03/19/2012 08:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Newspaper Classifieds: The Good, the Bad and the Hilarious

The Chicago Reader, for decades one of America's most respected and profitable alternative weeklies, is for sale again, its troubles attributed to dramatic declines in classified ad revenues. The proximate cause: free ads offered by such competing web outlets as Craigslist. "Once [classified revenues] dried up," commented Charles Whitaker, a professor at Medill journalism school, "there was just no place else for them to turn." The Reader's sister papers in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. are also on the block, and across-the-board pay cuts were announced at all three papers.

At its best, the Reader -- like the Village Voice, LA Weekly, where I was publisher for nearly 20 years until 2002, and dozens of others in the alternative weekly niche -- offered a sharp critique of the journalism malpracticed by the mainstream press. As revenues have slumped all over the country, alt-weeklies have scrambled, slashing editorial staffs and page counts and cutting pay and benefits.

The sad state of newspaper classifieds makes me feel lucky that I worked at LA Weekly during the early '80s, when the classifieds did more than drive revenue: they said as much about the city's culture as the cover stories.

In those days, a follower of the Weekly's classifieds could find mind-bending New Age remedies ("Breast Enhancement Through Hypnosis!") intermingled with phone-sex lines, help wanteds (with headlines like "Cocaine Has Nothing To Do With This Job"), personals and apartment rentals. (One ad for a "clothing-optional apartment complex" prompted a perplexed call from an electrician who was asked to fix some wiring wearing only his boots and tool belt.)

The impossibly young classified crew was captained by legendary record collector/amateur drummer Jim Kaplan, who handled a steady barrage of freaked out clients with the mantra, "You got new business from your ad, so we must be doing something right." His staff included a Stanislavski-trained actress channeling Hollywood B-list icon Lola Lane; a guitarist/vocalist for a popular death metal band; a comic book writer with an English accent so thick clients couldn't understand him; a 21-year-old already twice-divorced personals manager; and a proudly punk messenger with a pet rat residing in his hair. The pages were pasted up with an Xacto knife and a straight edge, which permitted last-minute mischief like the substitution of the head of a German shepherd for the headshot of a prominent psychic.

The staff, especially the folks in production, dressed with a point of view. They mocked shoulder-pad clad "power women" by wearing actual football shoulder pads over their torn T-shirts and undoubtedly contributed to various tipping points in retro-hippie, punk or metal attire. A tiny, elderly Japanese gardener who came in to drop off an ad expressed delight that we dressed our employees up in costumes.

To draw readers into the classifieds, we published the idiosyncratic astrology column "Rockie Horoscope" -- in which the late, great Rockie Gardner predicted 10 out of every two earthquakes. In between the ads you could find absurd bits of clip art, like a bird pulling a worm out of a woman's eye. Even the typos could be revealing: an 83-year-old grandmother was horrified that we put her phone number in an ad for "China," a 6-foot-tall cross-dressing adult massage therapist. A few days later, granny was on the phone, complaining that she got only a handful of responses.

And yes, there were plenty of ads from "massage therapists" who specialized in happy beginnings, middles and endings. A libertarian argument could be made for running them, but the truth was we did it for the money, which allowed us to investigate and expose corruptions ignored by the dailies and to publish -- admittedly for minimal recompense -- the superb writing of Michael Ventura, Harlan Ellison, Mikal Gilmore and many other unique voices.

We also tried to use the classifieds to do some good deeds, which rarely went unpunished. "We gave prison inmates free 'pen pal' ads," Kaplan, who now owns his own newspaper, recalls. "One evening, I'm watching a 60 Minutes segment on a scam that involved prisoners in three jails born churning out hundreds of counterfeit money orders. One of their chosen venues to reel in their marks was the personal ads section of LA Weekly, where 'born again in prison' inmates sought 'good Christian pen pals.'"

The classified chaos at the Weekly was not for the fainthearted. It was often excruciating, especially every Thursday, the day the paper hit the streets. That's when the calls began from distribution outlets who hated the "adult" section and clients whose ads were mangled, wrongly categorized or just plain left out. Sometimes, though, the pain seemed a mere hangover from the night before, when, after the paper went out, some of the amazing musicians who populated the Weekly staff pushed furniture out of the way, set up their equipment and jammed far into the night.