Alt-weeklies Play Hard to Get with Adult Ads  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2003

Alt-weeklies Play Hard to Get with Adult Ads   

It's getting a bit harder in some cities to find risque advertisements

By Sarah Schaffer
Sarah Schaffer is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Alternative newspapers are making it harder to find a dominatrix in Dallas or a bombshell in Boulder. Alt-weeklies in these and other cities have been running fewer adult entertainment ads and turning a more critical eye on the content of those that they do. Publishers say the "offensive" ads tarnish their papers' respectability and scare away more traditional advertisers.

For years, alt-weeklies and the adult entertainment industry have been proud bedfellows. The sex trade relies heavily upon the back pages of these papers, a spot where readers can peruse tempting yet tawdry offers and ogle photos of barely clothed women. Escort firms, massage parlors, phone "friend" services and strip clubs all get the word out in these papers.

According to Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, adult entertainment ads can be big business. "There are some papers that get a fairly significant portion of their revenue from adult ads," he says.

Until recently, offers of sensual massage and similar services beckoned to readers from the pages of the Dallas Observer and Colorado's Boulder Weekly. But both papers decided to cool their hot-and-heavy relationship with adult-oriented advertisers. The Weekly discontinued its adult ad section entirely, and the Observer slapped tighter content restrictions on sex trade ads.

Observer Publisher Alison Draper says her publication was "giving too much space" to "offensive" advertising. The ads, she says, didn't jibe with the community. "We're in the Bible Belt in Dallas. Other metropolitan areas can get away with more." Draper says she aims to "clean up the book" and "attract higher-end retail" advertising.

To do so, she decreased the maximum ad size, reduced the number of escort ad pages from four to two, enforced content restrictions and raised rates. "We pulled it off successfully...and as a matter of fact, we have had a lot of questions from other papers about how we did it," Draper says.

Bruce VanWyngarden, editor of the Memphis Flyer, says a decade ago his paper "was pretty much open to whatever." But in the mid-'90s, the 53,000-circulation weekly began refusing ads from "houses of ill-repute" and censoring photos in adult ads. VanWyngarden says the paper will still take ads from a topless bar--as long as there aren't actual topless women in the ads. All adult advertising has to come from "legally licensed businesses," he adds.

Are alt-weeklies, arguably the last bastion for the alternative set, kowtowing to the pervasive national call for family values? "I'm not sure it's a trend. I do think that most people in our business are OK with the moral aspects of running sex ads," Karpel says. "We're about unfettered communication, and that's a part of it."

But alt-weeklies aren't the only venues for finding a little action these days. A look through the sports sections of metropolitan dailies will reveal many a place to find a nice "massage" after a hard day of watching ESPN.

If you're in Detroit and looking for a 20-year-old with "waist-length curls" and double-D-cup breasts, look no further than the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution can help readers find a "massage parlor." Mike Perricone, the paper's vice president of advertising, says "a savvy reader...would know" that they weren't selling trips to the day spa. And Dave Rivord, advertising director for the Albuquerque Journal, says his paper has run adult ads for years, with few reader complaints. Whether it's ads for escort services or exotic dance clubs, Rivord says, "We try to keep it as clean as possible. If the ads get a little naughty, then we reserve the right to edit or refuse it."

Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, says when it comes to who runs what type of ads, community tastes usually dictate. "If the community has decided that lap dancing was unacceptable, then it probably would not be acceptable to run an ad for lap dancing," she says. That said, she warns that "newspapers can get into pretty dangerous territory when [they] start trying to apply moral codes to advertisements."

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