Don't Look In the Back!
A year ago, Mom was proud when her son took a job writing in-depth stories about hard-hitting topics at an alternative newsweekly that boldly goes where mainstream newspapers won't. But her pride dimmed after perusing her first issue at a local restaurant. The newspaper's final pages smacked her with flesh, curves, come-ons, and photos of near-naked women in ads promising "sexy chat," "passion and pleasure," "casual sex" and "sex tonight!"
I'm fairly certain my mother has had sex. (Thanks Mom; and you, too, Dad, you tiger!) But that's her private business, or it was until I started writing this story. Adult entertainment ads, as they're known in the biz, embarrass my mother, and she gives a little speech when offering friends the latest edition: "Read my son's story -- but don't look in the back!"
My Texas newspaper is among 120 or so alternative newsweeklies nationwide, an estimated 80 percent of which publish adult entertainment ads drenched in sex. The ads bother some people and once in a while spur businesses to yank newspapers from stands located in or near their shops. Alternative newsweeklies deem the ads worthwhile because they provide green stuff -- an estimated $50 million a year, industry-wide -- that pays light bills. Mainstream publications usually won't print the ads, and so alternative weeklies, with a seemingly captive market, charge a premium.
However, the alternative news industry is in the midst of change -- an evolution rather than a revolution. In some cities, papers are cutting back on raunchy ads. In other places, publishers continue to enlarge their red-light sections.
The interesting thing is that both sides use the same arguments to defend their positions: the need to make money and do good. Do adult ads bring in more money or drive it away? Do ads depicting women as prostitutes follow the best traditions of free speech or the worst tradition of degrading women and supporting crime?
Publishers balance morality, capitalism, and free speech to develop policies on how much sex to allow. Some newspapers have a higher bare-body count than others. My paper is middle of the pack, not as explicit as newspapers on the East and West Coast.
That balancing act, however, may not be what decides the issue ultimately. The internet offers advertisers near-boundless freedom and accessibility, an advantage that more sex workers are discovering each week. Add it all up, and the future of dirty ads in alternative newsweeklies appears less rosy than most of the cheeks that appear in these pages.
Sex sells, and business entrepreneurs have long exploited the phenomenon. Gorgeous faces and bodies peddle almost every product. "Family newspapers" publish department store ads featuring people in their skivvies. The ads generate few angry calls from readers because sexuality is downplayed -- department store models seldom suck on bananas. Ads in alt weeklies are blatantly sexual, with women shown painted in tiger stripes, or reclining in come-hither positions, or disheveled as if recovering from sexual encounters that may or may not have been pleasant. The ads generate thousands of dollars a week but can also put reporters in compromising positions, and not the good kind.
It's as plain as the silicone in a stripper's breasts that adult entertainment ads involve sex, but exactly what kind of sex (and whether it's legal) remains murky. Well, slightly murky. Some ads strongly suggest prostitutes seeking customers.
Despite the sexual inferences, ads that show a sexy woman and list an hourly fee don't necessarily mean sex is being sold, said an alt weekly ad sales rep who requested anonymity to protect customer confidentiality. "We can guess, we can assume, but nobody really knows -- only them and their clients," the ad rep said. "What one lady explained to me is that it's pretty much for companionship, taking them out to dinner or taking them out to the movies, like a date." No report on whether the lady also sold oceanfront property in Abilene.
Journalism school teaches clarification and confirmation, even when situations seem obvious. I call Temptress, whose ad claims she will "satisfy you in any way you want." The phone rings once, and a sweet voice says hello.
"Hi, I saw your ad and was wondering what kind of services you offer."
"I offer full service for $150 cash."
"What is included in full service?"
My question triggers a red flag. Suddenly Temptress says, "I have to go, sweetie," and hangs up.
Next, I call Heather, who is "warm and wet" according to her ad. In the background, I hear other women talking on phones -- the same background noise I've heard when talking to telemarketers. This time I'm upfront and admit I'm a reporter wishing to discuss her ad and the services she provides. I offer her anonymity.
"Honey, this is an agency, and I don't think they would be interested," she says, hanging up without even saying goodbye. Well! I'll bet her name isn't even Heather.
