It was this spirit of healthy confrontation that left Lacey frustrated at not being able to set the record straight with the legendarily chippy Voice staff. As it was, all Lacey got to do was ride up in the elevator, discuss a few generalities with some Voice higher-ups behind closed doors in the office of current editor Don Forst, and “check out the urinals.” Later on, Forst, the grizzled former daily-paper guy who resides incongruously atop the Voice masthead, took Lacey on a small tour. They walked past Cooper Square to the true key juncture of the neighborhood, the Starbucks on Astor Place. “Forst said this was where it was at,” Lacey related, “because that’s where NYU kids go, our supposed target audience.”
It was all pretty tame, Lacey said in his gravel-pit baritone. “I didn’t get anything stuck between my shoulder blades. Someone could have at least told me to fuck off. What a disappointment.” But there was nothing to be done about it. “John Ashcroft said no,” Lacey said—i.e., the terms of a media merger of this size forbid a new owner from “engaging in major business practices,” which includes addressing the staff or even touring the building until after a 60-to-90-day review period.
This didn’t stop Lacey from explicating what he would have told the Voice staff should they have brought up any number of topics, like, say, that New Times papers are conservative. “Look,” Lacey said, “just because I don’t have eight reporters kneecapping George Bush doesn’t make me conservative. One is enough; the other seven can be looking for dirt on local politicians. The idea is not to let politicians get away with shit. Our papers have butt-violated every goddamn politician who ever came down the pike! The ones who deserved it. As a journalist, if you don’t get up in the morning and say ‘fuck you’ to someone, why even do it?
“Look, a lot of people think I’m a prick. But at least I’m a prick you can understand. I don’t sneak up on you. You can see me coming from a long way away. Like the Russian winter.”
It was quite a performance, aided by the fact we had just downed three bottles of Italian wine, at $120 per. But what about the Village Voice? Not to denigrate the fine towns where New Times operates its freebie papers, but this was New York City and we were talking about the Village Voice. The Village Fucking Voice—not just one more property for Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin to insert into their strip-mall portfolio like a Kansas City Pitch, or a St. Louis Riverfront Times, or a Denver Westword.
“I’m sick of that crap,” Lacey said with a snarl. “Like we’re from Phoenix or some Wild West dung heap and we’re hayseeds. Like we don’t know what’s up . . . of course I know we’re talking about the Village Fucking Voice!
“Listen,” Lacey said, narrowing his eyes, “we started the Phoenix New Times back in 1970 at Arizona State University because the campus police said we couldn’t lower the flag to half-mast after Kent State. We didn’t want to burn down the ROTC building, we just wanted to lower the flag because it was the right thing to do. Somehow, we thought we needed to start a newspaper to get the nuances of that point across. And to have a little fun. Throw a little spirit of Mad Magazine into the debate.
“It wasn’t easy. I was ready to sell blood to keep the thing going. We’re successful because we’re smart, we outwork everyone. Our papers have broken stories. We had the thing about sexual abuse of female cadets at the Air Force Academy. We had the story about mishandling nuclear waste in San Francisco. Not the San Francisco Chronicle, not the Los Angeles Times. Us. We’ve won more than 700 awards. But I never stopped thinking about the Village Voice. I know what it was. I know what it is now.
“I’ve got my own focus group in this town: 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds. They say, the Village Voice, no one reads that. I can’t walk around town hearing nobody reads my paper. It wrecks my day. That’s got to change. We’re here to play, and anyone who likes to play like we play can play along.”
Thanks for the phrase go to Cynthia Cotts, who used to write the Voice “Press Clips” column (she reported on New Times’ failed 2000 attempt to buy the Voice, calling it a “hostile takeover”). “The Village Voice,” she said. “It is the wound that never heals.”
This I take to mean that once you are a Voice Person—no matter how many years go by or the number of jobs you do—you will always be a Voice Person. Even those without holes in their jeans, like Ken Auletta, who once wrote the Voice’s city-politics column, “Running Scared,” back in the early seventies, agree.