Village Voice LLC

views updated

Village Voice LLC

36 Cooper Sq.
New York, New York 10003
Telephone: (212) 475-3333
Web site:



Beginning April 10, 1996, The Village Voice—a liberal New York newspaper expressing the concerns of intellectual and political freedom—was distributed free throughout Manhattan in an attempt to boost its circulation and advertising. In anticipation of this change, the Voice commissioned a new advertising campaign from its agency, New York City's Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Mad Dogs responded with a campaign that maintained a tone consistent with its previous work for the Voice but capitalized more profoundly on the paper's truculent reputation to bolster the risky move to free circulation in Manhattan (readers in the other four boroughs and outside New York City still had to pay the $1.25 cover price). Mad Dogs created the tag line "Not America's Favorite Paper" as an ironic appeal to the Voice's readership, who prided themselves on living outside the mainstream. The strategy was to regain the Voice's position as the favorite paper of New York City's subcultures.

The print ads appeared mainly in the Voice itself but also appeared in other New York City newspapers (the Voice bartered ad space with other papers on an even trade) and on walls around the city. The ads relied on the stereotyping of the Voice's nonreaders, the types against whom Voice editorials ranted. One ad showed a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) at a shooting range; with the choice of targeting a bull's-eye or a copy of the Village Voice, his rifle was pointed squarely at the newspaper. Another depicted two older upper-class women sitting together with crossed legs commenting demurely, "It's so nice that homosexuals, Jews, and terrorists have a newspaper to read." Yet another simply showed a copy of the Voice strapped into an electric chair.

The ads helped smooth the transition to free circulation, doubling both circulation and advertising. The campaign, which ran throughout the circulation transition and into the spring of 1997, reached audiences as far away as Israel and Japan, where critics appreciated the ads as examples of America's freedom of expression. Most importantly, though, the campaign maintained the radical tone of the paper to insure its readers that the move to free circulation, which ran the risk of appearing as a transformation from a hard news journal to a soft "shopper"—a mere advertising medium—did not represent a sellout but rather represented a means of spreading the liberal word further afield. Publisher David Schneiderman affirmed that "the Voice will remain the Voice."


The Village Voice was founded in 1955 to capture the nonconformist political ideology and social currents of the Beatnik movement emanating from Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Norman Mailer, a controversial American novelist, was one of the newspaper's first writers. In the 1990s, however, writers and editors at the Voice began to sense that the weekly was losing its voice of influence over New York City's political and cultural scenes. The paper was also losing readership, falling from 136,000 in 1994 to 121,000 in November 1995. This circulation decrease coincided with a price increase from $1.00 to $1.25 in 1994.

The decision to go free was devised to reverse all of these trends; more people were likely to pick up a paper that was free than one they had to pay for, which would boost circulation and thus increase the influence the paper held in the city. Most alternative weeklies were free, including the LA Weekly, the West-coast equivalent of the Voice owned by the same parent company, Stern Publishing. What these papers might have lost in subscriptions and newsstand sales was recouped by increased advertising because the ads reached more readers. When the Voice went free, it lost approximately $3 million in circulation revenues. Making up that amount might take two to three years, Schneiderman predicted, but it was a short-term sacrifice to secure more long-range goals. "For us it is a preemptive strike into the future," said Schneiderman. "We don't think there is much future for newsstands in New York."

Mad Dogs and Englishmen had become the ad agency for the Voice in 1991 to help build up subscriptions. The marketing strategy came naturally to creative director Michael Reich since he considered himself a member of the counterculture that the paper targeted. The Voice and its readership positioned themselves as distinct from the rest of the world; their opinions railed against the opinions held by the majority of mainstream culture.

Mad Dogs' ads took advantage of the Voice's often extreme leftist editorial position by dramatizing the extreme political right's revilement of all that the Voice represented. Voice readers loved to be hated, so Mad Dogs invoked the ire of the Voice's political enemies. The ads relied on tongue-in-cheek exaggeration. One ad presented itself as a Village Voice subscription coupon that took up an entire page, complete with huge "Yes" and "No" boxes. The "No" box was checked, and below it was scrawled a diatribe against the left by a radical right-winger. The success of the ads derived from a kind of reverse snobbery, tacitly looking down on those who looked down on the Voice.


