Last week, deputies in Polk County, Fla., arrested 60 people–including a Disney employee, a man with breast implants, a 15-year-old runaway with a 2-year-old infant, and her pimp–in an online prostitution bust dubbed Operation Curtain Call. A year ago the sensational sting would likely have been the next in a long litany of tabloid-friendly Craigslist crimes, but the deputies told the Palm Beach Post that the prostitution services had been advertised instead on Backpage.com, the Village Voice Media-owned online classifieds site.
When Craigslist shuttered its “Adult Services” section last year, no one was naïve enough to think the move would mean the end of prostitution, but did anyone predict it could save alt-weeklies?
Backpage, which is a fraction of the size of Craigslist, is the only popular classifieds site left willing to host the paid escort and body-rub ads that are often thinly veiled fronts for prostitution. In the month after Craigslist closed its erotic services sections under pressure from Congress and state attorneys general, Backpage enjoyed a half-million-visitor bump in traffic, according to Quantcast, and became the No. 1 publisher of escort ads on the Internet. The Aim Group, a media consulting firm, estimated that in January, Backpage brought in $2.1 million in revenue from erotic services ads alone.
According to Aim Group founding principal Peter Zollman, Backpage, which did not respond to requests for comment from The Observer, has not contested the reports. “We think that’s because we’re underestimating it by so much,”— Mr. Zollman said. “If they wanted to challenge it, they’d have to tell us how much they really make.”
Mr. Zollman said Village Voice Media (VVM) has only been in contact with his office once, via its attorney, who argued that escort ads placed on Backpage are permitted under the Federal Communications Decency Act. The Aim Group claims to be agnostic on the matter of prostitution, and has even criticized attorneys general who try to shut down the sites, but it’s easy to understand why VVM might feel defensive. The Backpage windfall has come along at a crucial time, helping the company to plug a leak from a large legal judgment and keep itself afloat.
For more than two decades, Village Voice Media executive editor Mike Lacey employed a simple, often devastatingly successful strategy for gaining control of the country’s alternative weekly business: acquire the local paper, cut editorial costs (lay off critics, reporters and, reportedly, entire fact-checking departments), pump the paper full of nationally syndicated content and splash an occasional local investigative piece on the cover. It was working like a charm until 2004, when the San Francisco Bay-Guardian sued VVM’s SF Weekly for manipulating ad prices in an attempt to drive the rival paper out of business. According to court transcripts, Mr. Lacey told the staff on his first day as owner of SF Weekly that this was precisely his intention.