By the same token, some readers have noted in recent months that certain stories published by VVM read disconcertingly like ads, pushing agendas that serve the parent company’s interests. For example, the City Pages article “Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Report Is Junk Science,” which ran in all 13 VVM papers last month, criticizes the methodology of a small part of a report by sociological research firm the Schapiro Group, hired by the nonprofit to study underage prostitution. Author Nick Pinto used a candid quote from one of the advocacy group’s directors on the strategic use of statistics to assert that the nonprofit willfully lied to lawmakers. “And it was all done to score free publicity and a wealth of public funding,” he wrote.
Escort ads aren’t the only growth area VVM has found in recent years. Medical marijuana dispensaries have also become vital sources of revenue for alternative weeklies. As Scott Tobias, president and chief operating officer of VVM, told The New York Times, “This is certainly one of the fastest growing industries we’ve ever seen come in.” Which is why it raised some eyebrows that VVM hired a dedicated marijuana columnist, who at one point wrote an open letter to the state of Arizona chastising it for, among other things, blocking out-of-state medical marijuana cardholders from patronizing Arizona dispensaries, a potential advertiser in the Phoenix New Times.
Last week, The Village Voice ran a cover story, “Heroin.com,” about the drug trade on Craigslist. The story included a disclaimer that seemed to indicate some sensitivity to the criticism that VVM is benefiting from illegal activity. “Using the same keyword searches that turned up numerous drug ads on Craigslist’s New York City pages, we found only a single ad, in several variations, offering illicit drugs on local pages at Backpage.com,” the editor and author wrote. “The Backpage ad was repeatedly flagged and taken down, and reappeared over several weeks.”
As Backpage grows in popularity, more news stories have emerged suggesting that the kinds of abuses that led lawmakers to demand Craigslist shutter its erotic-services section are increasingly occurring on the site. In September a former child prostitute sued VVM for knowingly publishing advertisements of her, and later that month 21 attorneys general called on the company to follow Craigslist’s lead and ban escort ads. VVM declined, but offered to continue cooperating with law enforcement officials on cases originating on the site.
The pseudonymous crime blogger Trench Reynolds aggregates news stories about crimes involving Backpage, in part because the stories often fail to get much attention beyond local papers. (And so far they have not been reported by VVM properties.) In April alone, he’s found three stories involving underage persons sold or solicited through the site.
“Backpage says they review, but they haven’t to my knowledge,” Mr. Reynolds told The Observer. “Whatever steps they say they’re taking, it doesn’t seem to me like they’re doing anything at all.”
Note: An earlier version of this story said that the disclosure within the Village Voice’s “Heroin.com” was anonymously written, it was in fact written by editor Tony Ortega and reporter Joe Coscarelli.