Hatching the Backpage Scheme

“I helped turn a weekly newspaper with a website into a digital enterprise.” – Tony Ortega

The above quote came from Tony Ortega while, with his typical braggadocios self-importance, hw was spouting off to the New York Times on just what an important player he was in the empire Backpage built.

With all the legal scrutiny which has fallen on those associated with the infamous child sex selling operation it’s little wonder that Tony Ortega has tamped down the full-throated praise he used to offer to anyone foolish enough to ask his opinion on the topic.

But what exactly was the Backpage business model? We get a lot of questions about that here on the blog and today we’re going to take a stab and answering them.

As has been made explicit here and elsewhere, almost as soon as Tony Ortega took over for the Village Voice, things took a turn for the worse. (Who could have predicted?!)  In fact, things were going so bad for Tony Ortega that he was having a difficult time giving away the daily alt Village Voice rag for free. The threat of bankruptcy was ever present and it seemed like there was nothing that could be done to stop the failing paper from hemorrhaging cash.

Tony Ortega made a desperate bid to reduce the number of copies printed each day, in a stop-gap attempt to save money. He reasoned that he might save few bucks by printing fewer copies of the paper (it’s not like anyone was reading it anyway, let’s be honest).  As Tony Ortega explained, it seemed it was  a “better way to staunch the bleeding” than summarily laying off employees.

Throughout the process, Tony Ortega refused to publicly release the dying paper’s financial figures, saying to the press only that declines for the Voice were “consistent with the rest of the industry.” Fat chance, there.

Tony Ortega was helming a sinking ship and he understood it only too clearly. Despite his desperate attempts to convince his readers and stakeholders that he could turn it around in the next year and increase revenue, few experts held any expectation that it could be done.

As we will see tomorrow, that’s when the Backpage scheme was first hatched. It was desperate. It was despicable. And it was totally in line with the values of Tony Ortega and the criminals he worked with.

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