Aug 18, 2012 No Comments ›› Chuck Biscuits
Excerpted from Buzz Feed: Alt-weeklies are always dying. But the news Friday that four editorial staffers were laid off or had their hours cut to part-time at The Village Voice — two features writers, a news blogger and a listings editor — makes the sad fact of that paper’s eventual demise, evident for years, more immediate. The paper now has one news blogger, two features writers, a music editor, a few people working on listings and one critic, aided by a couple contributors, writing about food.
The layoffs at the Voice weren’t the only ones: papers across the Village Voice Media company, which owns more or less every notable alternative weekly nowadays, experienced layoffs, I’ve learned, including those in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Broward-Palm Beach. The Voice itself is planning to move out of its iconic East Village office space in the near future, as I and other staff members found out last year. There have been many ends of an era for a paper that always prided itself at being on the vanguard, but this one seems permanent and final: “I can’t imagine how much leaner they can get,” said a friend of mine who was recently let go from the Dallas Observer.
At the Voice, people found out the hard way. They tried to log onto their accounts and couldn’t. This happened to blogger Victoria Bekiempis and to reporter Steven Thrasher, who still hadn’t spoken with his boss when I called him at 5:30 Friday evening; he learned the extent of the news through texts and tweets, he said. It was a harsh way to go, but fit what the Voice has become.
The Voice suffered from the same ailments that afflict print media organizations everywhere, but it proved less adept than most at adapting to the changing media. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that adapted to the Internet in the entirely wrong way, figuring out only the web’s seamiest edge. In the past year, Village Voice Media has been consumed by controversy, and been the target of a national campaign, around its ownership of Backpage.com, a site that basically digitizes the sex ads the Voice has always made money off of. While the back page print ads were always an accepted part of the paper’s identity, the online equivalent developed a more straightforward reputation as a seedy haven for child sex traffickers. It’s been considered a ticking time bomb for a while now, and lawmakers in New York and elsewhere seem bent on legislating it out of business. (A spokesperson for Village Voice Media didn’t immediately answer a query as to whether or not Backpage in any more trouble than usual; nor did VVM’s general counsel Liz McDougall, who generally handles Backpage issues).
The troubles at the parent company and with Backpage have sapped the paper of money, but they’ve also sapped staffers of morale and given the place a depressing mien.
My first job was at the Voice, where I started as an intern the summer before my junior year of college. It was experiencing its final burst of relevance then, as it had hired buzzy writers like Foster Kamer and Jen Doll to work alongside some of the heavyweights who connected the paper all the way back to its 1970s glory days— J. Hoberman, Wayne Barrett, and Tom Robbins. They started paying me later that year as the weekend editor of the news blog, and I was hired full time that summer.
You could tell at first glance there was something wrong at the paper, but there’s something wrong at every paper. Anyway, it was my first job, and I didn’t know what a healthy office looked like. There were always whispers of possible layoffs and no one ever seemed secure. No one trusted the management. The staff assumed that Village Voice Media Executive Editor Mike Lacey and his team were interlopers bent on squeezing the last drop of juice out of the paper before leaving it to die. (They took the name of the New York weekly when their chain, New Times, bought it in 2005.) We didn’t think they cared one bit about what happened at their flagship paper, and we had a sinking feeling that they’d be willing to hurt the Voice instead of shuttering or selling other papers in the chain.
That fear was confirmed last October, when I showed up at work and for once, all the writers were there, huddled around one cubicle (a lot of people no longer bothered to come in every day, even at that point). Four members of the editorial staff had been laid off, including the talented City Hall columnist Harry Siegel (now we had no one covering politics) and Ward Harkavy, the deputy editor who had been a Voice stalwart for years (now we had no one apart from the editor-in-chief looking at our stories).
We had actually been lucky. Other papers in the chain, like O.C. Weekly or Minneapolis CityPages, were down to a couple features writers and a blogger each. And we still thought there was no way that they would gut the Voice totally — it was too much of an institution, too central to New York.
As it so happens, we were wrong. The Voice, dying for so long, seems finally on the verge of actual collapse. (Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega declined to comment on how he’ll continue to fill the paper and site with content).