Westword: All about us

Categories: Media

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An interesting cyber-conversation cropped up in Tuesday's blog "Help the Denver Post by Paying Extra for Obama's Mile High Moment," much of it fueled by someone identified as Diane, who made several charges against yours truly. The gist: Village Voice Media, the parent company of Westword, is teetering on the brink of collapse, and by not discussing this issue and others at the paper in the same way I cover other media organizations, I'm demonstrating the most virulent form of hypocrisy.

The timing of these accusations was more than a little ironic. Prior to any of the posts popping up, I made a point of saying that Westword is hardly immune from the troubles afflicting the journalism industry during an appearance on KHOW Tuesday morning to discuss my recent feature article about the Rocky Mountain News being put up for sale. I've made similar references in print and online on a number of occasions over the years, and covered internal incidents that people above me in the food chain would probably have preferred that I skip -- like, for instance, an age-discrimination lawsuit filed against the paper by former staff writer Steve Jackson in 2002. (The case was eventually resolved in Westword's favor in 2006.)

True, I haven't devoted an entire piece to Westword, primarily because I feel that analysis of that sort is always more interesting when it's offered by someone outside the spotlighted organization. But if Diane thinks I should do it anyway, who am I to argue? So I sat down with Scott Tobias, the Denver-based president and chief operating officer of Village Voice Media (and the publisher of Westword), to get his take on the VVM-is-on-the-rocks claim, as well as the current condition of this particular publication.

Tobias dismissed the suggestion that Village Voice Media is on the fast track to insolvency, saying that the company as a whole is profitable and Westword remains among the most financially successful papers in the chain, which includes alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice, the L.A. Weekly,Phoenix New Times and a dozen other siblings scattered around the country. But he conceded that business could be better.

"Are we soft?" he asked. "No question. We go as our local mom and pops go, and our local mom and pops are having a hard time."

Nonetheless, Tobias believes that Westword's longtime focus on small area businesses is a positive, even in such a difficult economic environment. Daily newspapers are losing entire categories of advertising that "are never coming back," in his view, whereas Westword's target businesses remain.

At the same time, Tobias acknowledges that Westword's print edition is shrinking not just in terms of dimensions -- its pages are physically smaller than in the past -- but also when it comes to page count, which directly correlates to advertising revenue. (The current issue is 96 pages -- a whopping 24 pages smaller than roughly the same edition two years ago.) That's why Westword and other VVM papes are moving so aggressively to beef up their web components. "We've gone from selling a weekly to a daily model," he says. "We're selling 24/7... We feel like we're going from a print product to a web platform with a print piece."

I'm part of this new strategy. In June, I was asked to oversee The Latest Word blog in order to boost the number of posts to a minimum of ten per weekday. My tongue-in-cheek title: überblogger. I'm charged with writing no more than six items on a daily basis -- a goal I often overshoot -- while editing and processing blogs by other members of the Westword staff. The idea is that additional content will attract extra visitors, and in the first six months, that appears to be happening. In a recent Rocky Mountain News column on the topic by media commentator Jason Salzman, Westword editor Patricia Calhoun revealed that page views for the Latest Word alone had increased from 40,000 per month to 200,000 and rising. And Tobias says page views for the entire web site have more than tripled over the past three years.

As a bonus, more blogs means more places for Westword's business staff to place ads. According to data provided by Tobias, the paper's web revenue went up 214 percent from 2006 to 2007 and an additional 125 percent from 2007 to 2008. Such figures convinced editors at other VVM publications, who gathered for a meeting in Denver a few weeks ago, to adapt the überblogger approach. It's being rolled out chain-wide.

Granted, online advertising brings in less dough than the traditional print equivalent -- a reality that folks at the Rocky and the Denver Post understand all too well. However, VVM has far less overhead than do the Denver dailies, and since their papers have always been free and advertiser supported, the transition should be less painful. At least that's the theory to which Tobias and company subscribe.

But there's still been plenty of agony to go around in terms of job cuts at some VVM properties. This Pop + Politics blog reports that seventeen Village Voice editorial employees left the paper through layoffs, firings or resignations since March 2007. And the L.A. Observed site noted major cuts at the L.A. Weekly in October.

Thus far, Westword has avoided such slashing. The last layoff took place around three years ago, when an editor position was eliminated -- and since then, a web editor job and an art department gig have been added. That doesn't mean layoffs are impossible in 2009, though. Anyone in the current media business knows that the status quo has never been more fluid.

With that in mind, Tobias is on the lookout for efficiencies, and one area in which he believes Westword can save money involves its building. The paper's lease at the current headquarters, at 969 Broadway, expires next October, and he's playing with a couple of options -- either to consolidate space in the current locale and sublet the remaining portion to another business or find a new home nearby (perhaps even across the street).

Meanwhile, Tobias is already moving sales staffers. In the past, the classified and display-ad staffs were physically separated. Now, he's putting them together as a way of emphasizing that the previous divisions between them no longer apply in today's brave new journalism world. "Every sales representative sells every platform," he announces -- and he hopes the new configuration will amp up the energy of all concerned.

Yes, Tobias is putting the best face on the situation. That's what publishers do, whether they work for Westword or a daily newspaper. I leave it to Diane to decide whether what he's saying makes sense -- and whether I'm still the biggest hypocrite who ever drew breath. -- Michael Roberts


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