Offering a fresh start for a chain of storied but beleaguered alternative weeklies, Village Voice Media Holdings is selling off its publishing properties -- including its flagship publication, the Village Voice -- to a newly formed company based in Denver.
The new company, Voice Media Group, will be headed up by Village Voice Media’s current chief operating officer, Scott Tobias, who is leading the buyout and will become the chief executive officer of the new company. The executive team will be rounded out by Christine Brennan, Village Voice Media’s longtime executive managing editor, who will take the role of executive editor of Voice Media Group, and Jeff Mars, Village Voice Media’s vice president of financial operations, who will be the chief financial officer of the new company.
Voice Media Group is expected to announce the deal on Monday.
In a phone interview, Tobias said the buyout will give him and his team a chance to get back to doing what alt-weeklies do best: provide in-depth journalism, hard-hitting news and extensive arts and entertainment coverage. “We’re very excited,” he said. “This will give us a chance to focus on our core product.”
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The sale includes Village Voice Media’s entire portfolio of weekly newspapers, their associated websites and the company’s advertising arm. In addition to the Village Voice, the transaction includes LA Weekly, Denver’s Westword, Houston Press, Dallas Observer, St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, Minneapolis City Pages , SF Weekly, Seattle Weekly, OC Weekly, and New Times weeklies in Phoenix, Miami and Broward County, Fla.
Backpage.com, the Craigslist-style classified website that has been accused of promoting forced prostitution and child pornography, is not part of the sale. Following the sale, Village Voice Media Holdings will change its name, Tobias said, although he did not know what the new name would be.
In 2005, the Phoenix-based media company New Times merged with Village Voice Media, creating a massive alt-weekly conglomerate. Some media professionals saw the sheer size of the company as violating the spirit with which the alt-weekly movement was created, and in the years since -- as the company has whittled staffs, homogenized its content and laid off longtime personnel -- criticism of the company continued, some of it even coming from ex-Voice staffers.
Last month, the New York Times’ David Carr countered that the problems facing the Voice and other weeklies are not due to mismanagement but rather the intractable clamor of blogs, websites and other online aggregators. “The idea of the alternative weekly -- that news would be covered absent the agenda of mainstream media and that truths would be told without paying heed to any kind of formal balance or objectivity -- has all but been overwhelmed by the Web,” Carr wrote.
Asked what role the weekly print publications will play into Voice Media Group’s future plans, Tobias said, “Look, we’re a content company. But the answer is print will continue to be a mainstay in our product. We believe in it. Our readers believe in it.”
Tobias also stressed the importance of the company’s 40 to 50 events, which include the off-Broadway Obie Awards and many other established names. “These are well-attended events across the country that give consumers a chance to interact with us and with our advertisers.”
At the very least, the formation of Voice Media Group presents a host of prized weekly newspapers the chance to redefine their image in a post-New Times era. Perhaps more important for the company is a clean break from the public-relations baggage and ongoing litigation surrounding Backpage.com.
Tobias said the new company will continue to serve local markets with news, reviews and listings, but that it also plans to expand the brand’s digital presence across mobile and online platforms. “We can offer a national footprint with a hyperlocal reach,” he said. “These are iconic brands with deep relationships in their cities.”