There is no feast on earth which does not end in parting. – Chinese proverb
By now many or even most of you have heard the news which broke first thing Monday morning; as stated in the official press release,
New holding company Voice Media Group…announced that it has signed an agreement to purchase the publishing and related sales properties owned by Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC. The purchase includes the iconic Village Voice Media alternative weekly newspapers and their associated websites, as well as the national advertising arm of the company. The buyout is being led by Scott Tobias, who has been Village Voice Media Holdings’ chief operating officer and will be chief executive officer of the new Voice Media Group…Backpage.com, also currently owned by Village Voice Media Holdings, is not part of the buyout. Backpage.com will go its own way as a separate company with separate ownership.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the move had something to do with the continuous attacks on Backpage, which became the favorite target of prohibitionists after they succeeded in getting Craigslist to delete the erotic services section they had forced it to establish only a few years before. The newspaper business is not what it once was, and threats of advertising boycotts and all manner of sound and fury from fanatics can’t be all that reassuring to publishers. What concerned me when I first read the news was the question of how it might impact the Village Voice chain’s editorial stance, which has been relatively pro-sex worker rights for some time now. I did a little research, however, and came up with this farewell letter sent by Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin (owners of Village Voice Media Holdings) to “colleagues, friends and critics”, which I think does provide an answer:
…[We] have spent much of our time in the past few years huddled with attorneys in ongoing litigation over the First Amendment, free speech on the Internet and Backpage. We have federal court victories for Backpage in Missouri and Washington and are awaiting a federal judge’s ruling in Tennessee. Throughout this struggle we have also locked horns in numerous media venues with the National Association of Attorneys General. This particular fight is important and not one that we intend to abandon. At the same time, Backpage’s battles are an enormous distraction to publishers, editors and readers of Village Voice Media…Consequently, we have decided to sell our newspaper publishing and online media company…and…depart to devote our undivided attention to the defense of Backpage, which is not part of the sale.
If it seems that we now spend as much time with attorneys as we do with writers, the truth is we have always kept the company’s footing through litigation…we have successfully defended more than 45 lawsuits filed by lawyers attempting to silence us. But it is also true that the Backpage attacks are different from conventional press issues, if only because the attacks are orchestrated with the often unlimited resources of government funding. As a consequence, the struggle is not an easy one. The outcome is not assured. Litigation is extremely costly in time and money. But this fight is the next step…For these past few decades, we have fought to ensure that our publications stood for the principles of unfettered speech, open government, accountability and freedom of the press. We have also challenged conventional wisdom, whether delivered by pontificating pundits or self-righteous scolds…
After reading that, I don’t think we have anything to worry about; it seems highly unlikely that Lacey and Larkin would have sold their baby (the company’s first weekly, Phoenix New Times, was opened “in 1970 as a protest over the war in Vietnam and in reaction against the mainstream media”) to a group of people whom they suspected might roll over and turn yellow just to make a fast buck as most of the journalistic world has. I believe the new ownership (which is, after all, just the old management) will continue to oppose the prohibitionists, perhaps even more so now that they needn’t concern themselves with accusations that their only motive for defending sex worker rights is profit.
Lacey and Larkin close their letter by saying to their soon-to-be-former staff, “Enjoy the hell that you raise.” I’d like to wish the same thing back to them, and to tell them that I’m very glad they’re on our side.