City Desk

Will Craigslist’s New Stance on Adult Ads Save Alt-Weeklies?

Last year Craigslist, which lists 18 employees on its "about us" page, made somewhere between $20 and $80 million dollars. So why is its CEO, Jim Buckmaster, so p.o.'d about sex ads in alt-weeklies?

Because these bottom-feeding free publications are making an erotic comeback in the classifieds biz, with an assist from law enforcement.

Buckmaster has even taken to the blogosphere to air his frustrations with alt-weekly encroachment. In a recent post, he lists several titles of adult ads he found on backpage.com, a collection of classifieds sites owned by Village Voice Media (VVM). "Cum lay your hotdog on my bun for memorial day" (Dallas); "Let me put you to bed backdoor available $80" (Columbia, S.C.); "An Irish blowjob and a cum showering rainbow" (New York). He links to a screenshot of the last ad, which has photos of a woman performing fellatio.

"It’s worth noting that these ads’ TITLES ALONE contain more explicit content than you will find in all craigslist adult service ads combined," he writes in the post.

This umbrage is a bit rich for many alt-weeklies, for whom Craigslist's free classifieds were an extinction-level event.

Kris Dodd, a longtime classfied-ads sales representative at the Chicago Reader (which, like this paper, has been owned by Creative Loafing since 2007), remembers days when his paper ran 50 pages of classified ads—and not on the paper's puny new size; we're talking glorious 11x17 quarterfold. "You could buy a Lamborghini a week for what we made in classifieds," he says, taking pains to note that Lamborghinis command a wide range of prices.

Brett Murphy, the Reader's advertising director, says pre-Craigslist (the meteor hit around 2005), the paper ran about 5,000 classifieds a week. Last week it ran about 1,500 in the paper and about twice that online. But the days when alt-weeklies essentially printed money, when, as Dodd says, "we were legendary," are long gone.

But at some weeklies, something unexpected is happening. Here at Washington City Paper, where few ad categories in recent memory have been the stuff of legend, adult ads in the first week of May were up 38 percent over the same time last year, says Heather McAndrews, the company's classifieds manager. Mark Bartel, the publisher of Minneapolis' City Pages, says adult ads there have "almost doubled." SF Weekly ran 160 adult ads the week before Craigslist's new standards dropped; last week, it had 910. (Both City Pages and SF Weekly are owned by VVM and power their classifieds with backpage.com.)

In the glory days of alt-weeklies, the money in classifieds came mostly from real estate. The Reader's classifieds are such an ingrained part of Chicago life that This American Life just ran a show whose stories bounce off Reader classifieds. But "adult-services" ads—wink-wink, nudge-nudge solicitations for escorts and "sensual bodywork"—lent a, um, helping hand. Craigslist laid waste to that business, too: An adult-services ad in Washington City Paper starts at $150 per week. At the Reader, an online/print combo runs $100. On Craigslist it was, until May 12, $5, money the Web site donated to charity.

But murders have a way of upending business models.

On April 14, Julissa Brisman was murdered in Boston; her killer had allegedly found her through a massage ad in the "erotic services" section on Craigslist. George Weber, a New York City radio reporter, was murdered a few weeks earlier, allegedly by someone who'd answered his Craigslist ad seeking rough sex.

Never mind that both accused killers answered rather than placed ads, or that Craigslist helped finger them; Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, called Craigslist "a blatant Internet brothel." Other attorneys general chimed in. Craigslist beat a strategic retreat, closing its erotic services category and promising to manually review all ads in the new "adult services" one.

And thus a famously, painfully level playing field was made a little less level. Now, when you place an adult-services ad on Craigslist, you have to aver that you are offering no "content that is unlawful, pornographic, or which advertises illegal services"; no ads "suggesting or implying an exchange of sexual favors for money"; no "pornographic images, or images suggestive of an offer of sexual favors."

That complying ad will run you $10, because manually vetting ads is not cheap.

With Craigslist selling ads in more than 250 markets, searching for noncompliant ads means looking for the obvious: codes like a half-hour of someone's company will cost you 100 "roses."

Craigslist's "competition" has standards, too—they're just not as fresh and unequivocal as the ass-covering Craigslist versions. In a City Paper ad, says McAndrews, you can't post a photo of genitalia or penetration. "Nipples are kind of on a fence," she says. Heather Hansen of the Seattle Stranger says advertisers on its Naughty Northwest site can't "show their privates," adding that photos can be "a little bit risqué and sexy but nothing over the top."

"Kay," who advertises herself as a "Busty Blonde/ Toys" in City Paper, says Craigslist's new standards mean she can only submit "one of my pictures that doesn't net me a lot of business." Another woman who advertises in both City Paper and Craigslist and spoke on the condition that I didn't print her name says Craigslist's "standard is no good because you cannot really describe who you are."

At backpage.com, the standards are far more media-shitstorm-proof. Backpage charges Craigslist-like prices structure for its "adult entertainment" ads—in Minneapolis, for example, body rub ads cost $3, phone and Web site ads are a buck, and female escort postings cost $5. A variety of add-ons are available, and the site likewise warns against soliciting for illegal acts or using "code words such as 'greek', 'bbbj', 'blow', 'trips to greece', etc."

In an e-mail, Buckmaster says that "Village Voice staff quickly removed" the ads he linked to in his post, "but the titles alone tell the story." He included a link to the fellatio screenshot, saying it "illustrates the standards for content prevailing" at backpage.com.

