The Rocky Mountain News is closed. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is now web only. The foreign bureaus of the Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe have closed. The publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune has filed for bankruptcy. The Christian Science Monitor folded its print edition. The Star-Ledger of Newark has cut its staff in half. Newhouse, Copley, and Media General have eliminated their Washington bureaus. The San Francisco Chronicle is on the brink of closing; if it does, the City By The Bay would be a city without a daily newspaper. One of the most popular Twitter feeds on the web goes by the name TheMediaIsDying. The economic crisis couldn’t have come at a worst time for the Fourth Estate, and while editorials across the country argue for the importance and value of news gathering media, the reality is print subscribers are down, ad revenue is down, and the graveyard of media outlets is filling up at an alarming rate.
And that’s just the scene within mainstream media. Last week, Genre magazine folded after more than a decade and a half. The New England Blade folded less than a month after the stock market crashed last October. The Advocate, arguably the most prominent gay publication on the planet, has cut its publication schedule in half, publishing monthly while its parent company Planet Out reduced staff by a third. Chicago’s Windy City Times closed its newsroom. Cleveland’s Gay People’s Chronicle was a weekly, but now publishes twice a month. L.A.’s two gay publications, Frontiers and IN merged, shedding more than half their staff over the past year. Gay media watchdogs say “publishers need to adjust strategy or face extinction.” But is that true? How close to Armageddon is gay media — and should we even care?
The crisis in gay media has been a long time coming. Properly speaking, the gay media industry is a loose amalgamation of independent papers, two major national print organizations (Regent Media and Window Media), Viacom’s Logo network, Sirius’ OutQ radio network, and independent gay websites like Queerty. Local radio shows and public cable shows like long-running In The Life round out the mix.
(Full disclosure: I’ve written for The Advocate, Out, Frontiers and Instinct Magazine and have worked for Logo’s now defunct Visible Vote and After Elton.)
Queerty spoke with over a dozen freelancers, editors and staffers– all anonymously– and asked them what they felt was contributing to the current crisis. What follows are the three major trends that have led to the current state of gay media.What follows is an amalgamation of their concerns.
Coverage is only skin deep.
While on the surface, gay media seems like a broad arena, in practice, it’s a cottage industry.
Until this month, The Advocate‘s news division sole staff member was Kerry Eleved. She is now the magazine’s Washington correspondent and the publication seeks a news editor to replace her. By comparison, The Washington Blade employs four full-time reporters, including editor Joshua Lynsen. If you include regional newspapers like the Philadelphia Gay News (two reporters) and Frontiers IN (one reporter), you still only get up to a couple dozen full-time reporters covering gay topics in the country.
Instead, gay publications rely on freelancers for their coverage. The reason is economic. Going rates for freelance writing in gay media start at twenty cents a word. Even freelancers are feeling the crunch.
On the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist’s Association news board, writers ask for suggestions on how to survive the economic crunch. One popular email is a “Open-Recommendation for a Journalist,” which describes why journalists make good hires in other industries.
With budgets down, major news sources like The Washington Blade and The Advocate have become reliant on wire news sources like the Associated Press for a significant chunk of their coverage (as have mainstream titles). “I used to write seven or eight pieces a month” says one prominent gay media freelancer, agreeing to speak anonymously, “Now, I’m lucky if I get one article. This month, it’s been nothing.”
The “Gay Media Bubble” kept publications from evolving with the times.
The paucity of hard news staffers isn’t accidental. The two largest media organizations, Regent and Window, have pursued similar strategies in the last decade, focusing on advertiser-friendly “lifestyle” topics like fashion and arts and entertainment to lure in subscribers.
It hasn’t been successful.
Regent’s Out Traveler folded in January and “transitioned” into an extension of Out. The Advocate spent heavily on major redesign last year, touting “heavier card stock” and a focus on lifestyle columns as one of the benefits of the new monthly edition of the magazine. Genre was by definition a lifestyle magazine.
The focus on lifestyle has its roots in the recent past. While mainstream media has been struggling since 2001, until the crisis, gay media was the one sector of the media industry experiencing rapid growth. As advertisers discovered the gay market, they flooded publications with lucrative ad revenue; after all, the gay market is commonly seen as affluent, brand loyal, and ready to unload their disposable income on news trends, not their kids.
