Village Voice Media, which publishes 13 alternative weekly newspapers including the Village Voice and LA Weekly (as well as their corresponding websites), is finally cutting ties with classifieds section Backpage.com—a constant thorn in the company's side as well as a major source of its revenue. But it remains to be seen whether the group can replace that revenue along with ads that the bad publicity cost the company.
Backpage.com became the web’s leading destination for prostitution ads after Craigslist shut down its own “adult services” section due to pressure from outside groups. Backpage was also accused of aiding sex trafficking, which resulted in public outcry from government and law enforcement officials and led blue-chip advertisers like Pfizer and American Airlines to boycott Village Voice publications due to their connection with Backpage.
Backpage brought in at least $28.9 million in the past year with its adult services ads alone, according to an estimate from interactive media consultants AIM Group. That, in turn, accounted for fully one-seventh of the company's revenue, the Los Angeles Times reported. The loss of the Backpage advertising, said AIM group founding principal Peter Zollman, "is going to be a pretty heavy blow for the print.”
The print business is already saddled with struggles, having had big staff layoffs and sharp declines in circulation. The company, along with the rest of the industry, has been trying to adapt its publications to digital media, but it's been slow going; according to the Alternative Weekly Network, an advertising group, alt weeklies get only 5 percent of their advertising from digital sources.
There is, at least, the possibility that a Backpage-less Voice Media could attract some of the advertisers that left over the sex trafficking, said Zollman. “But those [advertising] losses were probably relatively small, and convincing anyone to come back to print nowadays, once they’ve eliminated it from their budget for whatever reason, is not an easy task.”
A trio of current Village Voice Media Holdings execs, led by current COO Scott Tobias, are buying all of VVMH’s print and digital assets outside of Backpage. Tobias will become CEO of the new organization, Voice Media Group. Executive managing editor Christine Brennan will be named executive editor, and vp of financial operations Jeff Mars will become CFO. Tobias wasn't specific about plans to replace that Backpage revenue, saying only that the compnay would be putting out new digital products and more events in the months ahead.
“Backpage was a bit of a distraction,” Tobias admitted to Adweek. “This allows the core media company to focus on our hard-hitting news coverage and other core verticals.”