The Gay Media Jump the Page

Published in: May-June 2009 issue.


THE STORIED HISTORY of print publishing by and for the GLBT community goes back to the 1950’s and 60’s—some would say earlier still—and its dominance as the medium of choice for that community remained unchecked until quite recently. Such is not the case for the mainstream media, whose center of gravity shifted long ago from print to broadcast outlets, notably television. But the gay community never had its own radio or TV stations (until very recently), and was even shunned by the mainstream media for many decades as a target audience or a topic of discussion. Consequently, from the early publications of the Mattachine Society (ONE) and the Daughters of Bilitis (The Ladder) in the 50’s and the founding of The Advocate in the 60’s to the rise of slick monthly magazines (OUT, Curve, Genre) in the 90’s—and, above all, through the dozens or hundreds of local newspapers and weekly “bar rags” that have animated our world since the late 70’s—GLBT people have been a people of the printed word.

All that began to change in the mid-1990’s, however slowly at first. The technology was in place and the Internet was beginning to be widely used for person-to-person communication, but few people, whether gay or straight, had begun to tap its potential for building networks or communities of like-minded citizens. This situation would change in a dramatic way in 1998, when Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered for being gay. At that time, this relatively new technology known as the Internet helped fuel a gay response unlike any that had been seen before. Activists used the Internet to organize and protest, calling for marches around the country. The gay media also used the Internet to find information and sources, and to facilitate coverage of the event in the days following Shepard’s murder. Internet activists also used their new tool to force mainstream reporters to see this story as important even in towns far away from Laramie.

Some gay newspapers were quick to adopt a new visibility on-line. I was publisher of Outlines in Chicago at the time (having left Windy City Times in 1987, before returning to purchase it back from my co-founder in 2000). Outlines, thanks to volunteers from a local university, built one of the earliest gay newspaper websites and e-mail databases. We knew that being a weekly newspaper left gaps in coverage when there was breaking news, and the Internet provided a free additional way to reach our readers.

As a free publication, we were already “giving it away,” so perhaps we treated the Internet differently than the paid dailies did. We did not see it as competition so much as a new and cheaper way to reach people. By the mid-1990’s we were posting almost all of our print articles on the Web, and in fact those deep archives for Outlines are still searchable on-line. It’s why an obscure local candidate in a 1996 election in Illinois came up as searchable in our database during the 2008 presidential elections. Some enterprising mainstream reporters found out that Barack Obama had said he favored gay marriage all the way back in 1996—thanks to the Outlines newspaper on-line archives.

Because of slower access speeds and high expense, most of our 1990’s on-line presence was through text stories. We did not have a lot of splashy graphics or images. We sent simple text e-mail to readers. The idea of an audio podcast or video feed was not within the realm of possibility. Even blogging was not a common concept. Some other gay newspapers started to tiptoe onto the Internet in the 1990’s as well, establishing their domain names and putting some articles on-line. But everyone was questioning how to monetize this new thing, and how to make sure not to cannibalize your print readership and advertising base.

While most mainstream and gay media people contemplated those questions, the new world order almost passed them by. As the cost of website development came down, and as more people had higher-speed access to the Internet, all media enterprises knew they had to learn how to play in this new sandbox. By the early 2000’s, most gay newspapers and magazines had a solid on-line presence, but few were putting whole editions on-line. They were treating the Internet as an unwanted appendage, and especially old-school publishers were worried it was a waste of time and money.

Meanwhile, exclusively on-line gay ventures had already started, notably and PlanetOut, which eventually merged as, and regional gay websites serving local and, as it were, hyperlocal needs. These companies were selling on-line advertising to survive, or signing up paid members in the case of dating sites, and they were challenging the old ways of communicating within the GLBT community.

Gay newspapers that were slow to strengthen their on-line presence have generally paid the price in the new economy, and many local weeklies and “bar rags” have ceased publication. As we plunge into what seems to be a deep economic recession, the decline of newspapers both gay and mainstream has only accelerated. Publications that have not innovated or found ways to gain new revenue streams on-line are failing. Those with huge overheads from the days of high profits, mergers, and acquisitions are saddled with debts that the Internet cannot come close to covering.

