When Village Voice Media agreed to sell its 13 alternative weeklies – among them New York’s Village Voice and Los Angeles’ LA Weekly — at the end of last month, everyone from the Wall Street Journal to LA Observed treated it like your typical media acquisition when it was anything but your typical media acquisition.
The most cursory glance at the press release issued by the buyer, Voice Media Group (not to be confused with Village Voice Media Holdings), reveals that this is not so much a purchase as it is a strategic separation of assets. The newly formed Denver-based Voice Media Group is entirely comprised of former Village Voice Media Holdings executives. In short, what is happening is the weeklies are moving over to a new name and leaving Village Voice Media Holdings’ Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin with the problematic cash cow Backpage.com, a classifieds site which made an estimated $28.9 million last year, and which has faced intense criticism and legal action for its refusal to discontinue running adult services ads.
The new owners of the weeklies (which are: Village Voice, LA Weekly, SF Weekly, OC Weekly, Seattle Weekly, Houston Press, Dallas Observer, Denver’s Westword, Phoenix’s New Times, St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, Miami’s New Times, Minneapolis’ City Pages, Broward’s New Times) are Scott Tobias, formerly Village Voice Media’s chief operating officer and now chief executive officer of Voice Media Group; Christine Brennan, formerly executive managing editor at Village Voice Media and now executive editor at Voice Media Group; and Jeff Mars, formerly vice president of financial operations at Village Voice Media and now chief financial officer at Voice Media Group.
“Backpage.com has been a distraction, there is no question,” Scott Tobias told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s just not about what we do.”
That’s the thing. Backpage.com – named for the backpage of the original weekly that held its classifieds, which even then included sex ads – was once very much part of what the 1955-founded Village Voice did. The move away from Backpage.com isn’t just a business move, but a conscious decision to break away from a tradition of giving the public access to information that was once as fearless as it was incisive.
We got a sense something like this was coming when Village Voice Media folded its renewed attempt to launch its NakedCity properties last year, at the eve of what would become a turbulent battle over the company’s attitude toward sex and sex work. A little over a year later, after an incredibly sex-negative series of articles regarding L.A.’s Porn Valley, LA Weekly followed suit by killing the budget for their sex-focused web property AfterDark LA, effectively ousting its editor who blogged under the pseudonym Barbie Davenporte.
Since the launch of AfterDark, the LA Weekly had increasingly reduced its publication of sex-related stories in its print edition, including Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” and Freddy and Eddy’s “Behind Our White Picket Fence” columns. Despite the fact that AfterDark has continued in unpredictable spurts since Davenporte’s departure in late August, it is unclear whether the effort will go on much longer.
A source at the Weekly tells us, “the Voice profits incredibly from sex, but they don’t know how to feel about it. It’s so much easier to just cut ties with it than it is to become an active member of the sex positive community. The question now is how they mean to survive without it.”
It’s a valid question. Divorcing the papers from Backpage.com will enable advertisers to continue doing business with the weeklies without having to fear consumer boycotts for their indirect support of a site accused of enabling the “sale of humans.” But even accounting for these advertisers, the weeklies have not been particularly profitable. The LA Weekly shrunk from 27 inches to 26 in 2009 and again to 24 inches in 2011, along with the OC Weekly and Phoenix’s New Times. At that time, Mediabistro reported that Village Voice Media was planning to de-emphasize its print editions in favor of expanding its web prominence. Indeed, since Larkin and Lacey’s company bought the papers in 2005, circulation has dropped a whopping 40 percent (from 247,000 to 149,000).
With no sustainable online advertising model in place (only 5 percent of their advertising comes from digital sources, according to AdWeek), it’s difficult to say whether the struggling newspapers and underdeveloped web properties will survive much longer.
What we want to know is whether this separation will give the weeklies their spines back or whether, in order to placate to still uncertain advertisers, they will continue to play it safe on the adult front and ignore their rich heritage of unabashedly reporting what makes its cities’ denizens tick, what makes them think, and what makes them wet.