The Village Voice's promotions manager Tony Cima to described the paper's readership succinctly as "young, hip, and affluent." Since the Voice was distributed in the New York City metropolitan area, the readership consisted primarily of urban New Yorkers as well as New Jersey and Connecticut residents. Mad Dogs' Reich considered himself a quintessential Voice reader; he thus had a more developed conception of the target market. Reich, like many Voice readers, had moved to the city to get away from the suburbs. Reich and others believed New York City offered limitless opportunity for artistic and political expression.

The Voice and its readership had a complementary relationship in that both had strong personalities. Voice readers had their own distinctive identity, but the paper gave them a collective voice that Reich called "the unchartered minority of America." The subculture that the Voice appealed to included those ostracized almost everywhere else: gays, feminists, pacifists, ethnic minorities, and underground artists. Voice readers generally defined themselves in opposition to more predominant ideologies; thus Reich hit upon the idea of harnessing that opposition by advertising it. The Voice had a clear understanding of who its readers were and an even clearer understanding of who its readers were not. The irony that the ads played upon was the fact that certain people would never under any circumstances read the Voice. The Voice preached to the converted, so Mad Dogs advertised to the converted.


When the Village Voice eliminated its cover price, the New York Observer took over its newsstand space and consequently doubled its newsstand distribution. But the Voice was less concerned with the Observer's success than with the highly combative competitive strategies of its main rivals, the alternative weeklies TimeOut New York and the New York Press. TimeOut ran billboards claiming that its listings were "enough to make you lose your voice." The Press changed its distribution day in order to preempt the Voice's distribution, shifting from Wednesday (the day the Voice was distributed) to Tuesday. The Press also increased its editorial features space and its staff, adding a Washington correspondent.

Press publisher Ron Mann called the Voice's switch to free circulation disastrous, claiming that the Voice had not picked up any new business (a point refuted by the Voice) because it had priced its ad space above the market. A quarter-page, four-time ad in the Press went for $600; the same ad space in the Voice ran $1,800, Mann pointed out. The Voice commissioned a consultant to assess whether its ad rates were out of line with the market. The issue boiled down to the results ads could produce: TimeOut ads were seen by 50,000 readers, Press ads by twice as many, while Voice ads reached three times as many readers, even before the circulation switch.


The Voice's decision to concentrate most of the "Not America's Favorite Paper" campaign in its own pages was driven by two main factors: first, one of the main goals of the campaign was to retain readers through the price elimination, so the Voice devoted itself to reassuring it readers that the attitude of the paper would not disappear with the price; second, the Voice could scarcely afford an expensive ad campaign, so its own pages represented a much cheaper medium than other outlets. The "bargain basement" approach to advertising was also consistent with the anticapitalistic tenets of the countercultural movement. Bartering, a mainstay of leftist economics, represented a way to avoid the transaction of money, transacting services instead. In this case the Voice bartered advertising space in its own pages in exchange for ad space in its rivals' pages, thus accessing its rivals' readers.

The Voice used another tactic invented by the counterculture: "sniping," or what Mad Dogs' Reich called "unofficial media buys." The term comes from the military practice of shooting at unsuspecting targets, except in this instance the Voice "attacked" unsuspecting passersby with its ads. This urban guerilla tactic involved plastering its poster ads on open spaces such as the sides of abandoned buildings or the plywood fences surrounding construction sites. The act had an illicit feel to it, even if it wasn't technically illegal. The efficacy of sniping was slightly diluted by the corporate co-opting of this underground tactic, with Calvin Klein and other corporate ads plastered all over New York City. Nevertheless, the strategy managed to raise the visibility of the Voice in a way that cost much less than buying official ad space on billboards or on the sides of city buses while also allowing the Voice to maintain its integrity.

