Trouble at Miami New Times as staff writers leave, culture editor is laid off and salaries cut

After over 30 years, the Miami New Times is facing perhaps its hardest moment ever, mostly due to COVID-19. 

The newspaper began publishing in 1987. It has won hundreds of prestigious awards including a George Polk, a Livingston, and several top national honors from the Investigative Reporters and Editors. Ten former reporters have headed to the Washington Post, the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine in just the last few years.

But in the last couple weeks, two top writers, Manuel Madrid and Jerry Iannelli, have left for other jobs amid fears of layoffs. And Culture Editor Zach Schlein was laid off Tuesday. As part of a move to save money across the Voice Media Group chain, which owns New Times, salaries for those full-timers who remain have been slashed by at least 25 percent. And freelance budgets have also been dramatically reduced.

Voice Media owns Miami, Broward Palm Beach New Times, Denver Westword, the Dallas Observer, the Houston Press and Phoenix New Times. In a recent letter to employees across the chain announcing the pay cuts, the firm’s CEO, Scott Tobias, wrote: 

“To be clear, these actions will not make up for the current or anticipated decline in revenues. And let’s be frank: They may not be enough. If the environment gets worse, if the downturn lasts longer than we’re assuming, if our performance declines, we’ll have to reassess and make further moves. The truth is we will monitor conditions in real time and make decisions accordingly.” 

In its 33 years of existence, New Times has been a major news source for Miami, as have dozens of alternative weeklies across the country — like the Village Voice in New York and LA Weekly, which were once owned by Voice.

This downturn has hit them hard. Most of their advertisements directly involve groups of people gathering, and that is not happening now due to the pandemic. Local events have been canceled. In addition, bars, nightclubs and restaurants have been closed.

Schlein, a recent University of Florida graduate, started as a freelancer in 2015 with the paper and was hired as the editor of arts, culture and music late last year.

“It is a really strange time,” he said. “It shows how valuable all weeklies are. The news team has done a phenomenal job in telling important stories in the middle of a crisis but this crisis is also making it harder for them to survive.” 

Employees of the paper started a union drive last year that has not yet been certified. Voice Media Guild, whose goal is to preserve the future of the alternative press, responded Wednesday to these moves on Twitter with “modest demands” that included severance for all employees, retroactive to those who have already been laid off. The guild also demanded safety supplies for those in the field and temporary access to emails for laid-off employees to preserve contacts, messages, and files. 

The paper has always been free, but the Voice Media Group recently implemented a subscription service to give readers an advertisement-free experience in an attempt to stay afloat despite the economic conditions.

Iannelli had been with the Miami New Times for four and a half years until this week when he announced his departure for the Appeal, covering law enforcement issues nationwide. 

“[New Times] is doing all they can at this point but it’s hard when the entire industry that supports you gets shut by the government,” he said.

Iannelli added that his years at New Times were the best and most fulfilling of his career thus far.

“My decision to leave came after the email was sent to us by the company,” he said. “I had to make a decision for my own career.”

The only way Iannelli sees New Times coming out of this intact is with government intervention.

“It is a shame and travesty to see the company fall apart,” he said.  

New Times editor-in-chief Tom Finkel did not respond to two emails sent over two days requesting an interview.

However, in an open letter published by Finkel this week, he laid out the paper’s immediate plans.

“We fully intend to keep serving our readers, advertisers, and the many other partners who’ve helped us in our mission to provide an independent voice for the people of this city,” he wrote. 

Kaylee Padron is a senior and transfer from UNC Chapel Hill. She is a journalism major and social media e-marketing minor. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching baseball.