|David Webb (l-r), Todd Evans, Chuck Colbert, Tracy Baim
and Fred Kuhr at Opening Plenary of the NLGJA LGBT Summit
(Photo: Jean Albright)
Annual LGBT Media Summit examines the industry’s past in order to inform and strengthen its future
by Chuck Colbert
Over more than four decades, LGBT media outlets have stirred a movement, sustained a community and created a market. That legacy and gay media’s future took center stage recently at a gathering of more than 300 journalists and public relations professionals.
The occasion was the LGBT Media Summit, held Thursday, August 22, in Boston. It was the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s 9th gay-media-specific convening, traditionally held a day before the organization’s yearly convention, which ran August 23-25.
In fact, two summit plenary sessions tackled the topic of the ever-changing LGBT media landscape. A new book by Tracy Baim served as a catalyst for discussion at the breakfast plenary, “Gay Press, Gay Power: Ensuring LGBT Media’s Future by Examining Its Past.”
Baim serves as Chicago-based Windy City Times publisher and executive editor. Her 468-page magnum opus, “Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America” was published within the last year (http://www.presspassq.com/detail.cfm?id=132#feature).
Press Pass Q editor Fred Kuhr moderated the session, featuring Baim, two contributors to the book, and LGBT media industry veteran Todd Evans, chief executive officer of Rivendell Media, the nation’s leading gay and lesbian ad-placement firm. (Rivendell Media is also publisher of Press Pass Q.)
“In going through Tracy’s book,” said Kuhr as moderator, “I was amazed at how many publications started or are still newsletters for volunteer organizations.” The staying power of many of these publications, he noted, stems from “the passion we have and not just the paycheck.” Twenty years ago, Kuhr served as editor of Vermont-based Out In The Mountains, a largely volunteer effort that has since folded.
Indeed, said Baim, “It’s important to understand how difficult it was to publish as openly gay people [back then], with no advertising base, just the bars. Those gay journalists and publishers survived in a much worse situation than we have today.”
Baim was referring to the aftermath of the Great Recession and the Digital Revolution, both of which have greatly shaken up the media industry — mainstream, alternative and LGBT.
Throughout her nearly three-decade career in gay media, moreover, she has seen it all — the boom years of the 1990s to the decline of LGBT newspapers since.
And yet, for all the challenges — for instance, finding new revenue streams and monetizing the web — Baim served up enough optimism about LGBT media, which is truly an industry in and of itself. While readily acknowledging being as “optimistic as depressed” while producing her work, she said. “It’s important to show our history because I still believe we have a future, and I hope the book addresses that.”
Historically, regional gay media, particularly weekly LGBT newspapers, have served as vital sources of information for their local communities.
A good example is Dallas Voice, founded in 1984.
Plenary panelist and veteran journalist David Webb, a seven-year staff writer for the venerable weekly, spoke about gay-press power even in a red state like Texas. Webb contributed a book chapter detailing Dallas Voice’s storied past.
“When I saw the first issue of Dallas Voice,” Webb told plenary attendees, “I knew that this was a serious newspaper. It approached issues of gay and lesbian people as a newspaper, no doubt about it. It was not frivolous.”
Dallas Voice “was responsible for changing so many minds about our community,” everyone on down from “city council members” to the general public, Webb added. “Our audience was as much the official part of Dallas as it was the gay community. I cannot stress as much how important Dallas Voice was in making the LGBT community a political force in Dallas — more than I would have dreamed because Dallas is extremely conservative, or was. Things have changed dramatically, and Dallas Voice was a major force in making that happen.”
If there was a take-away lesson from the Dallas Voice phenomenon and that of other successful LGBT publications, explained Rivendell’s Evans, “It is mostly the tenacity of the publisher that creates a successful gay publication,” one that is “fully integrated into your community.”
A case in point: Webb voiced praise for former publisher and Dallas Voice founder Robert Moore. “He was frugal, invested money, and saved for what might come,” said Webb.
With past as prelude, then, the media summit’s lunch plenary, “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: What Do LGBT Media Need to Do to Survive” addressed LGBT media’s future — its adaptability on a landscape where change is the name of the game.
The luncheon plenary featured five panelists, including Windy City Times publisher Baim, Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff, Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) publisher Mark Segal, Boston Spirit magazine publisher David Zimmerman and Rivendell’s Evans.
Survivability of LGBT print media includes a range of concerns, everything from finding new revenue streams to declining print-run page numbers, from decreased circulation to reduced geographic range of print-run distribution.
But PGN publisher Segal confronted head on the idea of the “doom and gloom of gay media,” that its “golden years [are] in the past.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “If your paper has good journalism, people will read it.”
As for print vis-à-vis new media on the Internet, “None of them, for the most part, can say, as some of us can say, we have 14 or 15 full-time employees with full benefits,” explained Segal. “Obviously, we are doing something right. For PGN, it’s all about good journalism.”
