How The Village Voice is reinventing the alt-weekly for digital

The Village Voice wants to sell subscriptions. About 18 months after it changed hands, the alt weekly unveiled a new website this week that supports a broader range of digital ad units and is designed to help sell subscriptions and drive people to pickup physical copies of the paper.

“We wanted to reset what the Voice is,” editor- in-chief Stephen Mooallem said.

Like most other alt weeklies, The Village Voice went through a rough ride from 2005 to 2015, growing dangerously slim as circulation and print ad revenue fell. By the time its current owner, Peter Barbey, bought the paper in October 2015, there were just 10 editorial staffers left, with much of the paper’s once-vaunted cultural coverage being done by a centralized Voice Media team and much of the revenue coming from programmatic advertising.

At the time, Barbey proclaimed that he wanted to move the Voice back into the ranks of essential New York publications. “I am flat-out serious about getting the Voice to be a major Manhattan publication,” he told the New York Times. That involved hiring back editors and columnists from bygone eras, including theater critic Michael Feingold and the music critics Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. It now has a full-time editorial staff of 25, plus a number of contributors.

It’s also involved overhauling the website, a project that began last spring. The new design, which it produced with Postlight and Pentagram, sports a modular frame that operates on top of WordPress and puts images at the forefront. “I really thought it was important for it to be conspicuously visual across the board,” Mooallem said.

While the new site is noticeably cleaner than its predecessor, which was designed by Voice Media Group, the alt weekly-focused publisher that once owned the Voice, that cleanliness didn’t come at the expense of ad units, according to Donna Delmas, the Voice’s senior director of ad operations. “There are still four units on every article page,” Delmas said, adding that the new design also allows the company to sell different kinds of advertising, including branded content, which it intends to start offering advertisers later this year.

It’s not clear whether these new ad formats will replace the revenue lost from the sexy massage and classified ads that accounted for most of the Voice’s revenue for years. Barbey declined to comment on the paper’s profitability.

Perhaps the most curious feature of the new site is all the real estate given over to the print product, which Barbey said still features a circulation of 120,000, mostly concentrated in those familiar red boxes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. While there’s no difference in the content available in the print and digital editions, the new site has several features designed to promote the Voice’s physical version.

For example, at the bottom of every story is a button entreating readers to subscribe to the Voice. While the Voice has offered subscriptions for years, they were sold mostly to libraries and cultural institutions. “It’s not an area that was emphasized before,” Barbey said, who explained he sees that people in the New York “cultural community” as its likely core subscriber base for now. Subscriptions for U.S. readers cost $50 per year.

Barbey declined to say how many subscribers he’s hoping to add in the next year.

Later this year, after the Voice repositions several of the boxes that house copies of the paper, it will launch a feature on the site that will use readers’ locations to tell them where they can pick up a copy of the print edition.

“I see media companies as an ‘and/and’ proposition,” Barbey said. “Our readers read both versions of the Voice.”

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