The final advertising mode that the "Not America's Favorite Paper" campaign employed was a direct mailing of postcards. This tactic directly confronted the recipients of the postcards with a choice: either they were or they were not thinkers who sympathized with the Voice's perspective, with no middle ground. The brilliance of the "Not America's Favorite Paper" campaign was that it forced the people viewing the ads to take a stand either way. While the text of the ads disparaged the Voice, the subtext of the ads disparaged those who disparaged the Voice by implied mockery of their political or social views. The campaign alluded that only those hip to the message got the message.


The Village Voice's "Not America's Favorite Paper" campaign achieved its main objectives of increasing circulation and advertising. Circulation increases surpassed their goals both in Manhattan (more than doubling from 71,000 to 185,000) and in total circulation (increasing from 150,000 to 235,000), making the Voice the most distributed weekly in the country. As a result, advertising almost doubled.


Mad Dogs and Englishmen's creative director Michael Reich claimed that he fled Long Island, where he grew up, to find his own kind of people in New York City—namely, the types who would read the Village Voice. Ironically, Voice circulation spread to the suburbs in April 1997 with the launching of the Long Island Voice, following the national trend toward suburbanizing urban alternative weeklies. The Voice, however, did not export all of its attitude. For example, while the Village Voice's sex columnist was openly gay, the Long Island Voice's was straight. Village Voice publisher David Schneiderman, a Long Island native, defended the move as a means of asserting that his hometown was not as vacuous as its reputation—there was more to Long Island than underage sex scandals involving Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, Schneiderman attested.

The circulation transition was marred by a few glitches. Since newsstands no longer sold the paper, some readers had trouble finding one of the 2,000 retail outlets in Manhattan where copies were distributed; those who could find the bright red distribution boxes often found them empty or vandalized. Some homeless entrepreneurs exported stacks from Manhattan (where the paper was free) to Brooklyn (where they undersold the official $1.25 rate). Additionally, vendors within certain Manhattan commuter points, such as Grand Central and Penn Stations, as well as the Port Authority Bus Terminal, continued the full-price policy of their distributor, Hudson News. Voice publisher Schneiderman dismissed the story of the homeless peddlers as untrue and expressed faith in commuters' ability to find readily available free copies. While he promised to restock the distribution boxes more frequently, he admitted that it would be impossible to keep them full; the only problem, according to Schneiderman, was that the paper was simply too popular. Public perception was critical of the Voice's decision to go free. Robert Farrell, a business owner who had advertised in the Voice before switching to the Press a few years before the circulation change, commented that "when a business goes free, that shows weakness." Other critics echoed this sentiment, suggesting that the Voice's transformation into a free paper signaled a move away from journalistic integrity and toward advertisement-driven decisions. "It's a sad day for the Voice," lamented former Voice editor Jonathan Larsen. "Now it's become just another shopper," he added, suggesting that the paper's free pricetag would mean a predominance of advertising and listings over its former journalistic innovation. Soon after the paper went free, it reduced the number of issues of the Voice Literary Supplement from 10 per year to just four, a fact many believed seemed to support Larsen's charge.

Publisher Schneiderman countered the cynical charges of selling out with a more balanced response, pointing out that the increased market penetration for readers and advertisers would allow the Voice "to deliver the best in journalism," a pledge that was harder to uphold when the $1.25 price decreased sales. The Voice could continue its commitment to journalistic excellence only if it could afford to remain in business. In order to compete against other alternative free papers, the Voice had to join their ranks. However, the Voice held a trump card: while none of the alternative papers could be considered America's favorite newspaper, only the Village Voice held the distinction of being America's least favorite paper.


Case, Tony. "Moving to Free: Success or Disaster?" Editor and Publisher, July 27, 1996.

Wulfhorst, Ellen. "Village Voice to be Distributed Free in Manhattan." Reuters, February 7, 1996.

                                              William D. Baue

About this article

Village Voice LLC

Updated About content Print Article