Is it time for NOW to stop selling sex ads?
There's a crisis brewing south of the border and the Village Voice, the granddaddy of alternative weeklies, is at the heart of it. Earlier this month, an organized campaign against the online classifieds site backpage.com - owned by Voice parent company Village Voice Media - resulted in twenty-seven major advertisers pulling out of the Voice to put pressure on the company to shut down its adult services ads.
The campaign, led by the National Association of Attorneys General and spearheaded by two online petitions, alleges that backpage.com has become a tool for pimps sexually trafficking minors, and that the Voice would do wonders for its reputation by cutting itself loose from the whole business of adult classifieds.
The local angle to the story is not only that backpage.com has a Toronto section - the site has branches all over the U.S. and Canada, and in the Caribbean, Europe, Mexico and New Zealand - but also that NOW magazine, Toronto's longest-running alternative weekly, still does a thriving business in adult classifieds, both in its print edition and on its website, that generate profit while they grow as a potential liability.
The U.S. case is complicated, and it helps to have a sense of the history of alternative weeklies like the Voice to understand just what's at stake. Founded in 1955 by a group including author Norman Mailer, the Voice created a high standard for alternative news journalism for much of its history, but went through a gauntlet of owners beginning in the '70s, until it was bought by New Times Media, the owners of backpage.com, in 2005, at which point the new owners assumed the name of Village Voice Media.
The case against backpage.com and the Voice began a few years ago, but hit the courts in 2010 when a 15-year-old victim of sex trafficking sued the company. The campaign against the Voice exploded in the public eye with a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof accusing backpage.com of being "the biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States." This followed public protests against the paper that featured John Buffalo Mailer, son of one of the founders of the Voice, and finally led to the pull-out of key advertisers that include Best Buy, AT&T, Harley Davidson, New York Public Radio, Macy's and Carnegie Hall.
The paper has its defenders, some of whom have made good points about the impossibility of enforcing age restrictions on every ad placed on backpage.com, as well as how lawsuits against the Voice potentially violate First Amendment rights. What can't be denied is that the Voice is facing a public relations disaster that VVM and backpage.com could make go away by jettisoning its adult classifieds.
There is a precedent for it - faced with a similar threat, craigslist worked with the National Association of Attorneys General to eliminate adult classifieds in 2010. Whether cases against publishers or websites are successful, there's a growing perception that adult classifieds damage a publication's brand; when the Toronto Star re-launched Eye Weekly as The Grid last year, one of their key decisions was to entirely jettison adult classifieds to underline the contrast between the new publication and NOW, the established rival that had long kept Eye in its shadow.
I worked for NOW for over a decade beginning in the late '80s - the last real heyday of print journalism, as it turned out, and I watched as the paper struggled to come to grips with the early growth of the internet. Back then the classified section was the paper's cash cow, and no matter what crisis or upheaval convulsed through the newsroom, the smooth running of the classified desk was taken for granted.
It's still shocking, for me at least, to see the effect of Craigslist and Kijiji on NOW today; this week's paper, the annual summer double issue, has just four pages of classified ads. Adult personals, on the other hand, run for 14 pages in full colour - 16 if you count the chat line and dating services pages.
Asking a newspaper to forego any revenue stream these days is a tall order, and unaccustomed as I am to telling NOW publishers Michael Hollett and Alice Klein how to run their business, it might be a good time to jettison the potential liability that is adult classifieds. The paper has done a tortuous dance for years reconciling its progressive political agenda with the business of being a middleman in the sex trade, but if the controversy brewing south of the border spills over here - and it will take just one high profile case to make it happen - NOW might be forced to do in haste then what it could do at leisure now.
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