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An alternative paper axes escort ads, but it's no morals case

Why would a young and puckish alternative weekly, which has yet to show a profit and until recently paid some of its writers in beer and gift certificates to burrito joints, cut some $200,000 in annual revenue -- a sum that rivals the pay of its entire editorial staff?

It's not for moral reasons -- that is, any concern they might be profiting off prostitution, its president and publisher say.

Nor, they say, is it the result of an FBI investigation last month into child pornography, or pressure from its parent company, which unsuccessfully sought to move the staff from the cramped space it now occupies in an old South End warehouse near the Pine Street Inn into more plush offices. (The paper's content, management was told, didn't fit the landlord's mold.)

And they insist it has nothing to do with avoiding potential sexual harassment complaints by allowing the likes of ''Miami's Best Booty," ''Asian Pearl," or ''Chocolate Bunny" to flaunt their fleshy wares during photo shoots at their office, notable for its smattering of scuffed desks, half-empty bottles of Jack Daniel's, and pictures of David Hasselhoff overlooking the Southeast Expressway.

This month, the top brass of Boston's Weekly Dig, which over the past seven years has carved a niche in the local media scene and provided increasing competition to the Phoenix, decided to stop advertising escort services. The ads, most of them featuring nearly naked women, are a staple of alternative weeklies around the country -- the Phoenix publishes a separate section filled with them -- and they have long rankled local police, who say they serve as fronts for prostitution.

The salacious ads once accounted for 40 percent of the Dig's revenue, the paper's directors say, but this year dropped to about 5 percent, reflecting the paper's success in landing new advertising accounts.

''I'm not in the business of providing my readers with a moral compass . . . and there are no issues of legality," said Jeff Lawrence, the Dig's president and founder. ''I'm just honored to be in the position we're in now. We've reached a position that we had an opportunity to change."

Two years ago, Boston Magazine publisher Metrocorp bought a majority stake in the Dig, leading to the freebie's redesign and a doubling of circulation, to nearly 60,000 copies a week, according to an independent audit.

The investment, Lawrence said, has helped the paper boost salaries and buy new equipment, nearly double the size of the staff to 28, and move into larger offices this summer.

It also gave the paper the ability to eliminate ads that Lawrence and ther staffers say don't cater to their target audience, those between 18 and 34 years old. They haven't polled readers or assembled focus groups, Lawrence said, but he insists Dig readers don't use ads for escorts because ''they're skewed to an older audience," an apparent dig at the Phoenix, which he said targets ''50-year-olds in Lexington."

The Dig audience, however, does like porn, he said, and the Dig has continued to publish racy ads for exotic dancers, massage parlors, and everything from adult chat lines to services that get as explicit as offering ''Free Sex." Also, the paper's website still offers escort ads, though they are free. (In the current newsstand edition, Lawrence said a ''system glitch" mistakenly put one massage parlor ad under an ''escort" heading.)

''Escort ads helped keep the lights on here for a long time," said Chris Rohland, the Dig's publisher, adding the paper has already replaced the revenue from the escort ads and expects to be profitable by the end of 2007. ''We're growing at a pace now where we felt we could get off the adult IV. We felt we should focus on attracting useful ads."

Phoenix's Mindich is mum
Stephen M. Mindich, the Phoenix's publisher, declined to comment on the Dig or his paper's decision to continue publishing escort ads.

''I really have no need or interest to talk," he said at his paper's office in the Fenway. In 1991, after police launched a sting and charged one of the Phoenix's advertisers with running a $3 million prostitution ring that had more than 4,000 clients, Mindich told the Globe he had no problem continuing to publish escort ads. ''I have no idea, literally, whether 80 percent are fronts or 80 percent are legitimate," he said, noting it wasn't the first time controversy arose over the ads. ''We have not changed anything as a result . . . and have no intention of changing it."

The Phoenix's editor, Peter Kadzis, said the Dig has ''cleverly discontinued a category that they're not strong in. They're making a PR play."

When asked in a phone interview about the Dig's rise as a competitor, he would only say: ''I don't make judgments based on what they do. Period."

Neither The Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald publish escort ads. ''Our standards reflect what our readers expect," said Tim Murphy, the Globe's vice president of advertising, marketing, and sales.

The Dig isn't the first alternative weekly to give up escort ads, which are increasingly published for free on websites such as craigslist.com, said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a Washington-based advocacy group representing more than a hundred papers, including the Dig and the Phoenix. Other weeklies have debated giving up adult ads in an effort to attract more traditional advertisers, such as banks and department stores, Karpel said. But he hasn't seen any ideological groundswell against publishing such ads.

The men-in-blue view
To police in Boston, where 2,200 people have been arrested on prostitution-related charges in the past five years, there's no question that escort ads are legal. There's also no question that what they're advertising often isn't.

Over the past year, Sergeant Detective James Fong said he has arrested some 80 local prostitutes who advertised as escorts in the Dig, Phoenix, or online. Fong, one of the force's few detectives who polices the city's sex industry (the department disbanded its vice squad in the 1980s), said the only difference between prostitutes and those who advertise as escorts is that escorts don't have to walk the streets.

''Without a doubt, the escort ads are advertising prostitution," Fong said, adding that proving as much can be difficult. He said the escort service women he's arrested on prostitution charges have ranged in age from 18 to 56; even when convicted, few serve time in jail.

Because of that low risk, he said, those who place escort ads have become increasingly explicit, effectively erasing the pretense that they are services to accompany the lonely, he said.

Over the last few years, the Dig has received multiple inquiries for information from Boston Police and the FBI about its advertisers, Lawrence and his advertising director say.

They've routinely refused to provide information, they say, though they recently complied with FBI demands about an advertiser allegedly linked to child pornography, and another linked to a group calling for ''all types & sizes" to ''work in adult films."

But there was little secret about the Dig's escort ad business, visible to anyone on the fifth floor of the warehouse the paper occupies in the city's old garment district.

A parade of scantily clad women -- some pregnant, and some toting children -- ambled in regularly to have their pictures taken for a fee ranging from $75 to $150, depending on the size of the ad.

''Due to the nature of the business, we didn't take credit cards," said Nick Bolitho, the Dig's classified ad director.

Some brought in their own pictures and advertising copy, which the staff sometimes edited for being too explicit or too raunchy, Bolitho said.

They had other standards, too: They say they refused to sell ads to women who had clients -- or ''hobbyists" -- call the paper and complain about their escorts robbing them.

''As far as we were concerned, we said the ads were for someone who wanted company," he said. ''Whatever they wanted to do with their clients was up to them."

Since the Dig stopped publishing escort ads, Bolitho said, he has received a dozen or so calls from escorts asking why they stopped running their ads.

''They seemed confused, and they just keep asking, 'Why?' " he said. ''We've told them to post their ads on our website."

E-mail David Abel at dabel@globe.com.

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