Print's Epitaph: We Were the Original Blog

As print dies, we will no doubt see an avalanche of obituaries for once-great, now-decrepit publications. In this vein, The New Yorker's Louis Menand celebrates the Village Voice's heyday in the late 1950's and early 1960s.

The article isn't online yet, but here's a taste from the little summary sent out by the magazine's P.R. department:

"The Village Voice was originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism," Dan Wolf, the editor of the Voice, wrote in the introduction to "The Village Voice Reader," in 1962. Similarly, as critics and columnists were permitted to inject themselves into their writing, Menand writes, the Voice showed that one could disrespect the journalistic idols of impersonality and objectivity and still sell newspapers. Norman Mailer's columns for the paper were "unprofessional on purpose: like Wolf, he wanted to poke his finger in the eye of objectivity and expertise," Menand says. "What Mailer learned at the Voice was the literary value of leading with your personality. He never forgot it."

Hey, what does sound like? Menand makes the comparison crystal clear: "more than other magazines and newspapers, the Voice was doing what the Internet does now long before there was an Internet. The Voice was the blogosphere . . . and Craigslist fifty years before their time."

"The Voice Was the Original Blog" may be the only way to explain to a generation whose memory only goes back to the days when the Voice was a thick and tired tabloid filled with predictably leftist polemics, escort ads, classifieds and movie listings. The vibrancy disappeared long before the business model.

The original formula Menand celebrates is basically the same one that blogs — you're reading one right now! — want to replicate. It can be summed up as this: attitude is cheap, reporting is expensive. When Britton Hadden and Henry Luce started Time magazine in 1923, it wasn't much more than rewriting New York Times clips in an idiosyncratic diction. The New Yorker launched in 1925 as a humor magazine for young Manhattanites that reveled in its insider-y tone. When advertising and circulation grew — and editorial budgets increased — these publications quickly dropped their finger-in-the-eye-of-the-establishment pose and signed up for full membership.

The Voice tried too. Menand notes of cartoonist Jules Feiffer's early works:

Feiffer's characters were sometimes business types and politicians, but they were also sometimes caricatures of the sort of people one would imagine to be Voice readers—beatniks, lounge lizards, modern dancers. The Voice was the medium through which a mainstream middle-class readership stayed in touch with its inner bohemian. It was the ponytail on the man in the gray flannel suit."