‘Village Voice’ editor-in-chief (and chief Scientology antagonist) Tony Ortega leaves the paper, amid downsizing and turmoil

A photo of Tony Ortega, posted with his announcement. ()
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Tony Ortega, editor of The Village Voice, announced this morning on the weekly's news blog, Runnin' Scared, that he's leaving the paper.

"Next week will be my last as editor of the Voice," Ortega wrote. "I will be leaving to pursue a book proposal about Scientology in its time of crisis."

Ortega came to the Voice in March of 2007 from another alt weekly in South Florida, the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, owned by the Voice's parent company, after working in other papers in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Kansas City for the chain.

It was a tempestuous time for the paper. After the Voice was acquired by New Times Media in 2005 (changing its name to Village Voice Media to align itself with its newly acquired flagship title) editor-in-chief Don Forst resigned. His replacement, Doug Simmons, was fired early the next year after a scandal over fabricated stories; the paper's search resulted in hiring City Paper veteran Erik Wemple, who resigned within two weeks under mysterious circumstances. 2006 was also the year the paper fired music editor Chuck Eddy and the "dean" of rock critics, Robert Christgau.

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David Blum followed Wemple, but lasted just a year, amid controversy over a heated editorial meeting.

In the years since Village Voice Media took over the paper, many of the paper's biggest names have been fired or quit, including Tom Robbins, Wayne Barrett, Nat Hentoff, J. Hoberman, Lynn Yaeger and Rachel Kramer Bussel.

Ortega points out that he's written 465 blog posts on Scientology in the last two years, or about one per day-and-a-half, even as his newspaper has weathered several bouts of serious downsizing. It's part of what has been strange about the last couple of years of his editorship of the paper: While Village Voice Media usually encourages its papers to be relentlessly local, Ortega's been an almost obsessive chronicler of the scandals surrounding the very Hollywood-centric religious organization. Sources told Capital that both the newsroom and the sales side of the Voice had become increasingly uncomfortable with the volume of Scientology coverage Ortega was churning out.

"We thought it was destroying the Voice brand," said one former staffer.

Ortega did not respond to requests for comment. We also have an email out to Village Voice Media executive editor Mike Lacey, and will update if we hear back.

Ortega's avidity about Scientology was part of what made his farewell post, his first public announcement of his exit, seem so obscure: The title of the post was "Scientology Watchers: A Message from Tony Ortega," and his lament for his exit is almost exclusively focused on the online community of the Scientology-obsessed he has built on the paper's news blog. Entirely missing are the typical "thank yous" and "I'll miss working with yous" to writers and other staff at the Voice.

(UPDATE: Ortega updated his Runnin' Scared item with the farewell memo he sent to staff this morning: "Thanks for helping me get back some of that early Voice spirit over the last five and a half years, even as we were dealing with the Print Apocalypse in general, and a building seemingly forever under construction in particular.")

We'd heard that there were also going to be more layoffs at the Voice this morning, but we've only heard about one so far. This morning, writer, editor and music critic for the Voice Maura Johnston tweeted that it was her last day at the paper.

 

 

We're told Johnston was laid off this morning; last week, Village Voice Media put LA Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff in charge of all of the company's music coverage. Her exit follows a round of layoffs that claimed the jobs of three editorial staffers last month.

The Voice also is preparing to relocate from its long-time Cooper Square headquarters.

Lately the newspaper has been at the forefront of a local controversy involving its parent company, Village Voice Media, which owns the website Backpage.com. The online classifieds site is seen by many advocates for victims of sex trafficking as a marketplace for traffickers; in May, the City Council passed a resolution calling on the company to get rid of its "adult services" classifieds section; the continuing protests have also cost the newspaper advertisers.