Voice Recognition

This is not, strictly speaking, about The Village Voice, which is a quagmire of journalistic recrimination and lost youth – and you don’t want to get into that. Instead it’s about one of its least likely employees, David Schneiderman, its former editor and publisher and the current CEO of Village Voice Media LLC, who, after 23 years of hard and mostly unappreciated labor, has become the Voice, for better or worse.

Of course, you can’t tell the Schneiderman story, or begin to make sense of it, without touching on the tragicomic story of the Voice, which gets you back into the quagmire. On the other hand, a big part of the tragicomic aspect of the Voice, and the subtext of its revival, is that the Voice has become a business story – about “creating a national footprint for local advertising,” in Schneiderman’s words – and that’s a story that no Voice lifer or alum worth his or her salt has any interest in.

It’s part of Schneiderman’s genius, or revenge, that he has turned the Voice into an exciting business proposition – like turning Coke into fine wine, or Russia into a smoothly running market economy.

With his six city papers including the Voice, he’s done what Bill Gates, Barry Diller, and assorted other moguls failed to do – make a business out of local advertising (the $4 trillion worth of miscellaneous movie, restaurant, dry-cleaner, podiatrist, futon-store, employment, real-estate, and personal ads).

While Schneiderman’s career, in any man’s business terms, is a great success – he’s kept the shareholders happy, dramatically expanded the Voice enterprise, and achieved substantial wealth for himself (tens of millions of dollars, certainly) – that sort of analysis gets short shrift at the Voice. Instead, Schneiderman is much more critically psychoanalyzed within the Voice community – and by that measure, his career is a study in disturbing pathology. The drift being that he, not the long list of Voice alumni so dominant in the wider media world, was the one who was supposed to go on to bigger and better things. But because of issues of separation and fathers and such things, he got trapped here with his worst enemies, the other people who couldn’t (for reasons of talent, politics, social graces, and their own separation anxieties) exit the Voice.

What he would like to do, in your normal everyday-business alchemy, is convert his local advertising to national advertising, which has much higher margins than a futon store’s eighth of a page.

Then there is the class issue, a Voice leitmotif: Schneiderman is an editor and journalist who betrayed his brothers and reached beyond his station to become a media technocrat (a.k.a. management flunky).

“If he went away, there would be no difference in the company, I guarantee it,” says a longtime staff member at the Voice confidently. And this is just a random sampling of opinion.

It’s unclear who first realized that the Voice was a money machine – after all, the Voice was always screaming that it was about the opposite of making money.

Murdoch, who’d inadvertently acquired the Voice in his takeover of New York (whose owner, Clay Felker, had acquired the Voice several years earlier), certainly came to understand what he had on his hands. You might even argue that it’s the Voice that supported Murdoch, providing the cash flow to run New York and the Post and build the base that would allow him to transform the media industry. Not that this ever made Murdoch treat the Voice like anything but an occupied country.

Murdoch hired the 31-year-old Schneiderman, a taciturn, coat-and-tie-wearing editorial bureaucrat who was the deputy editor of the op-ed page at the Times, in 1978 to be the Voice’s editor and, in a manner of speaking, his Marshal Pétain. The choice provoked a very Village Voice storm of protest. The upshot was Murdoch agreed to house his new editor in an uptown office and keep him off the Voice premises for seven months.

Schneiderman is the picture, however, of long-suffering passive-aggressiveness, and when he finally arrived on site, he stayed for a record six years. By many accounts, he was, to the extent possible at the Voice, a respected editor. But the Voice is, famously, the most hostile workplace in America – political, sexual, generational, and aesthetic sectionalism combined with old-fashioned labor-management strife and a corporate culture of radical incivility. “It was,” says Schneiderman, “pretty brutal,” and when John Evans, the Voice publisher, conceived a plan to run other Murdoch properties in 1985 and get himself out of the Voice, Schneiderman was happy to add the title of publisher and begin to forge his own exit strategy from the Voice newsroom.

Then Murdoch, with whom Schneiderman had managed to maintain a courtly relationship (even as Murdoch continued to loathe the Voice and as the Voice, in turn, loathed him), said he was selling. “I need the money to buy a movie studio,” he told Schneiderman.

Leonard Stern, the Hartz Mountain heir and CEO, bought the paper in what appears to have been an effort to get his children to like him more. Schneiderman began to evolve, to the scorn of Voice staff, into something like a professional manager for the Stern family (“butt-boy,” in Voice parlance).

“I loved working for Leonard,” says Schneiderman, and by all accounts, Leonard loved having Schneiderman work for him, and so they found themselves joined at the hip in a business that could not really be turned or influenced by either of them.

