Leonard Quart | Letter from New York: Local newspapers still have that old excitement and commitment
NEW YORK — Since I retired from university teaching I have written for local papers, giving me the opportunity to write more personally and expansively on a variety of subjects. I have written the column you are now reading for a newspaper with a distinguished history, The Berkshire Eagle, for close to 20 years. And I have also been writing essays and reviews for about four years for the lively and original online Berkshire Edge, that offers a fresh perspective on life in South County.
Between 2004-2009 I wrote film reviews and essays for The Villager, a Greenwich Village weekly serving Downtown Manhattan. This weekly, committed to local coverage, was much less well known than the hipper, iconic Village Voice, which was founded in 1955 as the country's first alternative newsweekly. The left leaning, anti-establishment Voice was less a local than a national paper (though it covered some local stories), and for a number of decades it featured penetrating investigative journalism and provocative unpredictable essays and criticism. The Voice covered national politics, the New Left and the counter culture, as well as the crimes and dubious behavior engaged in by many New York City landlords, politicians and police. It published critics with unique voices like Andrew Sarris (film), Robert Christgau (music), Jill Johnston (dance), John Lahr (theater) and Lucy Lippard (art) to mention just a few of the many gifted people who wrote for the Voice. The Voice once made money but like other papers it began to gradually lose circulation, and failed to sustain itself financially. Its end was near when it turned into an online publication and then finally closed. Still many of us readers from the 60s through the 80s will never forget the old combative and evocative Voice.
But The Villager, founded in 1933 with more limited ambitions, survives. The Villager hasn't just endured, but had won in 2001, 2004, and 2005 the Stuart Dorman Award, honoring New York State's best weekly newspaper in the New York Press Association's Better Newspaper Contest, and winning other awards along a wide range of categories.
The Villager is a weekly that deserves all the press awards it has received. For years it has provided the kind of neighborhood coverage ("going deep") that all of us Village inhabitants who care about what it means to live in the community cherish. Some of the big stories it covered since 2000 were the recovery and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after 9/11; the bankruptcy of St. Vincent's Hospital and its replacement by sterile luxury housing; the ultimate conviction after two trials of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (a long serving power-wielder and Lower East Side Assemblyman) on corruption charges; the losing struggle against NYU's imperial expansion plan and the controversial but successful renovation of Washington Square Park.
The Nov. 15 issue of The Villager has as one of its lead stories how new construction for the heavily used Brooklyn to Manhattan L train has negatively impacted on East 14th St. merchants. (The L train will be shut down for 15 months beginning April 27, 2019 to allow for critical repairs — which will make travel from Williamsburg to Manhattan a nightmare.) The edition also carries a human interest article on one of the last owners of a discount suit store on an Orchard St. that is now populated by art galleries and trendy bars. He admits that he stays in business only because he loves talking to people on the street and interacting with customers. Each week The Villager also carries a weekly Police Blotter, providing the readers with information about the underside of Village life. Crime is much less violent and omnipresent than it was in the 1970s and '80s, but burglary, shoplifting, assault and even bank robberies and muggings do still occur. There are also photos that strikingly illustrate articles, like the one on how the recent sudden snowstorm destroyed many Manhattan trees.
When I spoke to Lincoln Anderson, who has been editor-in-chief of The Villager for the past 18 years, about the nature of the paper, he emphasized its commitment to dealing with local issues in one "of the most interesting parts of the world." Lincoln went on to say that the paper closely interacts with the community and deals with issues agitating the community boards, zoning battles, the loss of loved small shops, the struggle against developers, the preservation of both buildings and the quality of neighborhood life.
Like the Village it's a politically liberal paper, and carries essays that are often critical of who is in power. This can range from a predictable enemy like Trump, to even a self-styled "progressive" like Mayor De Blasio. According to Anderson, the readership of the print edition consists mostly of older Villagers, but the online edition has brought a number of much younger readers to the weekly. The Villager has recently changed ownership, and has been bought by Schneps Communications, the largest publisher of community papers in the New York area. Anderson sees the paper as continuing to be successful — "we keep doing what we do" maintaining "a bead on the community."
In fact, local papers like The Villager do what superb national papers like the New York Times can't really focus on. In a recent issue The Villager continued pursuing the complex story about the fate of a beautiful urban garden to be decimated by a senior housing project, and it contained an essay backing the creation of a landmark historic district that would preserve some of the tenements and other buildings in a portion of the Lower East Side. That's exactly what good local papers like The Villager and the two local Berkshire papers can offer. Especially in a time where papers are closing everywhere, they keep us informed about what it means to live locally.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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