Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Weekly Interacting Massive Particles 

Just a few thoughts about the New York Press --

For those of you outside the New York media bubble, the Press, New York's own alt-weekly Sid Vicious to the Voice's Johnny Rotten (i.e. more punk rock, but stupider), was recently the victim of a Ward Churchill-esque brouhaha surrounding columnist Matt Taibbi's vaguely satirical piece 52 Funniest Things About the Pope Dying. Drudge linked to it, Congressmen decried it, letter bombs were sent, and shit hit fans. Leaving aside the fact that the piece in question was slightly less offensive (and certainly less funny) than your average Onion article, it is at least heartening to know that the alternative press can still manage to ruffle feathers. I mean, someone's paying attention to all those entrenched leftists, and it's not just David Horowitz.

But then Editor-in-Chief Jeff Koyen was offered up as a sacrificial lamb by the publisher, suspended for "insubordination," much like the time I was nearly suspended in High School for "defiance" (I wouldn't take off my hat, if I recall).

If I may offer up a little personal history, I was briefly employed by a Minneapolis alt-weekly that sprung up to serve the same Sid Vicious roll once the much-lamented Reader shut down and the City Pages was gobbled up by the Voice. The weekly I worked for operated out of the same office and with the same staff as a community newspaper of much smaller scope. The community paper was one of the best in the city. The alt-weekly was a pile of crap. It didn't have the money to pay the talent that the City Pages got (and gets), and its editor and publisher were both old, bearded, unreconstructed leftists of the sort who are much appreciated and respected for their principles, but not particularly strong on, say, the local music scene. What good reporting and criticism there was arrived from people who seemed to consider it charity work. To be fair, the cards were stacked against them from day one, going after a national chain in a small market. But the problem was also, simply, that they had no editorial voice or raison d'etre outside of being an alternative to the other alternative paper -- not that they ever took an editorial stance that was too far removed from their equally liberal counterparts, or championed a cause ignored by the big guys. The paper is still around today, and it's definitely improved, but I still don't think anyone would miss it all that much if it folded next week (though they might miss the knowledge that a "truly" alternative paper exists), which is a terrible thing to say about a locally-owned community publication that's been around for so long.

Now, New York is a considerably different market. It will always have three or four more regularly published newspapers than any other city in the US (even if its much-ballyhooed "media diversity" is a bit of an exaggeration), and there's room for another general-interest alt-weekly that doesn't exist simply to be the anti-Voice. Occasionally, the Press is that paper. But it's just as often not.

Alexander Zaitchik's piece this week is great, informative, angry, and intelligent. And Taibbi, who is generally funny and biting and probably best defines the current editorial voice of the Press (the pope thing was clearly just phoned in), acquits himself nicely. But the paper as a whole continues to have a reflexively contrarian attitude that feels like adolescent rebellion without a cause. Sure, it's daring to have your conservative founder trash your liberal contributing editor in his column, but Russ Smith just happens to write like a complete asshole of the Thomas Friedman-with-more-cursewords variety. There's value in dissenting voices and healthy ideological conflict in the masthead, but Smith, alt-cred or no, repeats "conventional wisdom" of the type to be found, dolled up in classy language, in the columns of David Brooks. There's nothing alternative about him (excepting, of course, his previously noted occasional use of swears).

And this contrarianism-as-dialogue tendency prevents the Press from being as smart as it ought to be -- especially if it wants to compete with the Voice, which, even if you think it's tired or out-dated or a relic, still publishes some of the smartest criticism in New York. In its attempts to be the anti-Voice, the Press adopts a patently phony "edgy," "dangerous" routine that is just as fake when done by an alt-weekly as when appropriated by a Viacom subsidiary. It oh-so-faintly hints at anti-intellectualism of the type that fuels the recent crusade against the academics. And if that exaggerates the scope of their problems, well, there's no denying that they regularly run pieces that are cranky and bitchy just for the sake of being cranky bitchy -- the George Costanza model of pretending at being a "real" New Yorker.

Unfortunately, Jeff Koyen's resignation won't improve things, as they'll probably bring in someone looking to turn it into the successful advertising conveyance device that is The L Magazine.

I guess the question is, what's the formula for a successful alt-weekly in the same market as a considerably richer and well-established one? I like to think they're necessary, or at least that they contribute to a city's character, but are they doomed to be less ambitious than their more prominent competitors? Smith seems to think there's a secret trove of bright, iconoclastic young people with a strong voice out there, but when you try to hire that type, it seems like you wind up with "edgy." Imitation of the Voice (or the City Pages) would be an impossibility (and a mistake), but if you're borrowing their medium, what new direction are you supposed to take it?

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