Village Voice shifts to ‘generic’ editorial strategy after fresh layoffs

Ex-editor in chief drove readers away, former staffer says

The future of the Village Voice looks uncertain after two big losses—its editor in chief and its music critic—were announced on Friday.

Editor in chief Tony Ortega revealed via a post on the “Runnin’ Scared” section of the site that he is leaving to pursue a book proposal about Scientology after five years at the helm of the free alt-weekly.

“There’s a feeling that they’ve been winding down for awhile,” said Steven Thrasher, who told CJR he was a proud staffer at the Voice for three years before he found out last month—when he tried to update a post and discovered his account had been deactivated—that he had been laid off,* along with fellow staff writers Camille Dodero and Victoria Bekiempis. “It felt funereal,” he said.

In the last two years of Ortega’s tenure as editor in chief, his focus on Scientology trumped his editorial duties, Thrasher said. “Our mission was to cover New York City news, so for our editor in chief to be so focused on one topic that was not relevant to New York City was frustrating. As a writer, I felt it was detrimental to our brand. I felt it was driving people away,” he said.

In his post on “Runnin’ Scared,” Ortega said that the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master and Maureen Orth’s Vanity Fair cover story on Scientology had influenced the timing of his announcement. “I’ve decided to take advantage of this moment to change directions,” he wrote. (A post in the New York Observer suggests Ortega may have been pushed to leave because of his distracting obsession with the alternative religion.)

The Voice’s celebrated music critic, Maura Johnston, has also left the company. Johnston said in a post on her Facebook page on Friday:

“today is my last day at the voice. thanks to everyone who wrote for me, made music worth writing about, and read the section. i’m very proud of the work i’ve done.”

Johnston later told David Carr of The New York Times that “the decision to leave was not mine.”

Two weeks ago, the Observer also revealed that it had seen an internal memo at Village Voice Media announcing that music writer Ben Westhoff, who attracted ire over a recent blogpost called “The 20 Worst Hipster Bands” in LA Weekly, had been put in charge of music coverage across all Village Voice Media titles. Johnston has made it clear that she prefers thoughtful analysis to pageview-driven lists. She also maintains a popular Tumblr page, where she posted a video on Saturday tagged “I’m not working for clickbait.”

Thrasher said that the editorial strategy at Village Voice Media, which owns 13 alt-weekly titles, including LA Weekly and the Village Voice, has shifted to creating content that can be used across regional titles. “Instead of taking steps to save the Voice and what it stands for, their strategy seems to be to run these national stories across all of their publications that are quite generic,” he said.

According to Media Decoder, VVM executive editor Christine Brennan is looking to hire a new Voice editor in chief in New York City.

CJR contacted Ortega and Johnston, but they declined to comment.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Steven Thrasher, Camille Dodero and Victoria Bekiempis had been fired, when actually they had been laid off.

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Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent. Tags: , ,