When I heard about Friday's layoffs at the legendary, historic, iconic alt weekly The Village Voice, I Googled "Village Voice + layoffs." It took hours to wade through the links to the myriad past layoffs, firings and resignations at the once-great journal, but eventually I learned that this time, Michael Musto, the paper's veteran gossip columnist, Robert Sietsema, its long time restaurant reviewer, and George Jean Nathan Award-winning theater critic Michael Feingold were among the victims.
For many old-media types I talked to, there was more resignation than outrage this time around, as though a cherished institution were already gone. Former Voice staff writer Tom Carson captured the mood when he took to Facebook to ask that someone "just put the paper once known as the Village Voice out of its (and our) misery." (Carson, I think, was making the subtle point that while misery doesn't necessarily love company, some companies love misery.)
Laying off these writers seemed so absurd, I was determined to find out if perhaps there was a method to the madness. It took more than 45 minutes of intense shoe-leather investigative reporting, but I got my answer: By summer's end, the Voice will have what budget mavens call a negative head count. To put it in layman's terms, the total number of Voice employees come September 22, 2013 -- including the business and editorial staffs -- will be a negative number.
This may seem counter-intuitive to those who learned math before quantum equations became de rigueur. But the late John Entwistle, CEO, Executive Chairman, COO, CIO and President of VV parent company Village Voice Media Group (VVMG) -- which recently bought Village Voice Media (VVM) -- told me, "In a negative economic climate, you have to be willing to go negative. The beauty of what I like to call 'sub-zero staffing' lies in its simplicity -- it simultaneously increases revenues and cuts costs."
Entwistle's erstwhile partner, the late Keith Moon, said, "Since the turn of the century, there's been a drum beat from high-hat 'intellectuals' who say the Voice sucks. I cannot disagree with that. But hey, we're creating a new paradigm here. You got a problem with that?"
I was also able to track down the elusive VVMG Chairman of the Board Roger Daltrey after an awkward email exchange with the singer Chris Daughtry proved fruitless. While twirling a microphone, Roger told me, both on and off the record, that the template for the Voice plan came directly from the 1977 Elvis Costello number "Less Than Zero." When I pointed out that the song doesn't mention newspaper layoffs, he screamed, "I haven't heard it! It's good enough for me that the title meshes so well with our branding strategy!!"
Most alt-media honchos refused to comment on the Voice plan. But I located Stephen Mindich, who shut down the iconic, legendary, historic Boston Phoenix last month because he couldn't meet payroll. Mindich, who was driving down the Atlantic coast and hadn't heard the news, was stunned. "If I'd known it was possible to operate a paper with fewer than zero employees, I might have saved the Phoenix. I wish my friends at the Voice nothing but tsouris."
The Voice's endgame is unclear. Pete Townshend, VVMG's Corporate Creative Director, mused mysteriously that sometimes it's necessary to break some guitars to make an umlaut. He added that an additional revenue stream might flow from younger writers already accustomed to working for free, who "might go one step farther and actually pay us for the privilege of being published in the Voice."
I'm not so sure. When I put that proposition to a random 20-something walking across Union Square while texting furiously, she looked up momentarily and said, "What's the prob? I love The Voice. I watch it for free every week on my iPhone while I'm driving home from the mall. Okay fine, they need new singers. But why would they need writers?"