New York’s iconic Village Voice and a dozen other weekly newspapers are parting ways with Backpage, a controversial classified site tied to alleged sex trafficking. The split will result in the creation of a new ownership group that is focused solely on news and events.
The new Denver-based operation, known as Village Media Group, will be led by a trio of executives from the former company, including Scott Tobias as CEO and Christine Brennan as executive editor. The parties did not disclose the financial terms of the deal.
“The Voice Media Group will be focusing on core products — hard-hitting coverage, music, food, arts and culture,” said Tobias in a phone interview, adding there would no changes for day to day staff.
The shakeup comes after a tumultuous period during which the former owner of the papers, Village Voice Media Holdings, has been the target of lawsuits and accusations by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof that the Backpage classifieds are a vehicle for pimping young women. New York City activist William Hayes, who runs villagevoicepimp.com, has also persuaded some companies to stop advertising in the publishers’ weekly papers.
The restructuring also comes weeks after the editor-in-chief of the Village Voice, Tony Ortega, left the paper. A report in the New York Observer suggested Ortega was forced out, in part because a fixation with exposing Scientology led him to neglect other duties.
The new ownership group offers a fresh start for the Village Voice and the twelve other online and newspaper properties, including the SF Weekly and the Riverfront Times of St. Louis. But it also raises the question of whether the new publisher can leverage the once-famous brand names into a viable business model. While brands like the Village Voice still resonate in their respective cities, they are struggling to compete with magazines that have a strong online presence like New York and with digital natives like Gothamist.
According to Tobias, the plan will work because Village Media Group has a “national footprint with hyper-local reach” that lets it effectively target small and medium businesses. He added that the media group, which also has a niche ad network, earns money through hosting 40 to 50 events a year.
Tobias noted that “the content is incredibly strong” and that the new group is committed to “award-winning journalism.”