I call a woman whose ad shows barely concealed breasts, and "$190 cash" printed above a phone number. She is uncomfortable and guarded despite promised anonymity. "Nobody knows what I do," she said. "I mainly just dance, so I'm probably not the best person to talk to."
A report called "Underground Economy," which aired on the public radio show Marketplace in November, focused on business operators in illegal fields and examined their methods for drumming up business. Many such operators said they use basic marketing principles, but shun actual advertising for fear of arrest. Not so with escorts, adult massage parlors, dancers, and, yes, prostitutes. Marketplace interviewed a "high-priced Washington, D.C., call girl" named Lizzy, who served as a marketing consultant in the sex trade. Lizzy urged clients to advertise aggressively in alternative weekly papers to get the most bangs for their bucks.
Finally, a massage therapist in my paper's adult entertainment section agreed to talk but did not want her name used. She said almost all of her competitors offer sex for money, but she does not -- she merely advertises in the adult section because that's where ads generate the most calls. "I only need to see a client one time, and if I get lucky I can win him over for regular massages," she said. "If I went illegitimate, I could really sell this business. I'm short, not that attractive, but it doesn't matter. Every day, money is offered to me to do sexual acts. A lot of them are very blatant -- 'Am I going to get a hand job or a blow job?' or 'Is this full service (intercourse)?' I say no, and they usually hang up. But when I put my ads in the legitimate sections, I still have the problems. Putting my ads in the adult section gives me volume of calls."
Vice squad officers say most adult ads are paid for by businesses that are legitimate but not always accepted by the moral majority. "If you want to get on the phone and talk dirty to someone, you have every right to do so," said Fort Worth police Lt. Steve Baker, who oversees the vice unit. Other ads lead to behavior that exceeds legal limits. Baker's undercover officers sometimes call women listed in ads found in the Weekly and a few other local publications. The cops meet the women (or men) and determine if they are offering sex for money. Five of these meetings have occurred in the past few months, and two resulted in prostitution arrests, Baker said. Some ads even feature photographs of women who have been busted before. "You open the magazine and you think, hey, I've arrested this lady myself," he said.
Publishing ads for people who provide illegal services is an ethical breach, said veteran journalist Phil Record, a newspaperman for more than 50 years and a columnist and consultant at Fort Worth Star- Telegram. He currently teaches mass communication ethics at Texas Christian University. "For people in the mainstream, that's questionable advertising," he said. "It is well known that a lot of that is just the beginning, and the girls have other stuff available for after hours and for more money. If you suspect that [illegal activity], I don't think it's ethical to run that. If it's a front for an illegal operation it would put the paper in a questionable position as far as ethics go."
Alternative publications don't consider themselves mainstream, and take pride in offering articles, photos, cartoons, and ads that conservative publications won't touch. But if money generated by the ads is the reason for printing them, it can be its own form of prostitution, Record suggested. "You're closing your ethical eyes, and the almighty buck is more important than your ethical standards," he said.
The country's alternative weeklies generate about $500 million in annual revenues, said Richard Karpel, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies executive director.
The amount spent on adult ads is not calculated by the trade group, but he estimated it could represent as much as 10 percent of the total of papers that carry those ads. That could be as much as $50 million. "Some papers bring in a lot, and some papers don't even accept adult advertising," he said. "Some papers accept certain kinds of adult ads. Other papers have looser rules. It's all across the board."
In defending the ads, publishers of alternative weeklies argue both profits and free speech. Some believe that accepting adult ads can actually hurt profits, because mainstream advertisers shy away from flesh-on-parade publications. Ditch the adult ads, and mainstream advertisers will scurry to fill their place, the theory goes. This year's AAN national convention will offer a seminar on that topic.
Freedom and Principles
Freedom of the press, like free speech, is a protected right, but with freedom comes responsibility, said Aly Colón, director of diversity programs and ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, the Florida journalism education group that owns the St. Petersburg Times. "As a news publication, you need to have certain principles on which you base the coverage you include in your publication," he said. "Those principles should guide you both in the coverage you do and in what you actually publish, both from a news perspective and an ad perspective. You can have ways of addressing each of those areas separately, but the underlying principle, if you plan to be consistent, should be the same. If it would be deemed in poor taste to write a leering article with pictures of nude women, how would you judge an ad with leering copy and nude women? How would you justify it?"
