Gay Print Media on the Wane

The Internet spells doom for many long-established periodicals

If the old-line gay print media are, as many say, dying, November 16, 2009, marked the day the death rattle began.

The Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most important community weekly, had just celebrated its 40th anniversary in a hotel ballroom filled with political stars. When staffers arrived to work the following Monday morning, they found themselves locked out. Parent company Window Media had abruptly shut down the paper, along with newspapers and magazines in Atlanta and South Florida.

It certainly was not supposed to turn out that way. Window had been the brainchild of three men: David Unger, a brash, street-smart serial entrepreneur from Flushing; William Waybourn, a former executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the gay-media watchdog group; and Chris Crain, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a strong libertarian streak. Unger, who made his fortune investing in cable-TV systems, had the money; Waybourn was supposed to be the brawn; and Crain, the editorial director who counted Andrew Sullivan among his friends and had a mid-career turn to journalism, was the brains.

The three men had gone on a buying spree that included the Washington Blade, the (unrelated) New York Blade—a scrappy upstart weekly that began to publish in its last incarnation in 1997—weeklies in Houston and New Orleans, and weeklies and bar rags in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale. Unger envisioned a national print mini-empire that would allow him to cross-sell big advertisers. But the purchases of the New York Press and Genre, a glossy gay men’s lifestyle monthly, quickly sidetracked his aspirations. Nor was he able to persuade the owners of successful papers in other cities to sell to him. The executive triumvirate proved unwieldy and slowly came apart. Worst of all, the company was operating under a huge debt load from government loans that reportedly topped $38 million—far above the individual properties’ capitalization.

When print advertising began imploding, so did the page counts and profits. Houston and New Orleans fell quickly. The New York Blade went down after Window sold it to HX, the bar guide that itself was sold and folded into competitor Next last year. The New York Press was sold for a pittance, and Genre quietly folded earlier last year. The publishers and editors of Southern Voice in Atlanta and the Washington Blade are attempting to resurrect their respective papers, but starting a “hard copy” niche weekly in these hard times will prove daunting—to say the least. “They are dinosaurs,” observes William L. Leap, chair of the department of anthropology at American University. “By the time you get the next ‘text,’ it’s two weeks old.”

It’s true that all print media is going through an adjustment as newsgathering and disbursement goes digital. But the change is especially painful in the gay world. Newspapers have always had a special place among minorities striving to survive in a hostile environment—whether it’s the North Star, Frederick Douglass’s weekly published 10 years before the Civil War, or the Advocate, the national gay newsweekly begun two years before the Stonewall Riots. Today, the Advocate has been reduced to a thin insert mailed with Out magazine to the latter’s subscribers, with many questioning the viability of parent company Regent Media in the wake of nonpayments to freelancers.

The rise of the digital gay press comes down to access to information and how fast a blogger or news site can post it. Towleroad, Pam’s House Blend, and other blogs use social networking to report on relevant legislative votes and to file on-the-scene reports from hate-crime vigils and street protests, as well as scoops like Queerty’s uncovering Ricky Martin’s coming out—via Twitter, of course. Last December, I was able to report on the New York State Senate’s vote on gay marriage from my apartment in Brooklyn via a live stream of the proceedings in Albany, as well as texting, Tweets, and instant messages from activists inside the Senate chamber.

Social networking has become an increasingly important organizing tool, supplanting the way “Gay, Inc.”—the pejorative for the big national organizations—used to marshal the troops. When California voters passed Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, and again immediately after the state’s Supreme Court upheld it, young activists across the country took to Facebook and formed huge flash marches.

With print publications falling like so many dead trees, bloggers and new, online-only news networks like Edge Media Network and Britain’s Pink News are fast becoming the new gay press establishment. Making things even harder for gay media—new and old—is the not-unpleasant problem of continuous and thorough examination of LGBT issues in big media like The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Voice. Their coverage threatens to make already-threatened gay community weeklies, with their much more limited resources, redundant. Consider this: The photo that caught notorious professional homophobe George Alan Rekers with a male escort at an airport two months ago wasn’t taken for a gay paper, but for the Voice’s sister paper, Miami New Times.

Paul Schindler is the editor of Gay City News, the latest community weekly (now reduced to a biweekly) in New York, which has been especially unforgiving to local gay papers. While Schindler conceded that mainstream competitors cover hot-button issues like marriage, he added that they often don’t dig deeply enough or understand the nuances. Case in point: When former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. was challenging U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for the Democratic nomination, the Times accepted Ford’s claim that he had long supported civil unions—even though he had twice voted for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Gay City News, which called out the Times, has done exemplary reporting on police entrapment in public parks and bookstores. The Washington Blade’s Lou Chibbaro Jr., the Advocate’s Kerry Eleveld, and Gay City News’ Duncan Osborne are good examples of gym-shoe reporters who chase down scoops that the mainstream press either don’t see or don’t consider important.

On the flipside of all the gloom, big news organizations have finally recognized gay consumers’ $700 billion purchasing power and are entering into online partnerships. The Advocate is posting relevant stories from NBC News on its website, as is Edge Media Network’s feed of news and human-interest stories from CBS News. (CBS had previously partnered with Logo.)

With an increasing amount of potential advertising revenue at stake, the desire for mainstream media outlets to tap into the lucrative gay market is bigger than ever. The question remains whether this eagerness has come at the expense of the very publications that even made gay media possible in the first place. The Advocate was a key player in gay rights for four decades, and in the immediate wake of Stonewall, in-your-face papers like Boston’s Fag Rag helped turn a localized riot into a mass movement.

“It’s sad, in a way, because the newspaper and the magazine played such a role in the liberation struggle,” Leap laments. “It’s so sad to think some of those magazines that helped move the struggle forward are shutting down.” [The print version of this story should have disclosed that Lavers serves as the Edge's national news editor.]

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