Paper Route


Crusading and independent journalistic beacon that it is, The Village Voice seems like the kind of intransigent social rebel that simply, absolutely can’t be bought. But it turns out that it can—and that it has been, five times since Ed Fancher, Norman Mailer, and Dan Wolf launched it for five cents a copy. Yes, readers, the Voice is a property, an investment, part of somebody’s portfolio, just like General Dynamics and Arby’s. It’s enough to make us all cry onto our 401(k) statements. But at least there’s some consolation in the fact that the following roster of owners has been, er, colorful.

1955–1970: Fancher, Wolf, and Mailer

[Price: $10,000]

The idea for this paper grew out of discussions between freelance writer Wolf, psychologist Fancher, and Mailer. Eventually they decided to launch a weekly, with Mailer and Fancher anteing up $10,000. There’s disagreement over who came up with the name.

In fact, there were a lot of disagreements. A few months after the paper’s launch, Mailer, who had declared himself “General Marijuana,” started writing a column whose first installment dubbed the Voice “remarkably conservative for so young a paper.” A couple of turbulent months later, Mailer ended the column, saying the Voice was too “square.” It was the beginning of years of internal disputes over the paper’s direction—the
suspicion that it had sold out, straightened out, copped out, and basically died.

While Mailer was the big name at the Voice‘s birth, Wolf was clearly its heart. It was Wolf who insisted that the Voice be a writer’s paper, allowing contributors great freedom. But as the times and the paper changed during the 1960s, so did Wolf, growing more conservative and increasingly resentful of some of the staff he had cultivated. Fancher handled the business side for the first two decades of the paper’s existence; after several years of losses, the paper began to turn around, riding the national tide of progressive-radical thought and countercultural exploration that transformed the
Voice from a local newspaper to a kind of generational icon.

1970–1974: Carter Burden

[Sale price: $3.2 million]

After the Voice started making money, Wolf and Fancher thought about selling it, and they found a willing buyer in Carter Burden, a former aide to Robert Kennedy and sitting city councilman. Burden bought 80 percent control of the paper through a company he co-owned with his friend Bartle Bull, a London-born, Harvard-educated lawyer. In his memoirs, Jack Newfield called the sale “a fatal blunder” that “set in motion years of instability.” Some of that turmoil was because of new tensions between Voice management and workers over pay and benefits, and fights among the staff over post-1969 politics. But at the top levels of management, Burden and Bull clashed with Fancher and Wolf over the paper’s finances and ad policies. After their respective associations with the Voice ended, Burden went on to lose a 1978 race for Congress and start an East Coast radio empire. Bull became a novelist; one of his works involves a sex scene with a dwarf.

1974–1977: Clay Felker

[Merger: $2.5 million in debt, 600,000 shares of stock]

New York magazine owes its birth to Clay Felker, and—in the mind of many a Voice insider and observer—this paper owes its death to him. The case against Felker is that he dulled the Voice‘s radical edge by crimping the style of some of its more free-spirited writers, giving undue prominence to fluffy lifestyle pieces, and taking articles off the front page. He also named himself the paper’s editor, fired Wolf and Fancher, and generally drove the staff crazy. “There is no amount of money,” writer Ron Rosenbaum apparently told Felker, tearing up his paycheck, “that can make me work for the piece of shit that you have turned this paper into.” Felker himself would contend that “the Voice was dying when I bought it.” Upset about Burden’s sale of the paper, Fancher, Wolf, and Mailer sued, eventually settling for $485,000. The three founders thought that they had a right of refusal to any sale of control of the Voice and believed Burden had screwed them when he brought in Felker. Soon Felker was the one who got screwed.

1977–1985: Rupert Murdoch

[Sale price: $7.5 million]

In 1977, Felker made the mistake of mentioning offhand to Rupert Murdoch that he might want to sell the Voice. While Fox News Channel was still but a distant nightmare, Murdoch was already a media baron. He decided to take Felker at his word, and while Felker balked and resisted, Murdoch went to the other investors and won control.

No sooner had Rupert taken over than he and the staff—which had just unionized—clashed over his decision to fire editor Marianne Partridge; the staff protested, and Murdoch backed down. “I think everyone looked at Rupert as Russia, and we were Poland,” says Village Voice Media CEO David Schneiderman, who succeeded Partridge as editor, “and the question was when would he invade. He never did, though he had some approaches now and then.” Once Murdoch demanded that Schneiderman fire a reporter (he won’t say who), but Schneiderman refused, and Murdoch relented. Another time Murdoch warned the paper to be careful in a story critical of the New York Post, but he didn’t complain about it to his editors.

That was, of course, because Rupert could see the green. “He’s a bottom-line guy, and he knows if he tried to turn it into some weekly version of the New York Post, he would kill this golden property that was a great source of revenue,” recalls Wayne Barrett, “so he basically left the paper alone.” And then he sold it, freeing cash that helped Rupert launch Fox.

1985–2000: Leonard Stern

[Sale price: $55 million]

Leonard Stern, one of the Forbes 400 richest people, saw the
Voice “as a really interesting business challenge,” recalls Schneiderman, “but he did understand how important it was for the editor and the staff to be able to write what they want to write.” Voicers say Stern never interfered in the running of the paper. He also took the bold move of making the Voice free.

It was a risky gambit for Stern to forgo newsstand revenue. But it was necessary, Schneiderman says, because circulation was falling due to a shrinking number of newsstand sale sites. And it paid off.

However, going free might have been risky for the paper in another way. It’s widely acknowledged that nowadays, the Voice isn’t as influential as it once was. Perhaps that’s because a free paper isn’t taken as seriously in the rest of the media world. Or perhaps it’s because the country has moved away from the liberal politics the paper has usually espoused, or that the media landscape is too crowded for any outlet to have the same clout as in the good old days.

2000–present: Weiss, Peck & Greer

[Sale price: $170 million]

Nowadays, when people ask, “Who owns the Voice?” you have to set aside time to answer. Stern sold out for a neat profit to a group of investors, including the investment firm Weiss, Peck & Greer, Trimaran Fund II (a private equity firm linked to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Com-merce), and several others. Weiss, Peck & Greer is itself owned by Robeco Group, a European-based entity worth $100 billion that, among other things, holds a chain of community newspapers and a set of radio stations.

Just over 24 hours before this anniversary issue went to press, Village Voice Media (which includes the Voice and papers in L.A., Minneapolis, Nashville, Orange County, and Seattle) announced its plans to merge with New Times, which has 11 papers and is the country’s biggest alternative-newspaper chain. The deal is subject to Department of Justice approval, a process that could take up to six months because the DOJ is expected to request additional information from the companies.

Wolf, Burden, and many of the other characters in the Voice‘s story are dead. Many of the current staffers were born years after the founders sold out. And among readers and former readers, one often hears a lament for days gone by. The newspaper where people used to write all in lowercase and smoke reefer in the office now has cubicles and a dental plan.

There are pluses and minuses in getting older, for papers and readers alike. One of them is selective memory. Ross Wetzsteon once said of the paper where he wrote and edited for many years, “No matter what anybody says about how great the Voice was in the old days, we published a lot of garbage back then.”

Folks only remember the great stuff. Lucky us.