They came up with a plan: 7 Days, launched in 1988, was the way they’d trade up to a new, more civil, nonunionized, yuppified city paper. The Voice would shrivel, and 7 Days would be its phoenix. With 7 Days briefly a sensation, Stern and Schneiderman conceived it as the first stage in building a 7 Days chain and realizing their incipient national-footprint dream.

The failure of 7 Days – of budgeting and nerve perhaps more than product or market conditions – was a bitter but far from fatal blow to the Stern-Schneiderman team. Back at the Voice, Schneiderman had hired an editor, Jon Larsen, whose longevity would be second only to Schneiderman’s, allowing Schneiderman to become, effectively, Stern’s business student (Stern funded the NYU Stern School of Business – Schneiderman, however, got Stern himself as his teacher), turning him, Schneiderman says proudly, into a numbers guy.

It was during this period, Voice people believe, that Schneiderman, doing no-one-knows-what (org-and-reorg kinds of things), sealed his pact with the devil.

In fairness, almost everyone at this moment in media time, except the most willful and angry, was starting to accept the obvious: Every media business is really two businesses. In a kind of upstairs-downstairs arrangement, you have people doing the job, creating the product, and, upstairs, people engaged in another process, largely divorced from the thing itself, of trying to figure out what to do with it.

Surveying the trends, Stern and Schneiderman started to view the Voice not as a sui generis publication but as part of this larger alternative-publishing sector. The other trend they noted, in radical variance to the Voice idea of unfettered journalism, was that people read these publications first and foremost for the advertising. And if people really weren’t buying your paper for what you said but rather for what your advertisers put into it, then why not, in the Yellow Pages model, give the paper away, which would, in turn, attract more readers and hence more advertising?

Stern and Schneiderman bought LA Weekly, the free alternative paper in Los Angeles. In New York, meanwhile, the free weekly the New York Press was gaining circulation, and the Voice was losing it. “A trend, I learned from Leonard,” says Schneiderman, “is something that is hard to turn around.” In 1996, Stern, by fiat, declared the Voice free.

Voice people still express astonishment that Stern would so easily give up such a profitable part of the operation. A debate, too, still goes on about how much it changed the paper. Although it won the Pulitzer Prize last year for international reporting, there is the sense that, even as it reports ever-increasing circulation, no one, or no one anyone knows, reads the Voice anymore (going free, in other words, effectively devalued the currency). On the other hand, for years and years people have been saying the Voice is not the Voice anymore, which does not much matter if 20-year-olds at NYU think it’s the real thing. And in short order, circulation trends reversed, ad revenues dramatically increased, the Voice murdered its competition, and Stern and Schneiderman added four more weeklies to the company (in Orange County, Cleveland, Seattle, and the Twin Cities).

Still, when Stern decided to sell the company (his children now liked him well enough), it was the old Voice, or the reputation of the old Voice for obstreperousness and hostility, that Schneiderman believes kept any other media company from buying the Voice, installing its own managers, and putting Schneiderman out of a job. Instead, the Voice and its sister publications were bought by a “financial group” – Weiss, Peck & Greer is the lead buyout fund in the deal – because the enterprise generates enough cash flow to pay down the debt taken on to acquire it. This left Schneiderman not just in charge but, as part of his management incentive package, an owner, too. Hence, an American success story.

I would not go so far as to claim that everyone on the downstairs level in the media business wants to do this. But I would say there are a lot of people here who see no alternative but to admire what David Schneiderman has done – even though it is far from clear what he does (he spends a great deal of time, he says, communicating with his investors). There is Andy Lack, who just recently has gone from newsguy to president of NBC; the Internet briefly promised to turn many wretches into owners; and there are hundreds at AOL Time Warner trying, suddenly and frantically, to learn how to talk the talk.

This is the real world, more and more people believe, this world of distribution and footprints, of larger social trends and the related cost of capital required to capitalize on those trends.

As for Schneiderman and his national-local footprint, what he would like to do, in your normal everyday-business alchemy, is convert his local advertising to national advertising, which has much higher margins than a futon store’s eighth of a page. If you sell the footprint nationally, his fleet of city papers could be like Rolling Stone, he fantasizes – indeed, there are ten or fifteen more markets he’d like to add to his chain. Plus there are radio stations he would like to buy, and he still thinks there’s an Internet angle, what with all the classifieds. And then one fine day, God willing, there will be for David Schneiderman a clear, clean, liberating, and enriching exit strategy from The Village Voice – for which most of us will envy him mightily.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Voice Recognition