DEATH OF A NEWSPAPER
The Rube Who Came to New York and Killed the Village Voice Lied To My Face
The guy who bought a $26 million penthouse in the Village and offered me a job that maybe didn’t exist, now says he can’t afford to keep putting articles on a website.
I grew up reading the Village Voice: Cotts and Hentoff and Crouch and Barrett and Robbins and all these incredible writers and reporters and voices blowing the lid off of things. There was Feiffer and Stamaty and the classifieds and the whole thing an index of the real city that even the tabloids, let alone the New York Times, mostly left alone. Everything I saw glimpses of or just figured was really happening here, it turned out was really happening—and being reported on, too.
So in the New Times era—when the libertarian journalists who owned Backpage.com used some of the fortune they'd made middle-manning sex sales to buy the Voice—I turned down a job at a much healthier and better regarded outlet at twice the salary to sign on as its City Hall guy. It was right after they’d fired Wayne, with Tom following him out the door in solidarity. I figured a failing place with no idea what it was doing would leave me alone to do the sort of writing I could use to make a name for myself after a career spent mostly as an editor. I was right about the failing place with no idea what it was doing, but not so much about what that being an opportunity to do good work.
I’d asked Wayne (who I later ended up editing at the Daily News and the Daily Beast, which became his two main outlets after his home for 37 years abruptly let him go) before taking the job, and Tom was a mensch to me after I got there as he helped with our strike preparations. Bad reporter that I am, I didn’t realize until I’d started that our contract was coming up and the staff was preparing for a strike. I told my new boss I wouldn’t cross the line if there was one, and he threatened to fire me then and there since I was, supposedly, still some sort of probationary employee.
He didn’t, but he and his bosses did keep running the paper into the ground, willy-nilly bullying and firing ridiculously talented people who were there because they loved the place and running an utterly conflicted and mortifying cover series about how great and aboveboard Backpage was. Then I got called to the office from Zuccotti Park, where I'd pretty moved in as a reporter, rather than an Occupier.
I was let go on the spot (just after I’d filed a few thousand words worth of Best of New York pieces, including their cover story and I’ll pause here to offer a passing fuck you to my former Brooklyn neighbor and acclaimed author Joseph O’Neill). I got four weeks health insurance as my wife was 30 weeks pregnant. The Daily News ended up running the piece I’d reported for the Voice and that ended up making national news, and the UAW had my back so my wife and I ended up with coverage through the delivery but those New Times bastards—now standing trial for alleged sex trafficking related crimes—were this close to bankrupting my family.
Jump ahead a few years and stories and jobs, and now I’m on staff at the News, on the editorial board and writing a column, when Peter Barbey of the Timberland family fortune buys the Voice and then-Editor-in-Chief Tom Finkel, a holdover from New Times, reaches out to me about maybe being its New York columnist again. There’s a suggestion that this would pay very well—I mean, the owner’s a member of one of America’s 50 wealthiest families, out to buy a name for himself—so I ended up at a Manhattan diner for a couple hours in November of 2015 with Finkel and Barbey, who was in town shopping for a starter apartment here, which I knew before seeing him since the New Yorker wrote a piece about it. I tell Barbey I have no interest in an editing job, since he seems to be feeling me out for Tom’s job — and with Tom sitting there! — and that I won’t consider the columnist thing unless there's a commitment of cash and editorial stability. Barbey looks me in the eyes and says “yes” to both.
He then continues monologuing about how the Voice is a brand that meant a lot to him as a college kid. He compares it to CBGB. He repeats nearly verbatim the quotes he’d given The New York Times a few months before about how “One of the biggest problems in media today is lack of attention to content… Many publications have stripped their content.”
Then he tells me about meeting George Soros’ kid at some high-end Manhattan dinner party, and that being the sort of reader and place he wants the Village Voice to speak to.
A week later they offer me $170,000 to write a column once a week. This is, reader, a lot of money. In fact, almost too much money. So I think about it, but take my time replying as my wife strongly encourages me not to go back to the Voice, let alone on this clown’s watch.
Then it’s Christmas and Barbey—who’s authorized this bizarrely over-generous offer to me and promised me stability—fires Finkel. Ho, ho, ho. I leave one phone message, strictly out of a reporter’s curiosity now, asking what happened to his promise and if the offer still stands. Never hear back. For all I know—and for all he knew—I could have already left a wonderful job at the News for one that didn’t exist because this New York arriviste, a minor character in a Dawn Powell novel striving to buy his way into the city’s social fabric, is a damn liar.
A week after that, just after New Year’s, comes the report that Barbey’s bought at about the full asking price the apartment he went to see with The New Yorker reporter in tow. Twenty six million dollars for a three-bedroom penthouse above where St. Vincent’s hospital used to be in the heart of the Village until they tore the hospital down because health care for New Yorkers can’t compete with the money to be made from selling real estate to newly arrived suckers like this.
A year-and-a-half after that, Barbey killed the print paper. On the day the final edition came out, with Bob Dylan on the cover for some damn reason (and me in it, oddly enough, with a picture from the unofficial reunion party that the Beast’s Michael Tomasky and others had been planning for months), I was invited by staffers still there to visit the archives in the office—on Maiden Lane, off Wall Street, what with the Voice having been priced out of the damn Village—and appreciate what had been.
Within half an hour of sitting down to quietly go through the green books and tweet some pictures of a few of the Voice’s many highlights, a woman with a Reading Eagle badge came and yelled — YELLED!! — about how I was NOT! AUTHORIZED! and had to leave or security would escort me out and also had to stop YELLING! AT! HER!, which I was not.
Today, less than a year after that, my friends at Gothamist scooped the Voice on news that even the Voice’s website is done publishing anything new, and that half the remaining people there are immediately out of work and the other half will be soon, in what Barbey says “is kind of a sucky day.”
But fear not! While “due to, basically, business realities, we’re going to stop publishing Village Voice new material,” Barbey vows that the brand will live on.
“I bought the Village Voice to save it, this isn’t exactly how I thought it was going to end up. I’m still trying to save the Village Voice,” he said.
Look, the paper’s problems preceded him and maybe his mid-life crisis dream of resurrecting a brand of his own kept the Voice alive a little longer and paid for Aaron Gordon and Talia Lavin and others to do some fine work there in its final days.
That said, fuck Peter Barbey.