Blindsided by the Internet.
What this meant in practice is that while MSM sources were adapting to the nascent Internet media world, many gay publications felt no need to adapt.
Flush with cash, gay media organizations asked themselves, “Why mess with a good system?” Unfortunately, much like the housing crisis, the gay media bubble was too good to last. While advertising dollars remained high, subscribers ran away in droves, lured by the immediacy and interactivity of the Internet and mainstream publications devoting more column inches to gay topics. Sites like this one offered up the news faster and allowed users to contribute to the discussion.
What resulted was a case of accidental obsolescence. It was only last year that The Advocate hired an online editor. Frontiers Magazine debuted a CD-ROM version of its revenue-enhancing “Gay Yellow Pages” in 2007, a strategy more suited to 1997.
Don’t blame the writers and editors. Blame management.
Even when a gay news organization does everything right, it still can’t catch a break.
Take The Washington Blade. The editors of the paper have managed the transition to the Internet fairly successfully, augmenting original coverage with blogs, wire news, and some interactivity, yet freelancers and staffers remain dubious about the paper’s future. The Blade‘s parent company Window Media was placed into federal receivership last August, yet CEO David Unger remains in charge.
Even more disturbing, Window Media has handled their crises in secret. The federal receivership was only discovered last month, by Gay City News and up until last Friday, there was no indication from the company that the publication was in trouble.
Window Media’s holdings include the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, Houston Voice, South Florida Blade, David Atlanta, The 411 Magazine, and the now defunct Genre. In September, the publications will be put up for sale.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of these rags, but any buyer will look at the fiasco at Genre and pause. As reported earlier, the last days of Genre were met with silence as subscribers failed to get issues of the magazine, writers wrote stories they were never paid for and management made a show of appointing Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff the new editor of the magazine a week before the magazine folded. (Queerty reached out to Unger for comment on this story; he has yet to respond to any of our requests.)
Unger is not alone, however. The recent history of The Advocate and related publications has been a game of musical chairs. In 2004, Planet Out, the holding company for The Advocate, Out, and a number of related gay companies went public, trading at $10 a share. By 2007, Planet Out was trading at $1.42. A quick infusion of cash from a hedge fund that included investors like Bill Gates pumped $150 million into its coffers, but later that year the company announced its intentions to sell The Advocate to Regent/here! for $6.5 million. Ultimately, here!, now known as Regent Releasing, bought the remains of Planet Out last year in what was described by some as “a fire sale.”
Regent’s CEO Paul Colichman has been dubbed by John Waters “The Gay Citizen Hearst,” and for good reason. Through Regent, Colichman and his straight business partner Stephen P. Jarchow own The Advocate, Out, here!, gay porn magazines Freshman, Unzipped, and Men, as well as websites BuyGay.com and GayWired.com. Yet when it comes to gay media, Colichman has signaled he has little to no interest in gay media as anything other than a marketing tool. Speaking about Here! Magazine, his first print venture, Colichman said:
“We did the magazine purely as a publicity piece for the network. We’re not in the magazine business. It’s a really saturated and very difficult market. I really have zero desire to be in the magazine business in any serious way. We simply use it as a marketing piece as we would a flier or a handout.”
Do we even need gay media?
All these problems were present before the financial crisis, but are now amplified by the disastrous economic landscape we find ourselves in today. With the earliest hope of recovery now pushed into mid-2010, depending on which blowhard politico you believe, gay publications have a long storm to weather before better days. But do we even need a gay media? With mainstream coverage of gay issues now a given and the proliferation of websites like Queerty, as well as a generational shift towards instant news via Twitter and Facebook, one could argue the change is simple evolution. Survival of the fittest, if you will.
But to think that way would be a mistake. Just like mainstream news, gay outlets provide the base of coverage. While everyone says the news is moving online, websites have more limited resources to do in-depth investigative pieces or stay on a beat. News, however much a public service it renders, is still, however, a business. The question facing the gay media industry is, can it meet the challenge of serving readers and not simply investors?