Despite the alternative press' willingness to promote adult entertainment, backpedaling is on the rise. In the early 1900s, about 60 percent of U.S. cities supported at least two daily newspapers. Now, it's about 1 percent. The number of cities with two newspapers fell from about 500 in 1920 to about a dozen today, thanks in part to competition from other news media, such as television and the internet. Additionally, thanks to widespread mergers and consolidations, the company that owns the daily newspaper may also own a television and/or a radio station, further reducing the number of voices and venues available to readers and viewers. Few media businesses can record a city's history as thoroughly as a daily newspaper, but a paper without competition can get lazy and less willing to confront or offend, or to make the investment in quality reporting and investigative pieces.
That kind of vastly reduced competition has put alternative papers in the position of filling the gap, providing valuable platforms for opposing viewpoints and gutsier coverage of local institutions than many mainstream news organizations. But the flip side of that is that the weeklies have also become more mainstream themselves as they seek a broader audience in their communities.
Many alternative weeklies are reducing the number of adult ads and restricting their size, display, and content. In November, Boulder Weekly decided to scratch photos from adult ads, which had become overrun with "tits and ass," said Janice Haines, the paper's accountant. The 9-year-old paper was printing about 3,000 ads a week, most of them adult ads. Initially, the policy change caused the number of ads in each edition to drop by about half, but the total is growing again. The paper is now running about 2,500 ads, Haines said. "We went through a dip because it was a loss of income," she said. "Initially it was quite a chunk."
Mainstream advertisers responded by buying ads and filling holes. "It's working," she said. "We feel pretty good about it. I'd say we have recovered."
The paper's owner and publisher, Stewart Sallo, made the decision to censor the ads. He wrote an explanatory column saying the paper had published the ads for two reasons -- money and a hesitation to censor material. Prostitution should be legal, Sallo wrote, but it's not, and the sex trade is enmeshed with illegal activities. The paper felt the need to "position ourselves alongside the solution while abandoning our alignment with the problem," he wrote. The paper didn't ban the ads, but figured removing photos and restricting language would make them less popular. The decision was financially a "painful one" but "doing our part to create a world in which people love those with whom they make love is worth every penny we forsake," he concluded, rather ickily.
The paper's editor, Wayne Laugesen, said the policy had been debated for years. Most editorial staffers, including Laugesen, fought to keep the ads because of free-speech principles. But Laugesen, like the alternative weekly industry as a whole, mellowed in time. He has three young children and disliked taking his own newspaper into his house for fear a young'un would get an eyeful. "It bordered on pornography," he said. Staffers revolted lightly, but quickly went back to work. "Some got on their principle horses, but nobody rode out," he said.
Public feedback was split. Feminists and the religious community applauded the change. The publisher received a standing ovation at his synagogue. "On the other hand, we have had a lot of negative feedback as well," Laugesen said. "We heard from people who thought these ads were very useful in planning their weekends. There are still prostitutes advertising in this newspaper, but they are not overt and boldly advertising themselves. You really have to use your imagination now to determine if someone is a prostitute advertising his or her services."
The Observer toned down its ads last year and is planning more restrictions, Draper said. "Back in November, I made a decision that we'd gone too far and we needed to scale it back," she said. "This is a business we don't pursue -- they come to us. Obviously we want to keep the door open to all kinds of businesses and new advertisers, but it was too heavy."
Still, the Observer's adult section remains spicier than that of the Forth Worth Weekly, where I work, one county to the west. "Being in Fort Worth, we have to be more conservative as far as our advertising," an ad rep said. "Now that we're getting more adult advertising, we want to nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand. We didn't want to get out of hand like the Observer did. Their ads were very revealing."
Lee Newquist, the Weekly's publisher, filled that post for years at the Observer before buying the Weekly. At the Weekly, he has insisted on containing adult ads in back pages and limiting their display. "I do not want this to become a large section filled with spicy, objectionable material," he said.
