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The Village Voice finally has a permanent editor-in-chief. In an e-mail to the paper's staff on Wednesday afternoon, Village Voice Media announced that it had hired Erik Wemple, now the editor of Washington City Paper, for the top editorial slot.
Wemple replaces interim editor-in-chief Ward Harkavy, who replaced acting editor Doug Simmons, who replaced longtime editor-in-chief Don Forst. Wemple will be the first editor under the new management of Village Voice Media after the merger this year of the old Village Voice Media and the other goliath of alt-weekly publishing, New Times.
Reached by phone in Washington, D.C., Wemple said management's editorial approach just felt right. "It seems that what they were looking for was the same thing I'd been trying to do here," he said. "We like news. We like magazine-style narratives. We like to do investigative. We like to get very low to the ground, reporting street stories. I'm not going to say that I ever perfected the model, but thats the altar I worship at for alt-weekly newspapering."
Wemple's City Paper has kept to that paper's tradition of studiously ignoring the federal government, and focusing instead on deeply reported stories about the city. New Times and its papers have likewise been fiercely local. In March, the Voice shuttered its Washington bureau and sent veteran Washington correspondent James Ridgeway packing.
Asked about the role of national coverage at the Voice, Wemple said he was at least open to it. "If someone can sell me on the fact that they can do national news in a way that they're first there, or they can break it, that it isnt just coming off the news, then I'll be very interested. But it's not the sine qua non of what I'm going to do. It's not in my editorial DNA."
First on his agenda, he said, will be to rework the opening sections of the Voicemaking room for a collection of shorter articles, considering the lineup of columns, trying to have a little more fun. The paper must provide strong media coverage, he said, and it needs to go beyond arts criticism to snooping around in the business of the arts. He promised to continue immersing himself in the work of the paper's writers and not to make hasty decisions about staffing. He declined to answer questions about any possible layoffs.
Before accepting the job, Wemple said, he had wrestled with corporate management's reputation for having a top-down style. He described City Paper as a publication where the editor has complete control. But maybe the other way isn't so bad, he argued. "These people have been in alternative journalism forever," he said. "So is there a chance that I could grow and learn from these folks? I have to say there is."
Wemple gave a projected start date of mid to late July, and said he's guessing he'll live in Brooklyn.
The full text of the Village Voice Media e-mail to the staff follows:
ERIK WEMPLE HIRED TO LEAD THE VILLAGE VOICE
Village Voice Media is pleased to announce that Erik Wemple will become the new editor-in-chief of the Village Voice. He will take the helm in New York City on July 24.
Wemple has served as lead editor of the Washington City Paper since January 2002. During that period, the D.C. paper aimed to uphold its great feature-writing and political reporting traditions while developing new directions for an expanding urban readership.
"Erik Wemple stood out in a process that went on for months as I reviewed applications and interviewed journalists from major American dailies, national magazines and alt-weeklies," said Michael Lacey, executive editor for Village Voice Media. "Wemple's savvy and grit are reflected in the newspaper he edits. I'm looking forward to his leadership, as well as the speculation and second-guessing sure to commence with this announcement. Readers may rest easy because, unlike Mother Jones, we are not seeking charitable donations to underwrite the salary of our latest staffer."
Under Wemple's guidance, the City Paper in June 2002 published "The Others," a penetrating look at the bizarre events leading up to the murder of Virginia scientist Robert Schwartz. "Boss Hogtie," a January 2003 investigation, examined the D.C. police department's improper arrests of hundreds of peaceful protesters. "Off Target," a news-breaking feature in May 2003, focused on the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times. And, on the offbeat front, the paper in May 2004 published "Lunatic Fringe," a tale of the mysteries behind a lace-maker who resided at a D.C. mental hospital.
All of those stories earned either first place or a nomination in the AltWeekly Awards, sponsored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
At City Paper, Wemple pushed for more reporting on the local arts scene, launching the column "Show & Tell" to take an in-depth look at the business of entertainment in Washington. He also introduced a number of formatted features in the news section that give the paper a magazine feel. The paper won the 2003-04 George Jean Nathan Award, the highest honor in American theater criticism, as well as the 2005 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for food-related newspaper column.
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