Comforting the Afflicted,
Afflicting the Comfortable
Dan Forst finds latest challenge at the Village Voice
It was a warm, pleasant summer, and Don Forst ’54 was taking it easy, catching up on his reading, puttering around his weekend place in Hudson, N.Y. It was 1996, and he had just left the New York Daily News after a brief, rocky stint as metropolitan editor. The Daily News job had come along after a successful, high-profile decade editing the New York edition of Newsday — during which the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes — before it was shut down in 1995 for financial reasons. It was also a period during which Forst developed something of a bad-boy reputation in New York newspaper circles; as devoted as he was to serious, hard-hitting stories on crime, corruption and disasters, he also reveled in the lighter, gossipy side of the business, splashing cheesecake photos of Marla Maples, erstwhile girlfriend of developer Donald Trump, across the paper’s front page.

With the Daily News experience behind him, Forst regrouped and looked around, sort of, for his next challenge. He was sixty-four. He’d been a newspaperman for forty years. He’d edited a half-dozen big dailies in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. He’d gone toe-to-toe with politicians, labor leaders, cops, tycoons, and activists of all stripes. He once suspended popular New York Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin for ethnic slurs made about a Korean-American colleague. Wasn’t it time to hang up his typewriter, scrub the newsprint off his knuckles, and spend more time listening to Mozart, one of his enduring cultural loves?

Toward the end of the summer his phone rang. It was a headhunter with a proposition. The editor of the alternative weekly Village Voice had recently resigned. Was Forst interested in the job?

“I did a lot of hemming and hawing,” Forst recalls, in his office overlooking Cooper Square, in the East Village section of Manhattan. He is dressed in a green shirt, purple suspenders and dark gray wool pants. He wears his sandy-gray hair in bangs, which further soften his startlingly youthful looks. The walls of his office are ringed with framed covers of the Voice. “I hadn’t read the Voice in years. I wasn’t really part of the paper’s demographic.”

At the time, the once-venerable Voice, which had defined alternative, anti-corporate journalism in the 1950s and 1960s, was embroiled in a divisive internal conflict. Earlier in the year, partly as a response to the growing number of online publications, then-owner Leonard Stern had eliminated the Voice’s $1.25 cover charge in favor of free bulk-drop distribution, a move many staffers felt diminished the paper’s journalistic cachet and rendered it nothing more than another free throwaway. A succession of top staffers, including editor Karen Durbin, quit. Those who remained grew increasingly polarized and contentious in a newsroom already infamous for its contentiousness. New York media pundits who had long enjoyed lobbing criticism at the Voice pronounced the paper in an irreversible decline.

Still, Forst was intrigued. Back home in his TriBeCa loft, he called the paper’s publisher, David Schneiderman, who pled his case that Forst and the Voice were a great combination: a career hard-news guy at the helm of a left-wing alt-weekly that championed Third World issues, sexual politics, and up-and-coming rock bands that no one outside of Lower Manhattan had ever heard of. Forst looked at the Voice some more. He talked to his wife of fifteen years, the writer and photographer Starr Ockenga, about the paper. He stewed on it, then made up his mind. At an age when many of his contemporaries were preparing to retreat upstate to write their memoirs, Forst was about to take on one of the most challenging assignments of his long career.

“I’d heard the [Voice newsroom] was a tough room to manage,” he says. “To me, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if people are passionate about what they do. But some of the writers were living too much in the past, with stories that were self-indulgent and too long. I’m not interested in writers’ psyches and problems. I came in looking for shorter, more timely stories that have some kind of news peg. For the most part, writers have bought in to what I suggested.”

Forst’s ideas for retooling the woolly old Voice made him a few enemies, but they mostly made sense to a staff that secretly suspected the paper was becoming irrelevant. “This is a great hire,” said Wayne Barrett, a Voice senior editor, when Forst’s appointment was announced. “If we’re going to be a great paper again, he has the kind of credentials and solid news judgment to do that.”

Schneiderman, a former Voice editor, loved the idea that Forst would bring his vast knowledge of New York to the paper, which would help him command respect both inside and outside the newspaper. “He puts us right back into the big leagues with the dailies in this town,” he said when Forst accepted the offer.