The GLBT media, while operating mostly under the radar of mainstream attention, have not been immune to the problems facing all print media: lack of access to capital, the shift of advertising revenues to on-line portals, and readers who are more likely to read a “paper” on-line than in print. There are more readers of gay media now than at any other time in history, but the manner in which they acquire their reading material has been shifting in the same way that everyone else has been shifting—toward the on-line and free. Nor should this be an insurmountable challenge: gay newspapers had already succeeded with the free model; now their challenge is to conquer the Internet with a comparable approach.

Windy City Times: A Case History

Windy City Times went on-line early in the Internet era. But that doesn’t mean we have figured out a viable on-line model even today. We have more than 100,000 articles and photos archived on our website, including sister publications that we’ve issued, such as Nightspots, BLACKlines, and En La Vida. We also have a podcast on-line, Windy City Queercast, and in 2009 have added a video channel,

But despite this aggressive and longstanding on-line presence, we still make far more money in our traditional print products than we do on-line. In fact, even though print is an expensive and labor-intensive model, it still supports the bulk of our company’s overhead. Our on-line revenues do continue to grow, but they’re still less than ten percent of the total. So if we were to eliminate our print products, we would also have to cut staff and freelancers in a way that would negatively influence our content—not an appealing option.

The answer is to continue to push our traditional media advertisers into a more sophisticated understanding of on-line advertising. Some small businesses are intimidated by the prospect of selling their services and products on-line, and many traditional print advertisers are used to getting “free” on-line add-ons to their large print buys. If we don’t value our on-line inventory, why should our advertisers?

In mid-2008, the tipping point came for our company when our unique on-line visitors passed the 20,000 mark weekly. That meant we were seeing more visitors to our website than the number of copies of Windy City Times we were printing. We also started offering readers the option of downloading the complete PDF file of our publication, advertising and all, and have seen a dramatic increase in weekly downloads. People can view the content as text, or in PDF with ads, which of course helps our advertisers. However, a corresponding surge has not happened for on-line ad sales. There are far fewer spaces to sell in an on-line environment than in a print publication, which can add pages to accommodate advertising. On-line, we have front-page banner and side ads that record millions of views, plus a weekly 10,000-person e-mail blast to readers.

In some ways, the Internet has also freed up the restrictions that gay media have traditionally confronted. Thus, for example, it’s possible to run longer on-line versions of stories and interviews, to post breaking news, and to create on-line content on the fly. We have thousands more words on-line each week than we can fit into print, especially as the economy continues to shrink and our page count follows. So, from an editorial standpoint, there’s a freedom that was only dreamed about before: the ability to feature many more articles and “voices” from our community.

The problem facing all gay media is how to survive in this new model. We in Chicago have adapted well to the Internet, earlier than most gay newspapers, and our readership is growing by the day. The content is clearly a commodity valued by users, based on our mix of visitors. But even as an early adopter, we have not yet mastered a model that would allow our current infrastructure to be supported in an on-line-only world.

Imagine World War II or the Vietnam War without its reporters on the ground, doing the first draft of history. The role that gay and lesbian newspapers and newsletters played in our movement has often been underappreciated. We can’t lose sight of the importance of gay media to our past, or in our present-day lives. Even as the mainstream media become more educated and sensitive to gay issues, they can only cover our community up to a point. They cannot do the depth of analysis of a gay newspaper or website. More to the point, on-line publications with their limited ad revenues cannot do the kind of shoe-leather reporting and local journalism that print journalism has taken care of in the past.

Surveys have shown that gays and lesbians are often early adopters of new technology. This was true in the days of the BBS (bulletin board systems), the Internet, and now iPhones, Kindles—and whatever the next big thing may be. Gay media will follow, being seen and heard through all these new media channels. If the name “brands” of the gay media world are to survive this next upheaval in communications, they will need to continue to ride the wave of new technologies.

Tracy Baim is executive editor of Windy City Media Group and publisher of Windy City Times (which she co-founded in 1985). In 2008, she launched, and edited the book
Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community (Surrey Books).


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