Still, he advised, “Don’t be afraid of new media. It will help you. It may be a part of your future.”
In fact, all plenary panelists spoke to the need for a robust web presence for their publications.
“Our belief, very clearly, is not to be a gay newspaper, but a newspaper first that works for the LGBT community,” said Segal.
As an example of such utilitarian journalism, Segal pointed to PGN’s 10-year-old investigative reporting on the death of Nizah Morris, “a transgender woman who got quote-unquote a courtesy ride home by the police and ended up dead,” he said.
“That story from our work resulted in four federal, state and city investigations,” prompting “numerous changes in the Philadelphia Police Department,” said Segal. “Some say drop it. We never will until it’s solved.”
Other panelists, too, offered helpful strategies, suggestions and anecdotes in highlighting successes for their publications.
“What’s working for us is a pretty broad mixture of things,” said Blade editor Naff. “Print advertising is pretty strong and doing well locally this year.”
Still, the Blade does “things that 10 to 20 years ago were unheard of,” he explained, citing special sections and specialty publications, including Pride, film festival and camp guides, as well as sports and back-to-school sections of the newspaper.
“Digital advertising revenue is still a small piece,” said Naff, although “email subscription has been great.”
“We are always looking for new revenue streams,” he said, pointing to the Blade’s start-up of a small boutique-marketing firm. Its focus, Naff explained, would be “a separate business going after non-creative stuff,” for example, “non-profits’ published magazines and annual reports — not sexy stuff, but there is a lot of business there.”
To survive and to thrive, said PGN’s Segal, “the business of newspapers is innovation.” As an example, he pointed to collaboration with other media outlets, specifically PGN’s partnering with philly.com and the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Additionally, “We created what we call the Philadelphia Multicultural Newspaper Association,” he said, aligning PGN with major black, Hispanic, and Asian publications — all in the name of creating “a force of diversity.”
“I suggest you make coalitions with the diversity you have in our city,” said Segal.
Although surviving and thriving are a little different for magazines, Boston Spirit publisher Zimmerman agreed that collaboration is working for his publication, pointing to a partnership with Boston.com and work with Bay Windows, the local LGBT weekly.
Boston Sprit is a glossy LGBT lifestyle and entertainment magazine, published six times a year and mailed free of charge to subscribers.
“Because we are only eight years old, branding is still important to us,” said Zimmerman. “One of the things we do is to connect our readers with our advertisers. It’s not simply a situation where they send us their ad copy and we send back a tear sheet to reconnect when the next issue comes out. We felt strongly that we had to come up with a lot of different avenues and ways to prove our value to our advertisers and connect our readers to advertisers.”
To that end, Boston Spirit distributes a monthly email to subscribers that typically has “six to 10 offers, promotions, special events, things along that line, that come from our advertisers and non-profit partners,” said Zimmerman. “It’s a nice venue for our advertisers, adds value for them, doesn’t cost us a tremendous amount and has worked very well for us.”
Boston Spirit has also been creative in generating new revenue streams by hosting a series of events throughout the year. The publication’s biggest gathering is its annual LGBT networking night, which has drawn hundreds of attendees eager to mix and mingle with employers and advertisers, as well as bask in the glow of headliners, celebrities the likes of Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and Chaz Bono.
“All of our advertisers get to exhibit at the event at no charge,” said Zimmerman. “They get to market their business in a face-to-face setting with 1,000 LGBT corporate professionals from all around.”
“We do make money on the event because we get corporate sponsorships,” he said.
Other events include Boston Harbor sunset cruises in partnership with Fenway Health, a local medical care facility serving the LGBT community. Earlier this year, the magazine sponsored its first Pride in Sports gala.
Cutting expenditures, too, guides Boston Spirit. “We don’t pay for anything that we don’t have to pay for,” Zimmerman said. “We are not early adaptors of technology. If it doesn’t affect the bottom line, we don’t invest in it.”
For his part, Rivendell’s Evans, who views the LGBT media industry largely from a numbers perspective, also served up hope for print media. “I am really bullish on the market,” he said. “Ad spending in total sales was $322 million in 2012 — a five percent increase from 2011. That is really an outstanding fact in and of itself. Gay print media is as strong as it ever was. If it’s not strong for your particular publication, you have to take a look within your organization and see what your are doing there to improve the situation.”
Of course, “The backbone of most local gay publications is local advertising,” said Evans. “The biggest problem I see is not keeping that relationship with the advertiser on the local level.”
He added, “Your publication is the best sales tool you have.”
(Editor’s note: Press Pass Q editor Fred Kuhr and contributor Chuck Colbert served as co-chairs of the LGBT Media Summit, sponsored by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Colbert moderated the lunch plenary and was a panelist for the breakfast plenary.)