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.

November 13, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

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.

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