The Village Voice print edition

R.I.P. to The Village Voice, print edition

betty ming liu Inspiration, Relationships 6 Comments

The Village Voice print edition is about to die. This news leaves me nostalgic. In 1978, I was a Voice college intern. When the semester ended, the paper hired me as an office assistant. What an education. I learned about pushing boundaries and self-respect.

At the time, The Voice was making a big, fat fortune in advertising revenue. Those were glory days, when the publication was famous for its edgy, outsider view on art, politics and culture. Each week, the paper hit New York City newsstands with a fresh edition filled with photos and stories about post-punk rage and outrageousness.

Then, there was me. I was a Chinatown church nerd, a born-again virgin. My control freak Chinese immigrant parents aspired to conservative, middle class, middle American values. The Voice operated out of a little building in the Village, at 80 University Place. Going there put me in the center of topics I had been raised to view as secret, sinful and/or shameful. I was thrilled!

The Village Voice print edition

In 1979, I left the paper to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I never wrote for The Voice. Although once, I helped Richard Goldstein research an article he was writing about Charlie Chan. My experience at the Voice wasn’t about writing. It was about finding, well, my own voice as a person.

So I’m here to share about the power of internships for young people. The Village Voice print edition gave me many “first-time” moments — transforming moments with long-term impact. Here’s what happened…

The Village Voice print edition

I grew up with an immigrant father who told me that Chinese people don’t become writers in America. No one cared about us. He died of a heart attack before my internship. But his words stayed with me as I finally saw writers up close for the first time.

I had so many “firsts” related to writers. For the first time, I saw that nonconformists are employable. At the weekly editorial meetings, writers showed up in sneakers and T-shirts. Some had long, stringy hair and looked like they hadn’t showered in days. They also yelled and swore at each other. They were allowed to be themselves, and I wanted that. It’s a goal that stays with me to this day.

For the first time, I met actual Asian American writers. Rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres surprised me with his hyphenated last name. The poet/writer Luis Francia was the first Filipino person I ever met. Elaine Louie posed topless (!), in the photo that ran with her first-person piece about dating white guys. They all helped me to believe that I could become a journalist, too. In fact, during the ’80s, I was the first Asian American staff writer at every newspaper that hired me.

Another first: seeing that famous people could be humble and kind. Even though I felt like a nobody, star writers like Wayne Barrett and Nat Hentoff chatted with me as if my opinions mattered, which encouraged me to speak up. I’ve carried this message to my students, urging them to stop feeling inferior in the presence of greatness. We’re all worth something.

Diversity & inclusion

Beyond the writers, The Village Voice print edition dropped me into a colorful world. I sat across the aisle from a black man who was the first gay person — and probably also the first black person — I ever talked to. Another co-worker became my first white friend.  My awareness of diversity and inclusion had begun.

For the first time ever, the phrase “art and culture scene” entered my vocabulary. The paper ran pics of ordinary naked people and articles about stuff that didn’t fit my definition for “art.” Karen Finley got a lot of coverage. Her idea of performance art meant getting on stage and sticking cooked yams into her vagina. As a proper immigrant’s daughter, I was properly shocked. And, enlightened.

So sometimes, in my community college public speaking classes, I show fuzzy, old YouTube videos of Finley’s early work. My students are mostly immigrants from everywhere. They watch her curse and say sexually provocative things. Then, I show them an interview where she talks about women’s bodies and sexism. When I explain Finley is now a full-time NYU professor, they’re really shocked that unconventional personal vision can put money and bennies in our pockets.

On a personal note

For the first time ever, I worked city street festivals. As the promotion assistant, I set up booths at weekend street fairs around Manhattan. During the day, I sold Voice T-shirts, gave away pens and handed out free copies of the paper. I learned so much about branding, which has helped me prepare clients and students for job hunting. The wisdom also inspires my own branding as a coach and consultant.

Another first involved animal rescue. When one of my co-workers found some kittens in a garbage can, I took in my first stray. There was soon another cat that I picked up on gritty Orchard Street, long before the Lower East Side turned hipster. Over the years, I’ve shared my home with three more rescue cats and one rescue dog. (Down to just two cats now.)

Lastly, there was love. The Village Voice print edition gave me my first love. He worked downstairs in ad sales. We faced harsh pressure in an era when black-Asian couples were rare. Still, our relationship lasted 24 years. What I learned about interracial marriage, divorce, parenting and family ties — the evolving bond with him enriches my life to this day. Who knew, that a good divorce possible??!

The price of success

The Village Voice print edition is almost dead. Sad, of course. But I see this as a sign of the paper’s success. The Voice was built on a daring business concept: classified personal ads. Each ad consisted of a few lines of text. Maybe something like “white male seeks blah blah for XYZ.” The ad described what the person wanted in sex or romance.

These ads were a gold mine because back then, no respectable newspaper would touch them. They seemed scandalously sleazy. And yet today, a modern version of personal ads is so normal that just rated the best dating websites — and they go beyond just Match and Tinder.

