Players: The Village Voice, a counter-culture icon founded by Greenwich Village beatniks in 1955; The New York Observer, a salmon-hued weekly founded by an Upper East Side financier at the very tail end of the 1980s boom.
The Opening Serve: Kat Stoeffel's New York Observer article "Alt-’s Not Dead! But Are Downtown Alt-Weeklies Headed for Retirement?" details the struggles of rivals (for advertising dollars if not always editorial tone) like The Voice, New York Press and Time Out New York. It looked at The Voice's relentless coverage of the Press's editorial revolving door. "That the story broke in The Village Voice, once the Press’s newsprint nemesis, didn’t merit much attention," she wrote. "Both papers have bigger antagonists these days," like the challenge of the web and the gentrification of Manhattan. Her article ended on a not-very-hopeful note: "Alt-weeklies have to contend not only with a changing media landscape, but with such sweeping demographic shifts as well. As [Press publisher Tom] Allon noted of the sort of New Yorkers who were once the core readers of such titles, 'All those people have moved to Brooklyn.'"
Voice editor Tony Ortega took to Twitter in the morning to take issue with the story. "Funny how a pub that's gone through 4 editors recently yet again brings up that we went though several--five YEARS ago. Sigh," he wrote. Minutes later he questioned the tone of the article: "So the Press is about to close, Time Out was slashed and sold, and the Voice [is] still making money. Funny how the story didn't read that way," and added, "The Observer has been whiplashed by change by change and is hanging by a thread, so I know it's therapeutic to dump on us. Really, I don't mind."
Gawker's John Cook (whose wife Allison Benedikt is the film editor at The Voice) also wondered why The Observer failed to assess its own situation in a conversation of struggling weeklies. "There's a sizable salmon elephant stomping around unheralded in this story," he tweeted this morning, linking to Stoeffel's article. "Oh and the elephant is very, very skinny."
The Return Volley: Nick Rizzo, who has written for The New York Press, jumped to The Observer's defense on Twitter. "As a struggling weekly, the Observer is forbidden from writing about other struggling weeklies? What disclosure should they have?" Cook responded, "If you're gonna take a look at struggling NY weeklies that have been devastated by the web, you ought to look at all of them, no?" Rizzo tweeted back, "That doesn't mean that the Observer should therefore be barred from writing about this. It's an important story," and added, "To be clearer: I wish she had included the Observer, but I know that couldn't happen. Just as you can't go after Gawker." Then Cook ended the conversation. "If I were recounting the history of British new media entrepreneurs who pay for stories, yes, it would seem odd to leave him out," he wrote. "Hair successfully split."
What They Say They're Fighting About: The lack of disclosure from The Observer and whether the paper can deliver an unbiased survey of the business climate for Manhattan weeklies.
What They're Really Fighting About: Which media league The Observer belongs in. The economic fallout of the recession has left New York's media status lines scrambled. Once based out of an Upper East Side townhouse, The Observer didn't see itself as in direct competition with The Voice, which has been long based near Astor Place. But based on his tweets, Ortega clearly sees The Observer as his main competitor. While defenders like Rizzo still believe the salmon paper sits outside the downtown scrum.
Who's Winning Now: Ortega, Cook and anyone who's not The New York Observer. While the article was meant to detail the decline of Manhattan's alt-weeklies, it seems more damage was done to The Observer. The Village Voice, as Stoeffel mentions and Ortega claims, is doing reasonably well and comes off relatively unscathed save for a blurb about thinness and a reliance on Musto.