The rise and fall of Backpage — the online publication that became infamous for its thinly-veiled prostitution ads and more recently for the arrest of its founders on charges of money laundering and conspiracy — is the subject of a 6,000-word article in Reason.
Writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown (LinkedIn profile) interviews Backpage co-founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey on how they got their start as alternative press pioneers in Phoenix in the 1970s, how they took on the rich and powerful in Arizona government (“We didn’t really care what politicians saw in us. And that’s come back to haunt us.”) and pushed the boundaries of advertising when the Internet was just a twinkle in a DARPA lab. (Remember pay-per-minute 900 numbers for personal ads?)
Along the way, Lacey and Larkin’s 17 alternative weeklies won more than 1,400 journalism awards including a Pulitzer Prize.
It was advertising that would eventually trip up the pair’s New Times Inc. By the time the company acquired Village Voice Media in 2005, Craigslist and other online classified sites had already gobbled up much of the revenue the alt-weeklies relied on.
Backpage was born in 2004 to compete with Craigslist. For much of the last decade, it’s been pretty much a two-pony show in the U.S. with one big difference: When Craigslist cracked down on its “erotic services” category in 2010, Backpage picked up the slack. Posting in most sections of Backpage was free, but the site charged for adult ads.
“Initially, the relationship between Backpage and law enforcement agents was cordial and cooperative,” Brown writes. “Ads that directly indicated underage or forced prostitution were blocked and reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement, as were posts deemed suspicious or likely to contain images of someone under 21.”
How did the site go from friend to foe, to the point where it would be seized in April 2018 by federal authorities, where Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer would be accused by California attorney general Kamala Harris of “pimping” and where its co-founders would be confined to their homes with ankle monitors?
Read the whole gritty story for yourself.