What does this all mean? Well, The Voice began 62 years ago as an expression of otherness. The paper has been endlessly imitated and copied. What was once edgy is now mainstream. The paper of my internship was sold multiple times. The writers I met are either dead, fired or working elsewhere.

This is life. Ubers and Lyfts are replacing taxis. Walmart sells more organic veggies than Whole Foods. A free print version of the paper is only killing more trees. Especially now, when everyone’s reading on their smart phones.

The end of The Village Voice print edition reminds me that change is the ultimate norm. Staying fresh is the key to survival.

Imagine, I learned all this in a college internship. I would go on to many adventures exploring boundaries and breaking cycles. For more on that, check out my three-part life journey blog post, “How Writing Saved My Life.”

And what about you? Did you ever have an internship or early work gig that had a lasting impact, big or small, positive or negative? Reflect on the worth of your own experiences. I hope you’ll share and inspire us. :)


Comments 6

  1. Hey. Betty. I had 2 internships at newspapers while I was in college. One was at Gannett-owned Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va., and the other was at The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, MA. Both taught me that I actually had the skills & drive to be a real journalist, much more than several of the classes I took at Medill. Day 1 at the Herald Dispatch was the day Regan was shot, & I ended up with a byline the next day on a “reaction from people in the street” to the news that our president had been shot that I co-wrote with a reporter who had a bit more experience than me. I was a 20 year old junior at Northwestern at the time. There were women reporters, but the only other black writers at the paper did obits, classifieds and society press release rewrites. Both of those internships taught me that a Black girl from N.Y.C. could be a reporter wherever she wanted.

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      Leslie, I got a chill reading your comment. What you got from your internships could not be replicated in a classroom, a homework assignment or a pep talk from a mentor. You had to live it. And, you did, finding inspiration and self-confidence that you could hold onto for the rest of your life.

  2. Betty: I never did an internship of any sort. Instead I started out in publishing at the top of the ladder, as the founding editor of Out in Jersey magazine. Starting out at the top is not a path I recommend, since one has to do a whole lot of learning VERY quickly and when one makes a mistake at the top, even if it seems like a small one, it’s a big one. None the less we somehow survived and today, I say with pride, Out in Jersey is among the most respected LGBT regional magazines in the country. I say with little fear of contradiction, it’s the best. However, the continued survival of our print edition has long been problematical. As with The Voice, the cost of producing and distributing that mountain of paper is the big number in our budget. Way more people read us on-line ( than in print – some 20,000 reader hits a week – and we periodically ask ourselves if we really need the paper version. I suppose there can be little doubt that eventually the print version will be discontinued but for now we still feel we need it as a “shop window” to show we are not just another website but are a “real” magazine. There is another consideration as well. Our primary purpose as a publication has been to apply pressure regarding issues of LGBT rights and community concerns. Doing so in the permanence of print has, we think much greater impact on politicians, businesses and other quarters of influence and power that the ephemeral nature of the internet. So, for now at least, we print and the ghost of Peter Zenger smiles upon us (and we thank all gods for those densely worded, multi-page pharm ads that no one actually reads but which must, by law be in print.)

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      Toby, good for you — it’s huge to publish a magazine and keep it alive. And, in print. And, on the web. Thanks for explaining what it feels like to be a founder and publisher. So many of the newspapers and magazines I worked for are struggling or dead. It’s great you can keep the print version going. Definitely, existing on paper is a sign of prestige and for in most cases, an illusion of stability. Congrats on keeping Out in Jersey out there. Wow, 20k hits is terrific. :)

  3. I have to say you have done and seen some pretty interesting things as an immigrant’s daughter especially the girl with the yams who is now a professor, lol. But, we all do crazy and creative things.

    It took me two years of working to even be able to enroll in college so I didn’t do any internship and eventually I got my B.A. after 20 years and my MEd after 10. I never used either of them but college and the courses were definitely a great experience even for a non-traditional student which I turned out to be once my two kids were old enough. The three of us actually graduated in 1990, one from high school and my older one from college and me graduating too from college.

    I had a cat named “Dog” in college that I use to whistle for and she would come home.

    I didn’t realize your first marriage/relationship had lasted for 24 years. That’s how long I have lasted now with my 3rd husband so I guess there’s hope. My mother’s 4th marriage lasted for 42 years until death she did depart.

    We were so lucky to grow up in the times that we did. The world was our oyster. No matter how poor we might be (6 of us kids and both parents working sometimes 3 jobs) we had our dreams and schemes. Actually, I feel sorry for the millenials because they are going to have mucho big problems of their own to deal with and resolve. Divorce will be the least of their worries. I wish them luck and the path to happiness and morals and values which we seem to be losing sight of in the present societies of our world.

    I like your hair better straight but we all had those curly perms back then. Even some of the guys like my Japanese husband…

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      Sandy, the perm was, um, an interesting experience! That whole time in my life was interesting. I was lucky to do an internship and get college credit for it — made possible because I lived at home. As you point out, millennials have a hard time for many reasons. An internship is a privilege that poor and working students can’t afford. Students with families and older students also have lives that make internships impossible — you found that out too. But sounds like you had plenty of adventures that have made life interesting. In the end, that’s what counts most. :)

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