Last week saw a major bloodbath in alt-weekly journalism. Village Voice Media, owner of thirteen publications nationwide (along with the online classified ad site, Backpage.com) cut nineteen jobs across the board, hatcheting staff at Seattle Weekly, the Minneapolis City Pages, OC Weekly in Orange County, and SF Weekly, which was hit hardest. The Bay Area paper lost four editorial employees, including veteran reporter Matt Smith, assistant calendar editor Hiya Swanhuyser, SFoodie blog editor W. Blake Gray, and web editor Jake Swearingen. Smith and Swanhuyser had both been at the Weekly for years; Gray and Swearingen were newbies.
Village Voice Media brass blamed the economy for the cutbacks, but there's evidence that the layoffs may have marked the company's first concerted attempt to make the SF Weekly a self-sustaining paper. Although corporate executives like to keep the profitability of individual papers under wraps, it was clear from the Bay Guardian's $21 million antitrust suit — which the two parties settled outside of court earlier this year — that VVM had been siphoning revenues from other papers and filtering them to the money-losing SF Weekly. According to the Bay Guardian and the jury in the case, VVM was propping up the SF Weekly so that it could sell ads at below cost and run the Bay Guardian out of business. To anyone familiar with the case, the layoffs last week helped confirm that the Guardian's claims had merit.
Naturally, VVM's executive associate editor, Andy Van De Voorde, sees it a little differently. "These layoffs are not an acknowledgment of anything other than the fact we are doing business in what continues to be a very challenging economic environment," Van De Voorde wrote in a recent e-mail. (It's worth noting that he's described in a 2007 issue of American Journalism Review as being "adamantly opposed to e-mail interviews," even though he insisted on doing this one electronically.) "Any attempt to link the layoffs of these talented and hard-working people to conspiracy theories about the Guardian vs. the Weekly, would be ill-advised, and, I think, inappropriate."
That said, Van De Voorde conceded that soft ad sales were to blame for the nineteen layoffs. In other words, the SF Weekly was not doing well financially, and the Guardian case made it abundantly clear that the paper had been losing money for a long time.
As a result, the SF Weekly's layoffs aren't necessarily a harbinger of doom for other alt-weeklies. The Guardian, for instance, appears to be doing better, following the settlement from the SF Weekly lawsuit, and now that it's no longer bleeding money in legal fees. Although Executive Editor Tim Redmond said he couldn't disclose the dollar amount that the paper ultimately received from VVM — both parties signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement — it appears to have not been a large lump sum because the Guardian had to lay off three editorial staffers in July, and tighten its budget in other departments. Still, the Weekly's layoffs appear to be an indicator that VVM is no longer propping up the Weekly, which, if true, is good news for the Guardian.
Redmond also is cautiously optimistic. "We had to cut our expenses to be in line with our revenues, but our revenues are now stable," he said. "What comes in matches what goes out. In fact, our revenues are even going up a little."
That fact also may bode well for the Weekly. At this point, a challenge for all alt-weekly newspapers is to monetize the web; most publications have more online readers than print readers, but ad revenues reflect the opposite. VVM's way of dealing with that quandary is worth noting. The company went whole hog and devoted a lot of resources to developing an online presence in recent years, to the extent of hiring editorial staff, at each paper, whose function was exclusively to create content online. Now that it's scaled back, the editorial structure at SF Weekly will more closely resemble that of the Guardian and the Express, wherein most of the web content is created by the same reporters who feed the print publication.
To an outside observer, it wasn't clear whether the SF Weekly layoffs were targeting web or print. From Van De Voorde's perspective, there really isn't any such thing as a "print" position at the Weekly, anymore. "All of our writers and editors produce content for the web, some of which, of course, also appears in print," he explained. "As for patterns, no need for Kremlinology here," he continued, indicating that when times were good and VVM was super-hyped on web journalism, it hired a lot of new staff — "many more than comparable companies.
"Unfortunately, this can mean layoffs when times are tough," Van De Voorde continued. "It certainly doesn't mean SFW is shifting its focus away from the web."
So now the challenge is for both papers to stay afloat with smaller staffs. Redmond says they can do it. He noted that when you think back to the old days, any current alt-weekly job looks like a sinecure. "You gotta remember that when I started at the Guardian in 1982, the entire editorial staff consisted of one reporter (me), a managing editor, one arts editor, and an editorial assistant who answered the phones and also did all the entertainment listings. That's when we were fighting between 28 and 32 pages a week, and we had a circulation of 30,000." In other words: "It's about adjusting."
As for the laid-off staffers at SF Weekly? They're adjusting, too. "Looking for an editorial type that's super good at analytics, SMO, SEO, managing budget, and so on?" Swearingen tweeted on Tuesday. "Because it turns out I'm available."