A campaign against adult classified ads that some link to child sex-trafficking turned up the heat on City Pages this week.
At least two advertisers confirmed they will not renew contracts with the Minneapolis alternative weekly, citing concerns about the adult section of Backpage.com. Others plan to monitor the situation.
City Pages and Backpage, the second-largest online classified site after Craigslist, are both owned by Village Voice Media, which also operates 12 other weeklies that run ads from the site. Backpage has come under fire for being linked to underage prostitution.
The latest round of pressure comes from the blog VillageVoicePimp.com, which is making an "earnest request" of Minnesotans to "gently elbow" advertisers in City Pages so Village Voice Media will stop publishing adult ads via Backpage.
The blog is mostly the work of a New York crusader, William Hayes, who has made it his life's passion to shut down Backpage. Hayes said he is zeroing in on City Pages "because of all the action in your city," including recent calls by the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils and the Hennepin and Ramsey county attorneys for Backpage to halt the ads.
The Hennepin County Bar Association has already been swayed, said its executive director, Mary-Margaret Zindren: "Our contract ran out last week, and in light of statements by the Minneapolis City Council and the Hennepin County attorney's office, we decided not to renew."
Famous Dave's in Minneapolis' Calhoun Square also is not renewing its contract. General manager Steve Nicholas said Friday that Backpage was not the main reason, but a contributing factor. "We're a family restaurant and we've never liked that our ad was one page away from [adult] ads," he said.
City Pages editor Kevin Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment; Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media, said all further comment would come through her. She said the issue is an Internet-wide problem that won't go away if Backpage stops adult ads, because traffickers would just move to other sites. Craigslist stopped its escort ads in 2010, but "there's been no evidence that child exploitation has decreased at all," she said.
Though just one person, Hayes is considered a grassroots arm of a network working to combat child trafficking, said Kwame Fosu, policy director for the Rebecca Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization instrumental in getting Craigslist to discontinue adult ads. "He's the one who knocks on doors, gets petitions signed and keeps track of everything going on," Fosu said.
Pressure to stop advertising poses a quandary for City Pages' advertisers, many of them small, local businesses such as bars and nightclubs for which the weekly is a key ad vehicle.
"We have a really long, great relationship with City Pages," said Nate Kranz, general manager of Minneapolis' premier music club, First Avenue. "We wouldn't just end it without really making sure there was something there. But [the issue] sounds worth looking into."
Kim Bartmann, owner of City Pages advertiser Bryant Lake Bowl, said she would consider pulling ads "if City Pages and the Village Voice company are knowingly publishing ads linked to child prostitution."
City Pages, like the rest of the Village Voice weeklies, has had a list of advertisers posted on its site. As of Friday, those lists had been removed.
Minneapolis Police Sgt. Grant Snyder, who has linked Backpage to more than 20 child sex-trafficking cases this year, on Friday called the website "the marketing side of a triangular relationship with demand and supply. Every pimp, john and victim I talk to says Backpage is synonymous with online prostitution" -- including two men charged this week on suspicion of pimping an underage girl, Snyder said.
A mother told police in July that her 17-year-old daughter had run away. Snyder found a phone number associated with the girl on Backpage. Police used the ad to set up an appointment with the girl. After her arrest, she told police she'd met suspects Jeffrey Latawiec, 29, and Robert V. Love, 32, a few days prior and they'd gone to Latawiec's Minneapolis home to get high, say criminal complaints. While there, the girl placed an ad on Backpage using Latawiec's phone number. She then had sex with several men for money, which she gave to Latawiec and Love.
Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046