“Returns,” he said. “We’ve got only 1 percent returns. That’s where the number comes from.”
“You must be kidding. Are you counting those hundreds of papers that are thrown away because some dog pissed on them?” How could he claim 250,000 individual readers when most picked up the paper to see what time a movie began, threw it away, and got another one for the next movie?
“No one does that.”
“You’re not typical.”
No, Schneiderman said, it wasn’t going free that hurt the paper. It saved the paper. Kept it going, making money. The true challenge was, as everyone knew, the Web. “Craigslist is the biggest single crisis the Village Voice has faced in its whole 50 years,” he said with out-of-character vehemence. Schneiderman really had it in for “Craig,” whom he said had cost the Voice more than a few million dollars in real-estate classifieds alone.
“That guy,” Schneiderman said, “he puts himself on a pedestal, says what he’s doing is for the people, but that’s a lie. He’s only in it for himself, like everyone else.”
It was right then, looking around Schneiderman’s office, with its displays of the Village Voice Media holdings—covers of the Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages, the L.A. Weekly, Orange County’s O.C. Weekly, the Seattle Weekly, and the Nashville Scene—that it occurred to me how far we really were from the glassed-in office on 80 University Place. I was speaking to a fundamentally different person than the one who fired me 25 years before. Our particular visions of the Village Voice could no longer be the same. My paper was a chimera of longing and never-quite-requited obsession, an object to be held in the hand, sweaty ink on fingertips. Meanwhile, Schneiderman’s view, although indescribably deeper owing to his nigh three decades inside the beast through who-knew-how-much thick and thin, had a more abstract air. He was talking of the paper as a piece, albeit a big one, on an infinitely larger playing field.
Schneiderman grinned at this notion and said, even if he “woke up every morning thinking about how to protect the Village Voice,” quite frankly, exactly what went into the paper had ceased to be his major concern long ago.
He said, “If Leonard Stern hadn’t come here and made me a publisher, I think I would have been gone after five years. That’s pretty much the burnout period for an editor at a place like this. Leonard helped make me into a numbers guy. Of course I’m still a word guy, but there’s a longer shelf life to a numbers guy. That’s been the real fun for me, flying around, looking after our papers, handling the business side.”
Schneiderman didn’t worry about the Voice edit because, he said, he had trust in his editor, Don Forst. Indeed, the bantam, septuagenarian former head of New York Newsday has been Voice editor for nearly a decade, longer than anyone has ever held the job. Asked why he got the position, Forst, nothing if not blunt, said, “I’m a very good manager. I can handle a tough room. But really, I don’t know. I needed a job.”
It was clear from the start that Don Forst’s paper was to be a wholly different animal. One of the first acts in the Forst era was the firing of Jules Feiffer, universally regarded as the paper’s most visible and beloved symbol. “It wasn’t just that they canned Jules,” says one Voicer who, like almost everyone else, preferred to remain nameless. “It was well known that they thought he was making too much money, if you can call $75,000 too much for Jules Feiffer. They’d been after Karen Durbin, the last editor, to get rid of him. But what really blew people’s minds was when Forst said there wasn’t going to be any shit about it, none of that letters-from-the-outraged-staff stuff that has always gone on at the Voice. The staff tried to buy an ad to complain, but the ad department said they wouldn’t run it. That’s when we knew we’d entered a period of malign neglect at the Village Voice.”
Once, for better or worse, the Voice was a “writer’s paper,” but the I word was soon banished from most Voice copy. “I am simply not interested in people’s individual psychodramas,” Don Forst said. Story length was restricted, with few features running longer than 2,500 words. “Our younger demographic doesn’t like to read long stories,” said the 73-year-old Forst. One day, Forst dropped a copy of The Old Man and the Sea on the desk of the late Julie Lobbia. “Your sentences are too long,” he said. Most destructive, according to most, has been the redesign of the arts pages, allegedly at the behest of the ad department. In the old days, a lead Voice critic could address the week’s fare in a free-ranging essay of about 1,400 words. Now it was decreed that they produce three separate “elements” on the page, each dealing with a separate film, play, or piece of music. The “big” piece runs 800 words.