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Voice Labor Settlement: High Drama or Foregone Conclusion?

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When a news story you know a little about comes along, the coverage in the mass media makes you wonder about everything else emanating from the world of "objective" journalism.

Take AP's summary of this month's union contract negotiations at the Village Voice, the New York City weekly often seen as the archetype for all subsequent alternative newsweeklies. AP's piece, picked up by many news outlets verbatim, reported that a Voice employee strike was "narrowly averted... after a contentious round of contract negotiations" before the parties settled "just hours before a midnight deadline."

That sort of reporting arises from the fallacy of cause and effect. (When the rooster crows, the sun rises; therefore, the rooster causes the sun to rise.)

Actually, a strikingly (pun intended) similar scenario happens regularly in Voice union/management relations. I worked at Village Voice Media from 1994 to 2002, during which period the same non-drama unfolded each time the union contract was about to expire, always resulting in a "white-knuckle last minute settlement." To state as a fact that a strike was "narrowly averted" has little more meaning than if I told you I narrowly averted missing dinner by consuming a sandwich just two hours before bedtime.

AP ratchets up the suspense by adding that "Voice writers vowed to publish their own blog in the event of a strike." I'm not sure there's an official name for the fallacy at work here, but vowing that you'll do "x" in the event of "y" carries no more weight than if I vow to fast for a week in the event Fox News names Keith Olbermann chief anchor.

The Voice staff did put up a site here, which has its own accuracy problems. The Union press release claims that "The Village Voice is the only unionized newspaper in the now 13-weekly VVM chain." In fact, LA Weekly is unionized. And in the wake of the settlement, the site now reports that the new agreement "expires July 30, 2004."

AP further embellishes its cliffhanger narrative by observing that "[Voice] employees staged a 'symbolic' walkout Thursday." So? The exec who ran VVM while I was there lost no sleep worrying about the successful outcome of each round of talks, various symbolic walkouts, marches, rallies and other public protests notwithstanding.

AP closes its reportage by noting that the "iconic" Voice -- and here I thought it was the "Village" Voice -- "says it's still [italics mine] the largest alternative news weekly in the country." Again, a little bit of knowledge is scary. For many years, LA Weekly outpaced the Voice in circulation, page counts and advertising pages, while the Voice, with equal consistency, continued to brag about being bigger than its sister paper! Now, the LA Weekly page on the official altweekly trade association website describes the paper both as "having an audited circulation of 215,000" and as having a circulation of 174,011. VVM exec Scott Spear clarifies: "The AAN site is behind in updating its info. For the 6 months ending December 31, 2010, the Voice's audited circulation was 189,347. The LA Weekly's was 170,491."

Better coverage of these events came from altweekly vets Eric Wemple and Matt Fleischer. Fleischer, who has written for LA Weekly and the late LA City Beat, supplies context here from former LA Weekly union shop steward Steven Mikulan. And Wemple, who five years ago was hired to edit the Voice but quit before he started and who now blogs for the Washington Post, detailed the issues in dispute sans hype. (Wemple's non-tenure at the Voice wasn't all that unusual in the altweekly universe. In 2005 I left Atlanta's Creative Loafing after "moving" to that city for all of nine days.)

The caveat about not taking news at face value, of course, applies to this report as well. Though I felt sure there would be no strike, what do I know? Wemple says, "I didn't feel a strike was terribly likely, but once you start talking tough, sometimes even a sure thing can go off the tracks." True enough, but a more likely explanation may have little to do with teeth-gnashing brinkmanship. New York magazine headlined its report on the contract settlement, "Journalists Can Only Get Things Done Under Deadline Pressure."