A Firing Raises Questions About Voice's Independence

When Village Voice Media named Tony Ortega editor of its flagship paper, The Village Voice, The Observer asked him about his relationship with Michael Lacey, the man who runs VVM and who has been accused of micromanaging his stable of newspapers from his Phoenix offices.

“I never really had that problem with him,” said Mr. Ortega, who had worked for Mr. Lacey since 1995, most recently as editor in chief of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. “I’ve always had complete freedom to do what I wanted.”

But over the last week, the staff has had reason to wonder how much control Mr. Ortega has at the paper.

On Jan. 24, LD Beghtol, associate art director of The Village Voice, came into work at the newspaper’s Bowery headquarters and was immediately called to a meeting.

He was told to bring his union steward—the staff of The Voice is organized by United Auto Workers Local 2110—and so he brought along a colleague in the art department, Jesus Diaz.

When he arrived at the meeting, Voice editor in chief Tony Ortega was there with VVM design director Michael Shavalier and a human relations representative from the newspaper.

Mr. Beghtol said he was told he was being fired, and was handed a letter that said he was “wasting company time on the Internet” and that he had a “lax attitude toward” his job.

Mr. Beghtol said that while he was at the paper, he was actively searching for a new job, and was sending out e-mails from his desk, using a Gmail account and, he said, possibly his Village Voice e-mail account in aid of his job hunt. But, he said, he was not aware that he had ever been criticized for wasting time or being lax.

“I just started laughing at one point,” said Mr. Beghtol. “It was just all so ridiculous. I never got any complaint prior to this meeting.”

On Jan. 28, at a regularly scheduled editorial meeting, attendance was peculiarly high, and a rare appearance by veteran staff writer Wayne Barrett added to its significance.

According to two sources who were present at the meeting, Mr. Ortega addressed the staff about Mr. Beghtol’s dismissal; they said that according to Mr. Ortega, the decision to fire Mr. Beghtol had come from Village Voice Media; that the cause was insubordination; and that the charge was based on a Village Voice Media staffer’s monitoring of Mr. Beghtol’s computer use.

“He said he wasn’t on board with this and they told him they were going to do it anyway,” said one staffer.

The sources said Mr. Ortega told editorial staff at the meeting that it was likely they were monitoring the e-mail on Mr. Beghtol’s screen, including possibly his use of a Gmail account.

Mr. Barrett spoke out at the meeting, as did Tom Robbins and staff writer Lynn Yaeger, according to one staffer present.

Several attempts to reach Mr. Ortega for his account of the meeting were unsuccessful; likewise, Mr. Lacey did not return repeated phone messages and e-mails seeking comment for this article.

But Mr. Shavalier, who works with the parent company, explained the thinking behind Mr. Beghtol’s firing in an email to The Observer.

“Despite having the right to do so because of a union-approved policy,” he wrote, “The Village Voice does not routinely monitor its employees’ computer usage. Mr. Beghtol’s work product and performance had been of increasing concern to his supervisors for many months for, among other things, ignoring project deadlines, refusing to adjust his work habits, having a poor attitude, and calling in freelancers to do his work for him.”

Mr. Shavalier said that a new supervisor in Mr. Beghtol’s office noticed him “in plain sight” wasting time on the Internet.

“In an effort to determine the facts, I used my remote production software–set up to train designers on new systems, to exchange art files with them, and review their layouts pre-publication – to find out what was on Mr. Beghtol’s Village Voice computer that day. Unfortunately for Mr. Beghtol, instead of finding his layout work in progress, I found his long, rambling gmail chat window in which he conversed with friends, looked for new employment, and discussed how to leave the Village Voice ‘in the lurch.’”

“I don’t have any recollection” of using that phrase in a g-chat, Mr. Beghtol told The Observer when we asked him about Mr. Shavalier’s claims. “It’s unlikely I would have said that, but I certainly was looking for a job because of the really unpleasant atmosphere over there.”

“I had free time because I’m fast,” he added. “If I was ever doing anything else that’s because I was done with my work. That’s all documented.”

But for others, the question was not so much why VVM fired Mr. Beghtol, but why the initiative behind the firing had to come from the parent company instead of the editor of the newspaper.

“I think he should be making personnel decisions at the newspaper,” Wayne Barrett said in an interview subsequent to the Jan. 28 meeting. “They have enough track record with him that they should have confidence with him.”

And of course, several staffers raised concerns about the extent of their privacy rights in the workplace.

According to one newsroom source, the union has filed a grievance and is awaiting copies of screen grabs from Mr. Beghtol’s computer collected by Village Voice media to determine whether the e-mails in question were sent using his Village Voice or Gmail account.

“People are really pissed,” said another newsroom source.

“I can’t understand it,” said Mr. Barrett. “[Ortega] has worked for them for 11 years, and I can’t understand why people in Phoenix and Denver will not let him run his own newspaper.”