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So What Do You Do, Tony Ortega

The Voice's editor discusses his vaunted paper and his love (at least "this week") for Flight of the Conchords

- July 18, 2007

When Tony Ortega was named editor-in-chief of the Village Voice, he was charged with doing what many thought was an impossible task: Turn around the Village Voice.  After coming on board as the venerable alt-weekly's editor-in-chief following David Blum's ousting, Ortega became the sixth editor at the Voice in less than two years. He spoke with about the transition.

Name: Tony Ortega
Position: Editor-in-chief, Village Voice
Education: MA Cal State Fullerton
Hometown: Los Angeles
First job: College English instructor at a few California colleges
Resumé: Phoenix New Times staff writer (1995-1999), New Times Los Angeles staff writer (1999-2002), Phoenix New Times associate editor (2002-2003), Kansas City Pitch managing editor (2003-2005), New Times Broward-Palm Beach editor-in-chief (2005-2007), Village Voice editor-in-chief since March 9
Birthdate: "I'm 44."
Marital status: Married, to Fatimah Ortega
Favorite TV show: "This week? Flight of the Conchords."
Last book read: Hitchens' God is Not Great. "Tons of fun."
First section read in the Sunday paper: The front page
Favorite thing about New York: "Not owning a car, and walking to work -- for an Angeleno a lifelong dream."
Guilty pleasure: Celebrity news Web sites. "What the hell, I guess I want to read about Paris and Britney as much as the next schmuck."

You arrived at the Village Voice during a tumultuous time in the paper's history. What were your first few weeks on the job like?
I didn't find tumult, so much as a group of people wanting to end the distractions and simply put out a newspaper. They made it very easy for the new guy. Those first few weeks were busy, but almost right away we were focused on the things that matter, like developing good stories.

What accomplishments are you most proud of so far at the Village Voice?
We've brought a newsier focus to the front of the book, and the public seems to be noticing. I was fairly shocked to see that a paper like the Voice didn't have a metro column (to take nothing away from Nat Hentoff, who focuses more on civil rights than local politics), so I made adding one a priority. Tom Robbins has jumped into the role beautifully.

How do you define the Voice's mission circa 2007?
Total world domination.

A typical week in the life of the Village Voice. How does it go?
Not really different than anywhere else I've worked. At a staff meeting on Monday, writers pitch new story ideas so we can plan things like the Runnin' Scared column and upcoming features. Then the writers go back to their dissipated, bohemian lives while we editors remain chained to our desks and move copy the rest of the week. How do you define the Voice's mission circa 2007?
Ortega: Total world domination.

You run the city's best known weekly paper. Forget alt-weeklies... What's your take on New York's daily newspapers? If you were in the editor's chair at the Times, News or Post, what would you do?

I enjoy all three of them, actually. (Keep in mind, I've lived in places like Phoenix, where the daily newspaper is absolutely wretched.) With dailies struggling to survive around the rest of the country, it's hard not to have some respect for papers that seem to be thriving and that have created such recognizable styles. It would be easy for me to say I'd do things differently with them, but that's pointless -- they're each massive operations with completely different sets of pressures and goals than I'm familiar with. And with so many good people losing their jobs these days, I've lost some of the desire to second-guess what the dailies are up to.

Of all the stories that you worked on, which is your favorite?
Well, the cliché answer is "the next one," and there's some truth to it. But a story I did in 1997 at the Phoenix New Times about a reclusive author and Lowell Observatory astronomer is still my favorite. Robert Burnham Jr. was something of a legend in his field who had painstakingly typewritten a 2,000-page, three-volume encyclopedia of the night sky which is still a bible to people who own telescopes. I set out to interview him, but found that he'd died in 1993 and almost no one knew it. After leaving Lowell, his life had fallen apart just as his books were becoming hugely popular (but not lucrative). He'd spent the last seven years of his life destitute, selling paintings of cats in San Diego's Balboa Park. His ashes had been buried in a military cemetery there, his name misspelled on a plaque. I located his living sister, people he'd worked with, even his only girlfriend. The astronomy world was pretty shocked when the story broke, and to this day, I still get emails from around the country. I'm currently helping a group of people who are raising money to create a memorial to Burnham at Lowell.

How do you feel about the current state of alt-weeklies nationwide?
While the dailies are struggling, the mood at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in Portland, Oregon, last month seemed to be cautiously optimistic. The dailies, after all, are being told by consultants to go free, increase local coverage, and write with some attitude -- all things we're already doing. But like everyone else, we're doing what we can to make better use of the Web, and our sales folks are looking for creative solutions to some of our traditional markets drying up. (Goodbye, record stores -- an alt-weekly mainstay -- for example.) That's why stories like the recent one in The Nation about our company are so silly. It may be tempting for some to keep flogging New Times/VVM for supposedly betraying the alt-weekly progressive agenda, when what's really going on is that we've chosen a focus on local, investigative reporting over writing political essays and endorsing candidates for a simple reason: survival in the age of the Internet, which is already saturated with political opinion.

Do you ever miss working as a reporter as opposed to being an editor?
Sure, I miss it, particularly at a newspaper like this, where writers have so much freedom to find and develop their own stories and craft narratives. The trade-off was very obvious when I first became an editor, but at some point, you want to have more influence on the direction of the paper itself.

What was your first journalism job like?
I'd been a college instructor while doing graduate work, and journalism was a career change for me. I had moved to Phoenix and was stunned by the level of work being done by the New Times there. So I managed to get a freelance gig and eventually became a staff writer with the paper. And even though I was only beginning my career, I was encouraged to go after the most important stories I could find. It was a revelation to me that this company didn't enforce some kind of apprenticeship or weird hierarchy -- from the first day, you were urged to shake up the town with your reporting. It's one of the reasons I've stayed with these guys for 12 years.

What's the best part of being the editor of the Voice?
There are so many things. The city. The paper's history. The people working here. But I guess the best thing is the sheer dedication that everyone in the building seems to share. People are here because they believe in the paper in a way I've never experienced.

Neal Ungerleider is a contributing editor for FishbowlNY.

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