“We’re still partial to the left, and that’s fine,” says Forst. “Now, though, we’re aggressive, timely and committed to a wider array of issues. I’d like to think the Voice does what Joseph Pulitzer said all newspapers should do: comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

Close to fifty years ago, Forst had a very good reason for becoming interested in journalism, even if it had nothing to do with affliction. “It was orientation at UVM, and there was a very pretty girl sitting behind the Cynic table,” he recalls with a grin. “That’s how I got involved with journalism, doing general assignment stories for the Cynic. Whatever that girl told me to do, I did it.”

Forst had grown up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. His sister ventured north for college at Middlebury, and he liked the idea of going to school in Vermont as well — but not in his sister’s shadow. “She was very smart,” Forst says. “I didn’t want to end up in her footsteps.”

Forst’s UVM experience combined the classroom — courses in political science, English, and philosophy — with experience writing news for the Cynic and sports for the Burlington Free Press. He tells a story of cutting his final in Logic to hitch-hike to Boston to hear Adlai Stevenson lecture at Harvard. “The professor, Louis Feuer, gave me a 100 anyway,” Forst says. “He thought going down to hear the lecture was a terribly logical thing to do.”

Forst eventually edited the Cynic, and drew flak from students when he advocated the end of blackface events at Kakewalk during UVM’s Winter Carnival. “I thought it presented a demeaning image of blacks, and that it should go,” he says. “We got a lot of nasty letters, many of them anti-semitic that attacked me personally.” Forst was well ahead of his time in calling to end Kakewalk; the event would continue at UVM until 1969.

If anything, the Kakewalk flap helped crystallize Forst’s professional aspirations, and after graduating from UVM in 1954 he enrolled in the journalism school at Columbia University. His first job out was as a general assignment reporter in Houston, and not long after he landed his first editing job, at the New York Post. Forst worked his way to the top of the editorial ranks at dailies in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston before taking a job editing Boston Magazine, which he did from 1983-85, until he was tapped for the top spot at the New York edition of the Long Island-based Newsday.

One of the Pulitzers won by the paper under Forst’s watch was for its coverage of a major subway train crash in August 1991. There were injuries, mayhem, accusations. “We swarmed it,” Forst recalls. “I organized the coverage, got the team together, and put together a package, something like fifteen stories, that ran the next day. Covering an event like that is a rush, it’s exciting. I still feel it with a weekly when we’re bringing things in on deadline.”

“Don was very good at mobilizing the troops,” says Tony Marro ’65, who worked under Forst as a Newsday reporter and later edited the paper, a job he still holds. “He has a lot of drive, imagination and energy, and he loves taking a small group of people who have allegiance to him and sending them out to chase down the best stories. He’s the kind of editor who wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘What’s the front page going to be?’”

No wonder some of his old daily colleagues doubtless raised their eyebrows when word got around that he was taking the top spot at the Voice. Alternative weeklies are very different animals from mainstream dailies, often foregoing breaking news for highly personal, idiosyncratic writing with a decidedly left-of-center political point-of-view. But the appeal of the alt weeklies isn’t limited to spicy sex columns and monstrously informed coverage of pop music; the best of the breed routinely beat the dailies on hard news stories while sustaining a sassy, irreverent editorial voice — the best of both worlds.

It was this kind of paper that Forst envisioned when he walked into his new office at the Voice in October 1996. Shortly after arriving, he assembled the writers to share with them his vision for the paper, quoting advice he’d received decades ago from a crusty, long-gone New York Post editor. “He once told me, ‘Lemme tell you something, kid,’” Forst began. “‘You gotta grab the reader by the throat. He’s on the train. It’s hot. He’s trying to hit on his secretary; she’s not giving him the time of day. His wife is mad at him. His kid needs braces; he doesn’t have the money. The guy next to him stinks. It’s crowded. You want him to read your story? You better make it interesting.’” Now it was the writers’ turn to raise their eyebrows: What was the deal with this guy and his pep talk that sounded like it was lifted from a bad 1940s Hollywood newspaper movie? What could he possibly bring to the urbanely jaded Voice newsroom?