After Buckmaster zinged backpage.com, it fired back, listing some ads it found on Craigslist. "I don't understand why he would attack us when really Jim Buckmaster understands the word 'Whac-a-Mole,'" says Carl Ferrer, backpage's founder and a vice president at VVM. "He still has lewd photos and coded terminology. He's still got it. They're in personals and casual encounters. And I'm not beating him up for it; just Buckmaster and I are aware of the challenges of user-generated content."

Ferrer says backpage "did get a real spike in traffic with Craigslist's changes," but he cautions that spikes in traffic may be illusory: "Many users were black hats," he says. "Users from China posting porn. Users using stolen credit cards." Backpage, he says, has hired extra personnel to work in its abuse department.

"Craigslist has spent 14 years building its business based in large part on page views from adult content," Ferrer says. "And now that their market share is secure, it's decided to modify their rules of content and demand that everyone's done the same as they've done."

But now all of a sudden, Craigslist is at a great disadvantage to free weeklies, many of which aren't on the scopes of pontificating state pols. (And if this turnaround ends up saving my paper, I say God bless the unfairness of it all.) The Reader's Dodd, who says his paper hasn't seen anywhere near the increase in adult ads that City Paper or others have, calls the situation a "fluke."

"It'll just blow over," he says. "Most of this is a reaction to attorneys general and various sheriffs. But anybody who advertises on Craigslist, they could run the same ad in the Reader anyway."

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  • Cronin

    To paraphrase a friend, "I have become so focused on generating revenue for my site that every time I see a headline about a Craigslist killer I think, 'sweet, someone's come up with a great new online classifieds system.'"

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  • J

    If porn saves alt weeklies - at least something positive is happening!

  • http://www.chicagoreader.com Brett Murphy

    Correction: For Adult Services ads, The Chicago Reader charges:

    $50 for 25 words, $3 each word thereafter for print only; $50 for unlimited online wording only; or $100 to run print (25 words or less) and unlimited online wording.

    Also, another correction:
    Each week there are over 3,000 total ads appearing online and about 1,500 more in the print publication.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Thanks for the info, Brett.

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  • Barbara Glickstein

    I am a public health nurse and activist to stop human trafficking. What cannot be over looked is that these ads are used by traffickers to sell the services of women and children who are sex slaves - from within the USA and internationally. So your idea that this is saving your local newspapers is an ethical one to consider and discuss.
    Barbara Glickstein, RN, MPH MS

    See NYC NOW's campaign : The "Trafficking Free NYC!" good business pledge is sent to local publications throughout the five boroughs. It rewards publications that have made a policy to not advertise brothels and it asks New York newspapers, magazines and vendors to recognize the role they play as a potential marketer for the trafficking industry and publicly commit to being "trafficking free" by 2010.

  • ConstantineBower

    Well given that one of the strongest Craigslist competitors, backpage, is owned by the king of alternative print: Village Voice Media…I think that this is a false alarm…as any smart publication should look to the future and go the online route. If anything, the real benefactors of this are online escort classified advertising alternatives like Naughty Reviews, not the various city papers out there…

  • John Dugan

    It would be interesting to know what percentage of City Paper and Chicago Reader revenue came from Adult Services during the boom years of the ’90s. Are there any figures available? Play-on-words unintentional.

  • http://www.SodaHead.com/Fef Fef

    Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a newspaper by its classifieds. If a paper needs to run sex/prostitution ads (errr.... 'erotic services'), then it means they have an audience that wants to pay for those services. And it means the paper doesn't have the readership support from people who object to that type of behavior to refuse accepting payment for such ads.

    I look forward to the day the Grey Lady (New York Times) has 50 pages of erotic classifieds.

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  • Eldakka

    @Barbara Glickstein

    People sell stolen goods on 'for sale' classifieds, therefore all 'for sale' classifieds should be banned.

    People conduct fraud on real estate classifieds, therefore all real estate classifieds should be banned.

    People trade/sell 'pirated' movies/music at swap meets and flea markets, therefore all public notices should be banned and swap meets/flea markets should also be banned.

    Human traffickers use cars to transport kidnapped people, therefore all cars should be banned.

    Human traffickers lock their victims up in houses to use as sex slaves, therefore all houses should be banned.

    See where I am going with this?

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  • John Sugg

    One of the key problems with the Craigslist -- and alt newspaper -- adult advertising is child prostitution, which uses coded language to make the pitch (I've sat with a detective who called sex ad numbers in Creative Loafing, and the silky voice inquired, "Do you want something, ah, fresh?"). The sex ads are about the only stable advertising in the publications nowadays, and those ads have always included many for illegal services. Many of us in the biz -- I was editor of Creative Loafing's Tampa paper and group senior editor of the company -- winked at the ads, tried to ignore them. But when I did some reports on Atlanta as the No. 1 city in the nation for child prostitution -- and had law enforcement officials tell me how CL was used by the pimps, many of them part of organized crime -- about the only reaction from the business people was to require photo IDs to place the ads, which of course did nothing to deter those who were pimping kids from showing an ID and putting the coded-word ads in the paper. It's worth remembering that the Tampa CL paper in the mid-90s threw out the adult advertising, and the paper did very well, basically because the percentage of women readers skyrocketed when they no longer had to view the paper as hostile territory.

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  • Rick

    Craigslist has always been censored by prude police yet Buckmaster is mad that other venues offer more freedom of speech? What goes wrong with adult ads online or off is beside the point. Craigslist is run by homo hypocrites. The content restraints that they put on straight ads are missing when it come to gay ones. Go figure.

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