fist fights, gay rights and early battles with Trump

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The perfect newspaper, at least from a writer’s point of view, might look a lot like the Village Voice. It was founded in New York City on 26 October 1955 by a trio of left-wing veterans rooted in the counterculture, including Norman Mailer.

From the beginning, the Voice foregrounded writing that emerged out of personal involvement, rather than the professional objectivity insisted upon by other publications. Writers might not have been paid much — a staffer got $100 a week in 1964, raised to $300 in 1974, and there’s lots of complaints from the writers interviewed by Tricia Romano in her new book about how poor the pay was compared with other titles, such as the New York Times — but they had unprecedented freedom to pursue their own obsessions. Dissent was encouraged and there was no attempt to force a party line. The resulting free-form and sometimes obsessive nature of its articles (not least Bob Christgau’s record reviews) explains why one former staffer described the paper as a “precursor to the internet”.

Despite the vaunting subtitle, The Freaks Who Came Out to Write takes a similar approach. This isn’t an objective account, but rather a gripping oral history of the Voice, compiled by Romano, the paper’s nightlife correspondent from 1997 to 2005. She interviewed over 200 writers, editors, publishers and owners, collaging their testimony together with scraps of classic Voice stories to create an engagingly raw and contradictory portrait of the paper and the city on which it reported, from the campaign against Robert Moses’s controversial proposed highway through Washington Square to 9/11.

The beat was Greenwich Village itself: both the physical neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan and the international bohemia it represented. Throughout its life, the paper was sharply divided between the investigative reporters at the front of the book, busy challenging landlords (Donald Trump was an early target) and corrupt politicians, and the culture writers at the back, covering avant garde performance art and the nascent hip-hop scene. Turf wars raged between the two factions, conducted via graffiti in the office bathroom and sometimes flaring into actual fist fights (“I was screaming at him, ‘I’m going to get your record collection!’”)

The Voice was first to the party on many liberal fronts. Its position on Sheridan Square meant the office literally overlooked the Stonewall riots, recorded for posterity by long-term photographer Fred McDarrah. It hired early feminists like Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick, and later nurtured talented Black writers like Greg Tate, Hilton Als and Colson Whitehead. A determinedly pugnacious union achieved the first health insurance benefits in the USA for same sex couples. In 2000, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for Mark Schoof’s pioneering eight-part investigation into Aids in Africa.

While it might have anticipated the culture of social media, it was the rise of the internet that did for the Voice. Even before the paper went free in 1996, its financial model was heavily dependent on classified ads for jobs, apartments and romantic encounters. In the summer of 1999, its then-owner, pet food millionaire Leonard Stern, heard about an embryonic online listings site called Craigslist, operating at the time solely in San Francisco. Amazingly, one look was all he needed to grasp what was coming down the road. Within an hour he’d decided to put the Voice up for sale.

That wasn’t quite the end. The paper teetered on through several new owners. It outlived the hostile stewardship of New Times Media, run by two editors from Phoenix who sacked most of the old guard before finding themselves arrested over allegations of sex trafficking at Backpage, their competitor site to Craigslist. But throw in the financial crash of 2008 and the unstoppable rise of social media, doing for free what journalists had once done for a living, and it’s almost astounding that the Voice survived in print until 2017 (it survived online for another year and was revived, after a fashion, in 2021).

How much does its loss matter? After all, its exclusive access to the counterculture had long been waning. As the gossip columnist Michael Musto observes of its final years: “What was the Voice an alternative to at that point? . . . The mainstream has subsumed the underground.” Romano ends smartly with Wayne Barrett, the investigative journalist who spent decades pursuing Donald Trump.

Holding power to account might be no more profitable than championing obscure performance artists, but that doesn’t reduce its value. What The Freaks Came Out to Write really captures is the serious collegiality of a newspaper, the alchemy that happens when a group of people attempt to record the world, together. The Voice at its best was a fertile interface between rigorous standards and wild new ideas. Not so much like the internet, after all.

The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture by Tricia Romano Public Affairs Books, $35, 608 pages

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