Plenty, it turns out. “He brought a strong emphasis on news, as well as a certain amount of efficiency that didn’t exist before,” says Jennifer Gonnerman, a Voice staff writer who covers criminal justice issues. “He’s also willing to take risks on younger writers like me and let them do bigger, more complex stories.” In 1998, Gonnerman told Forst she thought the violent fringe of the anti-abortion movement was under-covered, and that it merited investigation. Forst allowed her two months to report the story, including a trip to Birmingham, Ala., site of a recent deadly bombing at a women’s health clinic. Just as the story was about to run, a physician in Buffalo, N.Y. was assassinated in his home — ostensibly because he performed abortions. “It ended up being a six-thousand-word, eight-page feature,” Gonnerman says. “We were on top of and ahead of the news, because Don was willing to allocate the time and money to do the story.”

But Forst hasn’t lost his taste for frothier subjects, either. He once asked Elizabeth Zimmer, the Voice’s fifty-something dance critic, to write a story on the ten best backsides in the National Basketball Association. Zimmer, more than a little surprised, declined, but later said publicly that she was “having more fun in my own quiet way” since Forst’s arrival.

Hard news or punchy fluff, it doesn’t matter: Forst seems to have a showman’s knack for creating entertainment with whatever tools he has at his disposal. “I let myself be guided by my editors — the cover gets the best story, which is not necessarily the newsiest story,” he maintains, a thought that would’ve been anathema at most of the metro dailies he’d worked for previously. While I was in New York to interview Forst, the Voice issues on the street seemed to support his claim: one cover story featured a withering deconstruction of the World Trade Organization — a story that took on prophetic overtones in light of the chaos that was about to ensue at the organization’s meeting in Seattle — while the next week’s cover profiled New York musician Stephin Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields, whose album, “69 Love Songs,” was about to make the year-end top ten lists of critics from coast to coast.

Forst seems to speak from a position of strength these days. Since going free, the Voice has upped its circulation from 117,000 to 250,000, and has its sights set on 300,000. The paper is doing stories of national significance. Its pre-Christmas issues were two-hundred pages thick and packed with ads. The only thing that could go wrong is if the paper experienced some kind of potentially cataclysmic event, like a sale.

Which, in fact, happened. On January 5, the New York Times reported the sale of the Voice and six other papers, all owned by Leonard Stern, to a group of investors for somewhere around $150 million. Voice publisher David Schneiderman was installed as CEO of the new company, which would be known as Village Voice Media. Forst had acknowledged that the paper was for sale when I spoke with him in New York, but added that there was “no fear and loathing at this point” in the Voice newsroom over the impending sale. Such transactions can signal mass firings of top managers and editors, but Schneiderman was quoted in the Times as saying that Forst would remain in the editor’s position “as long as he wants to.” As newspaper sales go, the Voice deal seemed determinedly uncataclysmic.

When I call him shortly after the sale is finalized, Forst continues to sound unconcerned with the new order. “There’ve been no real changes with the new ownership,” he says. “David Schneiderman keeps telling me, ‘Keep putting out the paper you’ve been putting out,’ so that’s what we’re doing.”

The paper he’s been putting out allows Forst “the opportunity to be both dumb and smart,” he says, with stories ranging from artists he’s never heard of to issues he’s covered in one form or another for thirty years, all with that trademark left-leaning Voice stamp of approval. Or at least, almost all. “People expected us to be automatically pro-Hillary, just because she’s a Democrat,” he says. “But we smacked the hell out of her, as well as Bill. We smacked the hell out of Rudy, too. To us, all of those people are targets of opportunity.”

And what of his own politics? Forst folds his hands in front of him and grins. “On some issues I’m to the right of Genghis Khan,” he says. “But, yeah, I’m a liberal — except when it comes to music. That stops at Mozart, as far as I’m concerned.”VQ

Scott Sutherland, a writer in Portland, Maine, is a frequent contributor to Vermont Quarterly.