August 7, 2011

An Anticlimactic Redundancy


In the waning days of July, I received a note from my former editor John Strausbaugh, informing me that the New York Press had finally and officially folded.

            Even though Strausbaugh had been the paper’s editor for some fourteen years and I’d been there thirteen years as a columnist, staff writer, and receptionist, we met the news with neither celebration nor mourning. More than anything we just kind of shrugged. We’d both left the paper some years ago, and to be honest the most common question I’d been asked about it for the past four, five years had been “Christ, does that thing even exist anymore?”

            (On the bright side, I suppose, at least now when I’m asked that question I can say “Nope!” instead of “Hell, I dunno.”)

            On reflection, I suppose there was a small tinge of melancholy at hearing the inevitable news. Not for what the Press had become, but for what it once was. For just a few brief, shining years there, the Press was really something.

            The years between roughly 1995 and 1998 would come to be known among those of us who were there (and many of you who were reading it at the time) as the Golden Era. On any given week you could pick up the paper and read articles by Strausbaugh, Sam Sifton, William Monahan, Jonathan Ames, Amy Sohn, C.J. Sullivan, Spike Vrusho, Jessica Willis, Mistress Ruby, William Bryk, Matt Zoller Seitz, Zach Parsi, Armond White, Ned Vizzini, Alan Cabal, and a dozen more. Articles across the board—first person pieces, political pieces, social commentary, history, humor. Articles you would never find in any other publication. (David Lindsay, for godsakes, wrote a weekly column about inventions!) Then there was the mail section, which was a strange and often frightening world unto itself.

            Beyond the articles, there were the illustrators: Tony Millionaire, Danny Hellman, Russell Christian, Kaz, Ben Katchor, Marcellus Hall, Morgan Intrieri, etc.—with guest appearances by the likes of Chris Ware, Steve Cerio, and other prominent cartoonists.

            It was quite a crew, both those who appeared in the pages and those who worked in the office. Those were the days when you could still find characters in new York, and it was reflected in the paper. We were never told what to write or how to write it, and because we were working street level, the paper had a knack for tapping into cultural phenomena years before they filtered up to the mainstream press.

            An awful lot of the people who were there then went on to much bigger things, and while I’m always hesitant to say the Press “made” them, it certainly provided a springboard, the first exposure of any kind that a lot of these people ever received.

            (In my own case, this column had been running for over six years before I made the move to the Press, but I would never deny the influence the paper had on all that’s followed.)

            They were undeniably exciting times, times (and parties, and long nights in bars) that gave rise to an awful lot of stories. A book’s worth of stories the involved parties would probably like to forget. Ah, what a time it was, giving rise to a lot of affairs, at least three marriages, a couple of attempted murders, and at least one beer slide.

            Then the paper was sold in 2002, and things became much less exciting. Strausbaugh, who’d made the paper what it was, was unceremoniously shitcanned. (Over the phone. While he was on vacation.) That was the beginning of the Shabby Era.

            Well, things were still okay for a while, as the new owners brought in Jeff Koyen and Alex Zaitchik to edit their new acquisition, and Jeff and Alex brought with them writers like Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames. They were all funny, and sharp, and wanted to shake things up a bit.

            But see, the new owners weren’t known for their sense of humor or their intelligence. As far as “shaking things up” goes, well, the less said about it the better.

            In the Golden Era, the only rule handed down from the editors was “screw the advertisers and write what you want.” The new owners did quite the opposite, asking writers to promote advertisers in any possible way so long as it was nice. That, to me, was the real death knell.

            Not surprisingly, Koyen and Zaitchik were fired, and what followed was a string of editors, each less competent and more of a corporate ass-kisser than the last. If any editor tried to put anything the slightest bit “shocking” or “controversial” in the paper, they were out. Which of course begs the question, why buy a paper like the Press if you want to scrub it clean of everything that people liked about it in the first place?

            All the while I sat in the cubicle and wrote my stories as I always had, watching them butchered into incoherence every week, waiting for something to get better, thinking it had to, knowing a new editor would be installed any minute now, hoping that was the answer. The new editors always came along as expected, but nothing ever got better. Then they fired me which, by that point, was kind of a relief. The paper was dead already by then, save for the burial.

            So the brief flash of melancholy I felt at the news wasn’t so much for the Press itself, but for that moment long ago, and a squandered opportunity to build on it.

            I was also melancholy for the fate of the alternative press as a whole. From the time the Village Voice was founded in the mid-fifties through, say, the early nineties and the birth of the internet, the alternative press was a vital and important part of the landscape, offering voices you couldn’t find anyplace in the mainstream media, and opinions, well, you couldn’t hear much of anyplace else. With the internet, however, the idea of a weekly paper gathering all of these voices and opinions together is irrelevant. They’re still out there, these voices, but things are so randomly scattered, how will you ever find them? And how will you encounter an opinion you didn’t expect, or something you find shocking, when everything is so goddamn compartmentalized? That was the real joy of the alternatives when I was with them—we foisted ourselves on an unsuspecting public. We were read by bankers and bums, housewives and junkies and impressionable children. All that’s dead now. Now they all have their own sites about themselves, so they don’t have to worry about being bothered by someone telling them they’re idiots and their whole world’s for shit.

            Well, for old time’s sake, you’re idiots and your whole world’s for shit.


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