The Village Voice and other big names in the alternative weekly world want out of the sex ad business. A deal announced today will separate the Voice and other alternative news outlets from Backpage.com, which has drawn enormous controversy and legal attention amid accusations the site’s adult classified ads enable prostitution and child trafficking.
The move highlights the unique business model of the alternative press, which has always drawn on ads from businesses that either wouldn’t or couldn’t advertise in mainstream papers. Businesses like nightclubs, holistic medicine and organic grocers just feel more at home in alternative media, using their marketing budget on weekly papers with a targeted readership, rather than more expensive daily newspaper ads.
Most mainstream dailies don’t accept adult classifieds, so they’ve flourished in alt weeklies. Sex ads may not have been vital to the Voice papers, but they mattered.
“They would not have fought the controversy about their ads so hard if it had not been a big part of their revenue model,” says Andrew Beaujon, the former managing editor of DC’s alt-weekly Washington City Paper, who is now at the Poynter Institute.
The Voice declined our interview requests. Other papers have already shut down their sex classifieds.
“Most of the publishers just understood that if that was a turnoff to or a distraction to some of the other advertisers, that perhaps it wasn’t worth it,” says Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the trade group Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
She says sex ads represented a small percentage of overall profits and many papers never took them. With or without these ads, the alternative press face the challenges menacing the rest of the media: declining ad revenue and a shifting digital landscape.
But some alternative news outlets are doing well, finding new revenue by building websites and apps. Live event production and social media consulting have also fattened bottom lines.
The Colorado Springs Independent is one example of a paper that is apparently navigating troubled waters well. CEO Fran Zankowski boasts of something hardly any mainstream publisher can: increasing circulation. His company has done well enough lately to buy the town’s business paper. He says the paper’s alternative philosophy is part of why it’s doing well.
“We believe in local,” Zankowski stresses. “Local ownership, local publishers, make a big difference in the success of a paper.”
“I think I’ve said local about ten times now,” he added, driving home the point of how he’s been able to pull in more local advertising, something everyone from Google on down covets.