Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Save journalism, legalize prostitution

At the Dallas Morning News Opinion blog, editorial writer Tod Robberson takes a slap at the Dallas Observer for contracting with a national aggregator criticized for accepting ads from prostitutes and escort services, noting that "Washington State last week enacted a law that would expose companies like to criminal prosecution if such ads involve underage prostitutes." He continued:
Few of us here at The Dallas Morning News like to admit that, occasionally, we read the Dallas Observer. But we do. And lots of folks around here are trying to figure out how the Observer seems to do so well financially while we're in a constant state of struggle. I will speculate a little bit here. I suspect readers do not necessarily flock to the Observer for their quality journalism. And even if they do, that's not what is keeping the Observer in business. Heck, it's a free newspaper. What keeps the Observer in business is advertising, and that weekly tabloid is thick with it. Online, it's hard to visit their site without being overwhelmed by all the colorful, flashing ads.

Not just any ads. If you look at the numbers posted by the Observer, you'll find some telling statistics of what's bringing in the dough. Let's see, there are 26 ads for restaurants, two for fashion/accessories, one for home furnishings/home improvement. No, I don't think those are what's paying the bills. A bit farther down the page is a category called adult entertainment, which has 13,773 ads. Hmmm, there might be a clue there.
He then quotes some racy, suggestive captions, joking that he didn't click on them for fear of alerting Belo Corp. human resources staff, but concludes that:
The journalism world is misguided in pointing to the Village Voice and other publications of that ilk as models of success in a market desperately struggling to stay afloat. We are looking at all options (well, almost all options) to maintain a positive revenue stream and attract readers. No one knows what the formula for survival ultimately will be. But if it means stooping to the level of health & wellness ads, I would opt for closing our doors first. These days, it's getting harder and harder to define what journalism is. But I know what it isn't, and nails the "isn't" part on the head.
Grits responded thusly in the comments:
Really? You'd rather see daily journalism die than pay for it by selling advertising for services that a not-insignificant portion of your readership would patronize (or at least read voyeuristically, as they do your crime coverage)? No wonder conservatives think the MSM disdains the public: You do. I don't know if it's true, as was said on GCB, that Dallas is the world's strip club capital, but it's gotta be up there: This is your readership. Own it.

And btw, if you'll look around the newsroom at the Dallas News' depopulating ranks over the last few years, "quality journalism" isn't doing much to keep y'all in business, either. Should newspapers knowingly profit from exploitation of minors? No, and you certainly haven't demonstrated here - by a longshot - that the Dallas Observer has done so. But if y'all want to keep printing with ink on dead trees, perhaps you shouldn't be so quick to criticize a model that's clearly catering to a substantial, monied audience and employing quite a few excellent journalists at weeklies around the country.

Porn sells. Add a porn section behind the paywall and y'all could afford international bureaus and a small army of beat and investigative reporters that would rival the NYTimes and Washington Post. But no, you don't want to do that because you're too pure to give your audience what they want. IMO journalistic snootiness isn't just a political problem for conservatives, it's killing your business model.
I wrote that a bit as a provocation, though I do think the Morning News would make a lot more money - and make their photographer corps a lot happier - if they paid for daily journalism with a behind-the-paywall porn (or, if you like, "adult entertainment") section. The exchange with Robberson, though, got me thinking. I've often felt there's a strong argument that legalizing prostitution would do more to protect underage girls from exploitation - by regulating the workplace - than does an outright ban, which clearly has not stopped a thriving, underground trade. (When brothels on Hotel Street were tolerated in Honolulu before and during World War II, local government and later military commanders were able to closely regulate the industry for abuses; see a good account [pdf] from the Hawaiian Journal of History.) Might it also be the case that legalizing prostitution could save journalism with a lucrative new ad source on par with auto dealerships or real estate? Taking a long-term perspective, it's not the "oldest profession" for nothing.

When markets are large enough they trump laws. Whenever there is significant demand, supply will arise to fill it in a black market. A legal market, though, can be regulated. State lotteries and legalized lottos did more to wipe out numbers running by the mafia on the east coast than the FBI ever did, just as ending Prohibition effectively quashed violence related to alcohol production and distribution, and reduced deaths from bad product. We hear terrible stories in the media and certainly at the Legislature, which has passed potent sex trafficking enhancements, about coercive sex trafficking that's often compared to slavery. Would legalizing and regulating adult, consensual prostitution similarly drive out the criminal element the way a legal lottery defeated the mafia? Perhaps. If so, it would be a greater boon to exploited young girls than another criminal-penalty enhancement.

In any event, Grits would rather see newspapers make money from "adult entertainment" than treating news reporting as entertainment, which is another common route some outlets have taken to draw in more readership (though to its credit, mostly not the Morning News). I don't consider voyeurism about gory, personal crime details any more commendable than sexual voyeurism, but newspapers have profited from printing salacious crime details for years. To save the industry, newspaper editors need to get off their high horse, or else fall off, probably into the unemployment line, albeit with their self-righteousness and dignity intact.


