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Financing the Alternative Weekly in a Post-Craigslist Era: Does It Require “Those” Ads?

November 19, 2011

Alternative newsweeklies are the lifeblood of a city’s creative community. Among the reviews of restaurants, concerts, and theatrical performances, one will often find exposés into the seedy world of municipal politics – specifically, the battle between those that seek to reform the system, and the machine hacks that aim to keep everything “just like it is”. And then, just as the paper nears its final pages, here comes the inundation with fairly-graphic advertisements for “adult” services of questionable authenticity. How 85% of a publication can rail against the sexism and objectification of women, all while devoting its last 15% to celebrating this same concern, is quite the mystery. Enter one of the most essential podcasts, NPR’s On The Media.

Two weeks ago, On The Media examined the phenomenon of these advertisements, with arguments for and against their ouster. According to David Carr of the New York Times, when a Minneapolis-based publication (which he does not name, but I will guess that he speaks of CityPages) stopped accepting advertisements from services that utilized the objectification of women within their content – either in the photographs or as the service – their advertising revenues dropped substantially. Carr states that in order for the alternative media to maintain its ability to keep local politicos honest, all while serving as the information source for local cultural events, it must collect revenue from these sources. Mr. Carr, whose journalistic resume is unquestionable, is basically claiming that a market where consumers are willing to offer financial remuneration to provide quality journalism is almost nonexistent.

A current perusal of any prominent Village Voice-affiliated newsweekly will yield the sad truth. I recently had the opportunity to flip through several issues of these weeklies that were released in the mid-to-late 1980s, looking to evaluate the evolution of the papers. Instead of glorified porn ads, the last several pages featured numerous requests for a guitarist or drummer to start a band; a third or fourth person to share an apartment; a ride to the latest music festival; a space for creation of an art project; a quasi press-release for “the latest album from the hottest band in the region”; and the occasional schematic for marijuana consumption. The words “massage”, “escort” and “discreet” were noticeably absent, as were full-color pics of scantily-clad women photo-shopped to point where they could be as much be considered cartoons as people.

The weeklies have one obvious defense: In the post-Craigslist era, it is almost unnecessary to pay for a classified ad, and our newsweeklies merely reflect this fact. Yet, we must ask, what is to be done? Now I’m no prude, but why do we countenance every element of our society, even culturally-relevant news sources, basing their financial survival on appealing not to our intellectual and creative pursuits, but the prurient, exploitative or potentially-fraudulent? While a response to an ad claiming “Drummer wanted for funkiest band in town” might result in the discovery that the members are not as well-versed in Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic as one would hope, such truth-bending likely pales in comparison to the veracity of the advertisements in a modern edition of insert-citypaper-here. Have the proprietors verified that every ad is legitimately offering massages, and that’s all? Obviously not, or the ads would not likely exist (not even addressing the possibility of trafficking of minors – that’s a whole different series of articles). There have been discussions of a new revenue model that does not depend upon advertisements. Micropayments, which are described in detail here, could solve the problem of providing paychecks for those willing to sacrifice the shoe-leather for a story.

The question is this: are we willing, as a society, to finance quality reporting, and send a signal to the next generation of writers that their efforts in crafting a good story, or providing as quality guide to cultural events, will at least permit a regular meal, let alone a decent paycheck? Because if not, every year that passes will witness the page ratio of news-to-“service” ads continue its slouch in the wrong direction.


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