Adult classifieds returning to Now, Georgia Straight

Toronto-based Media Central Corp. is betting that sex still sells. The parent company of alternative weeklies Now and The Georgia Straight is bringing back its adult classifieds business in an attempt to recoup some of its lost advertising revenue.

The company described the category as a “highly lucrative” business, and said it expects the sale of adult classifieds to bring in more than $2 million in annual revenue across the two titles.

CEO Brian Kalish said in a release that Toronto’s Now had generated “strong sales” from its adult classified category prior to a 2018 decision to stop carrying the ads. The Straight has continued to offer adult advertising, although the category was “temporarily suspended” at the height of the COVID crisis.

“Now that the two respective cities have begun reopening, we expect this re-launch to drive strong sales numbers alongside our newly revamped and fully integrated sales platforms,” said Kalish. “Our decision to bring back the classifieds is part of our strategic path to creating sustainable, profitable publications.”

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Now stopped carrying sex classifieds in 2018. In a letter announcing the decision (right), the publication’s longtime editor and publisher Alice Klein acknowledged that ads in the category had been “of interest to some and challenging for many others.”

Klein said that Now worked hard to create an advertising policy that was “sex positive, non-judgemental and helpful in creating safer working conditions” for “marginalized” men and women.

“That’s why denying sex workers their right to advertise when few publications would allow it was not an option for us,” she said. But with the digital environment offering  a “robust marketplace” for sex workers Now could stop carrying the ads.

However, Now editor Kevin Ritchie said in last week’s release that the publication’s original decision to stop offering adult classifieds two years ago was the result of “stifling” legislation, and welcomed the return of adult classifieds.

Now had continued to carry sex ads after the 2014 passing of Bill C-36, also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which criminalized “advertising the sale of sexual services.” The legislation contended that the promotion of prostitution through advertisements was a contributor to its demand.

However, an Ontario Court judge struck down the advertising ban earlier this year, saying that it violated the Charter right to freedom of expression. Advertising, wrote Justice Thomas McKay in his ruling, afforded prostitutes the ability to recruit customers without having to move to the street.

“This development further reinforces our ability to provide a voice to those living alternative lifestyles and who have a right to the freedom of expression,” said Ritchie in the release.

Sex classifieds might also offer a much-needed revenue stream for the alternative weeklies, which have seen advertising revenue evaporate during the pandemic. In a note to shareholders earlier this year, Kalish said that as much as 80% of its revenue disappeared during the pandemic.

Sex ads in alt-weeklies had long been a contentious issue. In 2012, a group of singers and bands including former members of REM and the Roots joined a campaign aimed at forcing New York’s now-defunct alternative weekly The Village Voice to stop carrying ads for escorts, strip clubs and other adult services on its adult section, saying that they led to the exploitation of minors.

At the time, 27 national brands including AT&T, American Airlines, Best Buy, H&M, Starbucks and T-Mobile also dropped advertising in publications owned by then Voice owner Village Voice Media.

Now‘s current decision likely won’t have the same effect, since most national advertisers had already largely abandoned alt-weeklies even prior to the pandemic. A March article by Nieman Lab, meanwhile, described the pandemic as “a nearly perfect weapon against alternative weeklies,” exacerbating the “crisis mode” they’ve been in for much of the past decade.

Media Central Corp. did not respond to an interview request.

Chris Powell