Let's be clear, however. You wouldn't want to hand either paper's adult ad section to your Sunday school teacher. The March 21 Observer contained ads with nearly nude women in seductive poses and hardly vague ad copy such as, "I will satisfy you in any way you want," "get some now," "try me from the south," and "sexy petite female ready to caress your hard times away." The Weekly offered "young and very sexy," "hot local girls," and "afternoon delight."
Publishers are dipping a toe into the mainstream pool but still take pride in their revolutionary roots. There remains a conviction on the editorial side that reporters can write without fear, and use "fuck" or even "third nipple" (at least I think we can; if this sentence gets edited out, I guess we can't). But the words are seldom used gratuitously (except in that last sentence) and there is little desire to upset readers just to be potty-mouths.
"A paper like ours has evolved over the years to be a metropolitan newsweekly rather than an alternative," Newquist said. "It's a better vision. We can preserve the spirit of what alternative newspapers were all about, but it's a much more deliberate marketing plan than what was seen 20 years ago."
News content, not ads, is what the alternative press should be known for, said Jane Levine, publisher at Chicago Reader, which last year tightened restrictions on adult ads, even though they were generating about $300,000 a year in ad revenue. Alternative publications "are the ones who challenge the building developments and question the cronyism much more than the dailies do," she said.
If mainstream magazines displayed in traditional retail outlets provide a gauge for what is acceptable to a community, it's no wonder that alternative weeklies get few complaints about their adult ads. They are hardly saucier than what's displayed on racks at many local businesses.
A recent trip to 7-Eleven found sexy magazines displayed at the checkout counter. The cover of the April Maxim showed a topless woman barely covering her breasts with her arms, and a headline that read, "Best Sex Ever!" Several other magazine covers showed similar cleavage and racy headlines. The store manager, who asked not to be named because of corporate policy, said he has received only one complaint in the past year.
Similar magazines were on sale at a drug store, where zesty covers on fitness, automobile, and men's magazines were displayed at eye level to an average adolescent. Britney Spears, pop culture's most overtly sexual virgin, was featured on two covers, although in surprisingly chaste poses. However, Men's Workout showed a male model wearing nothing but briefs and using a fist to only partially hide an obvious bulge. Raw, a wrestling magazine, showed a nude woman whose private parts were obscured only by two pieces of broken tabletops, held in place by two burly wrestlers.
At the supermarket, more of the same magazines were displayed on an aisle rack and at checkout counters. Claudia Cavazos, 27, was shopping with her two daughters, one of whom is 5 and inquisitive about the carnal nature of magazines and television. Magazine covers are risqué, but not worth complaining about, Cavazos said. "For a community store like this, that's not appropriate, but I'm a real laid-back person," she said. "If my daughter is looking at them, I say, 'Don't look.' But if I don't have it in my house, it doesn't bother me. You teach your kids at home what's right and what's not. Of course, if you asked my mother, she'd say ban them all."
My mother might also say ban them all, but I don't want to put words in her mouth. s"They offend me like pornography does," she said. "It's just this deep-seated feeling about what's right and what's wrong, and that's wrong. It's making sex something dirty, or something like, 'OK, do we go to the movie tonight, or do we go to Bass Hall, or do we go somewhere and have sex?' It's like sex is entertainment. That's not the way I personally view sex."
She considers the Weekly's news content meaningful but said quality articles are tainted by inclusion along with tawdry ads. "It discredits your newspaper as far as being legitimate journalism," she said. "I would like to be proud of you, and you write some good articles, but that's been a problem for me since the beginning."
The items that bothered her most were personal ads and Savage Love, a question-and-answer column that delved into the deepest recesses of sexual curiosity. Savage Love offended many readers, prompted complaints, and got the Weekly yanked from distribution sites. Newquist stopped printing the column when he assumed control. Mom was unaware that the column and personal ads had been ousted. Knowing they're gone, she admitted feeling better about the Weekly. Dump the adult ads, she said, and respectability is within reach.
Sorry, Mom. Those who work at alternative newspapers hope they will never become conventional -- at least in their willingness to provide in-your-face journalism -- even if they've made baby-steps in that direction. In fact, I sort of miss Savage Love. Oh well, if I need a porn fix, I'll go stand in the grocery store check-out line.
Jeff Prince is a staff writer at FW Weekly.