source and URB; Mondo and Wired; Interview, Might and Raygun; even Spy is back. These days the mainstream is big enough to accommodate RuPaul's talk show.

Talk to David Schneiderman, publisher of the Voice, and you'll hear about the bottom line. The paper must "grow circulation" and increase "market share," he says. In fact, the company, which owns alternative weeklies in Orange County, Calif., and Los Angeles, is planning to start a Long Island edition. That's right, Long Island.

"I profess to being an absolute capitalist," says Schneiderman, 49. "If I ran [the Voice] based on any principle other than as a business, then we wouldn't be in business. But if people want to have their ideology and write about it, then I have to make money."

So much for quaint, counterculture memories.

This year Schneiderman and Leonard N. Stern, who bought the Voice for $55 million in 1985 and is chairman of VV Publishing, made bold, some would argue desperate, changes at the Voice. In April, the venerable weekly went free in Manhattan, though it still costs $1.25 in the outer boroughs. Schneiderman expects that decision to cost about $2 million in circulation revenue the first year.

The move has pushed circulation to nearly 231,000. That is more than 100 percent increase over publishing industry's Audit Bureau of Circulation figures showing average paid circulation of not quite 112,000 in April.

The other big change is the recent hiring of Donald H. Forst, 64, a veteran New York City newsman praised and reviled for his work at New York Newsday. Some called his paper "a tabloid in a tutu," a schizophrenic hybrid trying to tap disparate markets. It lost millions but won two Pulitzer Prizes before being killed off last year by its owner, the Times Mirror Corp.

Schneiderman says he saw Forst as someone who could give his paper a much-needed news edge.

"I thought, 'My God, if I could get somebody of that stature, we would have a whole different ball game in New York City," he says. "We need to be much more topical and with the news, but staying with the mystique that this is a newspaper where writers have opinions."

Enter Forst, whose last job was a brief and not-too-comfortable stint at the Daily News. A corporate "headhunter" called him during the summer, looking for names. He obliged, sensing his age knocked him out of the running.

"I was sitting around a couple of weeks later and I said: 'Bull, I can do that job better than those two people I recommended,' " he says.

He called Schneiderman and by Oct. 7 had the editor's office. He says he arrived "curious, concerned and nervous" and says the staff felt the same. He was the established press coming to a newsroom where no one blinks at a flier advertising the Big Mama Freak's "Xena Warrior Princess" night.

At a recent news meeting, Forst seems almost fatherly, looking through his reading glasses at his new staff, many of whom are half his age and dress in a style that says New York hip, minus the Fifth Avenue price tag. The 35 editors and reporters crowded into Forst's office are surprisingly subdued, still trying to figure out what their new boss is looking for. They recite in a monotone the stories they are working on that week: new jazz clubs in Harlem, a film festival in Manhattan, the people who are experimenting with psychedelic drug cocktails.

Forst, who has an open-ended contract, calls his job "a great adventure," a chance to take on the establishment and kick 'em where it hurts.

"The trick is to make the front of the paper relevant, timely, meaningful," he says. "It's very easy to be a sponge but the trick is to find juice in that sponge that nobody else has."

In some ways, Forst's vision resembles the Voice of 10-plus years ago. "It was a little more relevant" then, he says. Ken Auletta, now media critic for the New Yorker, remembers that incarnation.

"When I wrote for the Voice in the mid-'70s, you had a sense that important people in the media were reading it, that your colleagues were reading it and that they felt they had to read it," he says. "I don't think that sense exists today."

In those days, you turned to the Voice to find out what was really happening on the news and culture fronts of New York. Richard Goldstein, who started at the paper 30 years ago in the then-unheard of job of rock critic, recalls the Voice covering hip-hop when many dismissed the rapidly growing world of DJs, MCs, rhyming city kids and acrobatic break dancers.

"We covered graffiti art when it was just on the subways. Now, it's in the galleries," says Goldstein, 52, executive editor. "We were the first people to write about Basquiat and Keith Haring as serious artists while they were still drawing on the street."

Nat Hentoff, the esteemed jazz critic whose graying beard and hair give him a look that immediately says, "emeritus," has been with the paper since the late 1950s.

"It was unlike the standard press. You'd see illustrations, criticism, other things that you'd never see in other papers," he says. "We covered real stories. Stories that other papers didn't cover."

He points to his paper's reports on corporal punishment in the schools and the corruption scandals that led to the suicide of Donald Manes, the Queens Borough president.

Founding editor Don Wolf had a way of "orchestrating the obsessions of the writer," says Hentoff. The paper had a feisty attitude and an equally feisty staff. Tradition had it that if one of its writers published a book, its review would be negative.

"They were the only newspaper back then that allowed writers to battle each other in print," says Ken Goldstein, professor emeritus at Columbia University's journalism school. "That was interesting to show it was not a lazy pool. It was a place where sharks swam."

Critics point to the 1980s as the beginning of the Voice's slide in prestige, relevance and circulation (the paper lost 50,000 readers between 1983 and 1996). Some of that had to do with the general conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years. "Liberal" became an insult. Anything or anyone associated with "the left" was out.

But Jim Sleeper, a free-lance writer for the Voice in the early 1980s, says the paper also became "a tower of Babel" riven by "identity politics." It was humorless, predictable, strident, politically correct to a fault.

"I think the decline of the Village Voice tells the sad lesson that precisely because this is such a diverse society, we have to be working overtime to find the common bonds. That's not what the Village Voice was about. It was about pulling the strands apart," says Sleeper. "Alternative papers today don't stand against warring camps. Instead, they celebrate them."

The market that found itself in the Voice fractured. One generation moved up, another moved in. Tastes changed. Hentoff, who finds his inspiration in old-line journalists such as I. F. Stone and George Seldes, says the paper became more of a magazine.

"Our reputation should be based on what scandals we uncover," he says. "It ought to be the kind of paper you don't want to miss. Not because of what's on the cover, but because of what might be inside."

Smith's current publication, New York Press, looks a lot like the Voice and both are fighting for the 18- to 30-year-old market. Both are free weeklies. The Press claims 100,000 circulation and considers itself the competition.

"[The Voice] is a real dinosaur," says Smith. "Its writers are extremely self-righteous, extremely politically correct."

Over at the Voice, Smith's paper is dismissed in the tone an old champion might use when asked about a scrappy young challenger.

"They don't even actually break stories, or even purport to break any stories or cover the news," says Jennifer Gonnerman, 25, a political writer for the paper.

Goldstein points to Smith's "Best of " issue, notes that the listings don't go beyond 96th Street, and suggests the paper has "a yuppie world view with a Tory overlay."

Smith shrugs off such comments: "I would much rather be that than a tired old hippie newspaper that prints political stories that are 25 years out of date."

All sniping aside, the Voice and Forst will get a chance to make a stand. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is up for re-election next year. What better time to become part of the discussion in New York City. Gonnerman believes that with New York Newsday gone, the Voice, led by the old paper's captain, can step into the vacuum. Hentoff also sees promise in having a newsman at the helm.

"Our problem has been that even though a few of [the editors] had a hard news background, they began to see this as a magazine but the news is always there," he says. "Dizzy Gillespie once said to me, 'There's an infinite amount of music out there, and if you're lucky, you can get a piece of it.' The same holds true of news."

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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