It looks like Village Voice Media has backed itself into a pretty tight corner – and I suspect that the spot light that’s been shining on it recently is starting to make things a bit warm and uncomfortable right about now.
Village Voice Media, of course, is the owner of Backpage.com, an online classifieds site that has developed quite the reputation for being friendly to listings that solicit prostitution and facilitate human trafficking against women and children. Earlier this week, protesters – including celebrity Alicia Keys– staged a demonstration in front of the company’s New York offices, calling on them to quit enabling sex traffickers.
Village Voice executives, as you can imagine, are fighting back to squash such perceptions of their business practices. They’ve pointed to a policy of working with law enforcement to deter solicitation of children. They’ve attacked their critics, arguing that human trafficking assertions are over-exaggerated. And they’ve even lashed out at a group of clergy who called on them to change their business practices by declaring that “neither government officials nor God’s advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or speech.”
Believe it or not, I actually understand – from a business perspective – why Village Voice is reacting the way it is. It’s future depends on it.
You see, these sorts of ads bring in big money for the company – estimated to be roughly $23.5 million annually – and execs cannot afford to lose it. Alternative-weeklies haven’t fared well in the changing media landscape and this lucrative forum for sex ads is one of the last lifelines for the company.
For the longest time, Backpage was able to quietly collect on an online cash cow while Craigslist – viewed at the larger marketplace for this illegal activity – absorbed much of the criticism from human rights activists. But then Craigslist caved to the pressures of public opinion, government inquiries and business backlash and pulled the plug on its “Erotic Services” section (even though some argue that the ads have since found a place for themselves in the “Personals” sections.) Since then, the pressure has shifted to BackPage.
Following Craigslist’s lead by pulling these ads or even by investing money to review ads and keep questionable ones off the site can be poisonous to Village Voice’s bottom line. Village Voice execs are facing a big dilemma – either risk the public backlash by continuing to do what they’re doing or pull the plug on a significant revenue source and allow a decision based on morals and values trump one that’s driven by business interests alone.
You might think it’s an easy decision – but it’s not. I’ve been there.
It’s been more than a year since I pulled the plug on Personals ads on Geebo – a gesture toward our commitment toward social responsibility, not a reaction to a problem with questionable ads. Since then, I have called on my industry counterparts to do the same – to put human rights in front of business dollars. To date, none have responded to my challenge.
I also understand why that decision may have been easier for me than it might be for others. Backpage is owned by a media company, which has investors that are expecting strong financial performance in exchange for their dollars. They are looking for a return on that investment – and shutting off a revenue pipeline for moral reasons doesn’t help them achieve a lucrative return on their investments.
Personally, I’ve distanced myself from investors largely for that reason. I want to be able to make my own business decisions without input or interference from investors who really only have one concern – the payback. I want to be able to make business decisions based on morals and values.
I want to be able to sleep with my own conscience every night.