Lee said...

Nothing sells better that sex and violence!! Can I get an Amen?

Tod Robberson said...

Yeah, but it's a pretty slippery slope once you go over to the dark side. Nicholas Kristof zeroes in on the main issue: carries ads that promote underage prostitution. And that's hard to argue with, even if you support legalizing prostitution in general. I don't know a lot of prostitutes (no, actually I don't know ANY), but I doubt that there are many of them who got into the profession for the career-advancement opportunities or because they enjoy being demeaned and degraded and sexually abused on an hourly basis. And if promoting a business that debases people is what it takes for us journalists to survive in our business, I'm sorry, but that doesn't work for me. There's gotta be a better way.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Tod, I think my suggestion more honestly and effectively addresses underage prostitution than your head-in-the-sand approach, which seems to assume that if we just ignore it it will go away.

jimbino said...

Another way to save a paper is to get rid of the sports and women's pages.

That's why the old WSJ used to be preferable to the NYT, which still pollutes the world with useless print, including glossy "style" mags. "All the news that's fit to print plus all the trash that isn't."

Ryan Paige said...

I just think it's weird that someone at the DMN would talk down about the Observer's reporting while hiring away their reporters.

(Also, holding stories that could impact elections until after the election - like the DMN did with the NTTA/Trinity Toll Road story - is, to me, worse than running pornographic ads)

Red Leatherman said...

After we lost the Times Herald the Observer has come through. No wonder DMN wants to discredit it.

Lena said...

As usual, the Dallas Morning News folks don't read their own paper. They allow advertisers to place a full-page ad for a miracle diet drug! And...have you seen their want ads. Lot's of ladies on there advertising personal massages.

The Fishing Physicist said...

If I might, I’ll quote the great parapsychology Dr. Egon Spengler, Ph.D. “Print is dead.”

RSO wife said...

So it's OK to advertise porn, but not to look at it? Somehow this seems hypocritical to me. My husband spent 4 years on probation for looking at it on line and had his probation revoked for e-mailing one of his friends about a work related subject (no internet access except for work purposes).

I'm all for legalizing both prostitution and drugs and then let the government tax the hell out of it. It would be better regulated although on second thought the government can't even regulate itself. When they enacted prohibition back in the 20's and 30's people didn't stop drinking, they just got their booze illegally. All it did was drive the sale of alcohol to the streets and the mob was the one making all the money. It seems we never learn.

DEWEY said...

Prostitution IS legal. It's also known as "Politics".

Dead Tree Reader said...

This is a not new thing. Newspapers have always chosen profits over principle when it comes to accepting ads. How many people have died from tobacco products that for decades were a backbone of newspaper advertising? In the 19th century, newspapers stayed afloat advertising patent medicines from snake-oil salesmen. What's curious is why the Dallas News choose right now to put moral scruples over their bottom line?

AnnW said...

Sweden has an interesting model for legalized prostitution. It is legal for women to sell sexual services (or men to do so), but it is not legal to buy them. Johns and pimps are criminals, prostitutes go scot-free. Philosophically this makes sense, as I control my body, but no one can buy or own my body. Not sure how it works in reality.

If it takes selling prostitution ads for a newspaper to survive (and let's not kid ourselves - these are prostitution ads, right?), they need a better business model. Bernie Madoff justified his get-rich-quick schemes, too.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ann, let's not besmirch prostitutes by comparing them to Bernie Madoff. He was a thief and a con man. Whatever else one may say about prostitutes, those gals work for their money. ;)

For those not familiar with the case study, I'd encourage you to read the relatively brief paper (pdf, 18 pages) linked in the post from an historian on Hawaiian prostitution regulation before and during WWII. The episode is unique both for the longevity of the regulated scheme, mostly non-coercive recruitment, and general positive outcomes related to both disease and public order. From the paper: "In 1941, Dr. William P. Snow of New York visited Honolulu to study the situation and inspect the houses, which then paid rents ranging from $200 to $500 a month. His verdict: He had never before seen such a common-sense setup and was astonished at the low venereal disease rate among Army and Navy personnel."

Fascinating stuff. I'll bet if you checked the (late) Honolulu Advertiser from that era it would be filled with ads for prostitution services. The Advertiser closed in 2010. Would they still be in business if prostitution were legal in Hawaii and purchased significant advertising in the local paper? The examples cited by Kristoff in the NY Times show you can finance a lot of reporters' salaries with the proceeds from such revenues, and the regulated Hawaiian model was inestimably safer and more hygenic for everyone, including the women, than what's going on today in the world of black market sex trafficking.

ckikerintulia said...

I don't know when they closed down, but I know that houses of ill repute operated openly in Amarillo up until about 1950. How I know this is my business.

Anonymous said...

And...have you seen their want ads. Lot's of ladies on there advertising personal massages.



Anonymous said...

Google sex slaves USA.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:33, once we do that, what is the solution? That's the outcome under the current, blanket legal ban. Read the account of prostitution in Hawaii and tell me if you think it isn't preferable to what you discovered on your Google search.