When Scott Tobias led a group in buying The Village Voice and a score of other alternative weeklies from its old parent company, the chain of newspapers was in a tumultuous place.
The chain – which also owns papers like LA Weekly, The Dallas Observer and the OC Weekly — had stoked controversy over its Backpage.com property, which detractors argued was a vehicle for sex trafficking. BuzzFeed wrote a critique of management that the traditional media picked up. The Village Voice had ousted its editor in chief and respected music editor.
All this on top of what have become the generic problems of any media company in the Internet age – particularly old print brands; a sad irony that lumps an alternative publication, steeped in a spirit of contrarianism, in with every legacy brand it was trying to be an alternative to. The changing landscape of digital media has forced every print publication to find creative ways to keep the lights on.
This is the situation Tobias, who became CEO of what would be renamed the Village Media Group, stepped into – though he left Backpage.com behind with its old owners. (Tobias was the old group’s COO, and took the helm after the buyout in September.) Since then, the company also cut loose SF Weekly and Seattle Weekly. In its official press release on the day of the sale announcement, the company said:
The sale of SF Weekly will allow Voice Media Group to focus on growth opportunities for mobile and online platforms and to develop core digital offerings in its other key markets.
Today we see the first of those offerings, although it does seem counterintuitive that losing the San Francisco presence would make the chain more digital, considering the demographic of the city. The company announced a strategic partnership in which it will syndicate its “Voice Places” local content to Foursquare, allowing those users of the social check-in service to tap into the Voice papers’ curated listings, events and business directories in a given city. The verticals the company will launch will be around art, film and theater, food and community, health services such as anorexia treatment and rehab center locations and miscellaneous content, said Tobias. One of the big draws of partnering with Foursquare was the ability to team up user-generated content with VMG’s content to provide a good user experience.
On Foursquare, users will have access to the Voice’s “Best of” content, and will be able to earn badges from different cities based on “Best of” check-ins.
In October, Village Voice Media Holdings filed a lawsuit against Yelp for its use of the “Best Of” phrase, though reports say Yelp was contacted as early as mid-September. The company claimed Yelp was selling advertisements on pages using its “Best of” marks. When asked Tobias says the lawsuit had nothing to do with any future plans to integrate the “Best of” content with Foursquare. He points out that the company has always been aggressive in protecting its content.
Asked if the company ever thought about partnering with Yelp, Tobias is coy. “We thought about a lot of things,” he says. “We thought about a lot of different companies.”
At the time of the initial announcement, the Foursquare partnership will include syndicated content for 11 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Denver, but not San Francisco. This is presumably because the company no longer owns a newspaper there after selling SF Weekly to the San Francisco Newspaper Co.
But one might argue the launch of a new digital offering would be best suited for San Francisco, the urban center of the tech world, and selling off your presence there doesn’t do you any favors in trying to gain traction for a new digital feature.
Tobias agrees that the feature should also include San Francisco. “We have a great relationship with the buyer in San Francisco. We’re meeting next week,” adding that they have already been in phone conversations. There is still a San Francisco section on the Voice Places page.
The partnership is a smart one that seems to have little risk. It’s a nice way to leverage editorial content that doesn’t seem forced. Especially in a time in media when the public will for the most part be more patient with experiments to figure out the monetization conundrum – BuzzFeed has become a poster boy for sponsored content – the Foursquare tie in seems restrained. “It was a natural progression,” says Tobias.
[Image courtesy: stan]