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 11×17 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.