Hmm, sex ads or journalism... sex ads or journalism. In the one hand, the owners of Village Voice Media have a highly lucrative company called Backpage.com, which generates over $3 million a month running classified ads for pimps and sex-traffickers. In the other hand, they've got a portfolio of struggling alternative weeklies, including the Village Voice, which has gradually devolved into a ghost of its former self. So: print media or lucrative sex ads—which one does a CEO choose!
If you guessed $exxx Ad$$$, you'd be right: the Phoenix-based company, which changed its name from New Times Media to Village Voice Media after it acquired the Voice in 2005, is restructuring the company. Backpage.com is being broken off into a new entity, and a new holding company called Voice Media Group will control the struggling alt-weeklies and websites. Backpage.com ads will no longer appear in Village Voice media publications or websites, and the CEOs of Village Voice Media are selling off ownership of the papers to focus on the alleged sex-trafficking ads.
The change-up comes in the wake of Village Voice Editor-in-Chief Tony Ortega's abrupt and cryptic departure from the beleaguered flagship publication, ostensibly to work on a book about Scientology. (Sources tell the Observer he was pushed out.) Advertisers fleeing the Voice and the other alt-weeklies amidst increasingly high-profile allegations that Backpage.com is complicit in sex trafficking. In March, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a damning editorial about Backpage.com, which led to a major advertising exodus from Village Voice Media.
"Backpage has been a distraction—there's no question about it—to the core (editorial) properties," Scott Tobias, the new CEO of the new Voice Media Group, tells Reuters. Tobias is the current publisher of Westword, an Village Voice Media alt publication based in Denver, which is where the new company's headquarters will be located. Tobias says senior VVM editorial management executives have raised "some money from private investors" but would not go into specifics on what investors are buying into the new company.
Village Voice Media CEO Jim Larkin and executive editor Michael Lacey will retain ownership of the lucrative Backpage.com, and it's unclear if they will have any undisclosed stake in the new Voice Media Group. An attorney for Backpage said in a statement that Backpage.com will "become the centerpiece of a new online classified advertising company with business worldwide."
In an interview with AZ Central, Lacey, who has the words "hold fast" tattooed on his fingers, "spoke with relish about the political and court fights ahead over Backpage.com," declaring, "It's a retirement from journalism. This entire thing is still a First Amendment issue." For a counterpoint, we turn to a former prostitute who says she was pimped out via Backpage.com ads when she was 16. "You can’t buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you?” she asked the Times in March. “No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage.”