Is gay print media in its last throes?

Gay journo Michael Lavers, national news editor for Edge Media Network, took to discussing the state of LGBT print media in the Village Voice‘s annual “Queer Issue” this week.

His piece, titled “Gay Print Media on the Wane,” rehashes the demise of Window Media — once the nation’s largest LGBT newspaper company — and delves into the possible future of gay journalism.

In the story, Lavers writes that the rise of digital media has given traditional print media a run for its money. No doubt there. He also details some specific challenges to gay media and proclaims some new “kings of the forest” (he calls them the “new gay press establishment”) in the process.

Lavers writes:

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.

Lavers, who I’ve met and whose company I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, hits on some valid points. Among them:

  1. It is becoming increasingly difficult for traditional news publishing companies to compete against digital media news producers, such as bloggers and online-only publications.
  2. Social media and networking are king: News stories contained in print can’t compete against real-time “breaking news.” Newspapers relying first or primarily on print as a means of distributing news certainly don’t have the ability to distribute their stories as far and as wide as is possible with social media like Twitter and Facebook.
  3. Popular gay bloggers — like Pam Spaulding and Andy Towle — have attracted large, loyal audiences. Undoubtedly, some of Spaulding’s and Towle’s audiences have given up on traditional print news.
  4. And, yes, mainstream news outlets are covering LGBT news more frequently days. (Later in his story, Lavers chats with Gay City News editor Paul Schindler, who points out that mainstream news publishers rarely have the knowledge or nuance to accurately and completely cover LGBT issues.)

In addition to all of these valid points, I’d argue that gay print media isn’t necessarily dying right now, that it’s certainly not dead yet and that doesn’t have to die at all.

A comment on the Village Voice piece by Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal is worth sharing:

The article shows a lack of knowledge of gay media outside of NY or DC. If you’d look around the nation you’d note that most of the established NEWSPAPERS are doing, well, very good thank you. NYC has always been a tough newsprint city for gay media, going back to the days of Jack Nickols “Gay,” and the city is not typical of other major cities. Dallas, Philadelphia & Denver are good examples of Local LGBT media that are thriving in a down economy. And we will continue to do so since we all know the 1st rule of local journalism. Local, local Local. As for Window’s. They were unprofessional, had a lack of experience, and destroyed everything they touched. And you fail to mention that in each and every market they destroyed there are new publications blooming. The gay print media is growing, just step off of Manhattan and you’ll see it. Mark Segal Publisher, Philadelphia Gay News

Segal is right, of course. There are plenty of LGBT media outlets across the country doing just fine. Many of them are growing, and many are or have already adapted to new media technologies.

The paper I edit, Charlotte’s qnotes, has attempted to move forward with our own new and social media integration and engagement. With my background in blogging and citizen journalism, I’ve tried to bring as much of the benefit of new media to our traditional news operations as I can. But, this is really where I think some of the many problems with gay print media — and to a lesser extent all print media — really begin to pile up.

Forgetting about print dailies, let’s focus just on niche publications, specifically LGBT publications, since most of them are weekly and many —  like qnotes, Gay City News, Atlanta’s Georgia Voice and others — are bi-weekly. (There are also some great, quality monthly LGBT publications, too.) In short, weeklies, bi-weeklies and monthlies are much different print news products than daily print newspapers. No secret there.

Mashable published a great piece just this week. In it, writer Vadim Lavrusik explores the death of daily print news. His title sums it up: “Newspapers are Still Dying, But the News Is Not Going Anywhere.”

Lavrusik writes:

Experiments are needed that not only challenge and test the behaviors of news consumption with digital and interactive forms of storytelling, but perhaps more importantly, business models are needed that are not limited to a silver-bullet hope that building a wall around their content will save them. With the exception of the few, the chances of pay walls generating revenue from readers who have grown accustomed to free content online are grim. Newspaper companies that continue to treat their websites as a dumping ground for news from their print product will meet their eventual demise.

Throughout the rest of his piece, Lavrusik spends a considerable amount of time discussing innovation by large and small media companies alike. Those innovations come not only in the capturing and delivery of news, but also in advertising (he points out that many smaller, hyperlocal news websites have yet to find ways to profit from their operations). This basic lack of innovation and risk-taking is where many print media companies — again, both LGBT and mainstream — have thrown away opportunities to grow and survive.

In the office, my publisher and I spend a great deal of time talking about ways to grow the newspaper and respond to the changes we see in our local marketplace. He and I are both concerned about what the future might bring. As should be expected, his perspective — as the man who has owned the paper for more than two decades and nursed it into its present form today — is quite different from mine: that of a younger person who has never known or experienced what it was like to depend almost solely on print products for in-depth news, analysis and commentary. (For example, even though I work at a print newspaper I have never personally chosen to subscribe to any print product.)

The drastic difference in our life experiences leads to occasional differences of opinion, and every now and then a good clash. But, I believe our company has been better for it. In my publisher’s mind, the newspaper — the print product — comes first. Financially, that’s where the money is. Online advertising doesn’t even come close to covering costs. Business-wise, his focus on the print product makes sense, but it doesn’t factor in our consumers’ changing habits, desires or needs. Further, without innovation relying on the print product alone won’t always create a positive cash flow. After what seemed like months and months of discussion destined to never end, we rose to the challenge and we’ve managed to take a newer, fresher look at how our two products — yes, two products — now work with each other to build a better brand, reach a bigger audience and increase advertising revenues.

In May, writer Chuck Colbert profiled qnotes and some of our changes for Press Pass Q. “Instead of looking at ourselves as a newspaper that has a website, we look at ourselves as a media company that has two products,” one print, the other online, I told Colbert.

Certainly, we can’t be the only LGBT publication working a similar business model. It works… for the time being. And while our current tactics work now, we need to be taking risks (calculated, of course) to come up with solutions that will allow us to serve our communities later.

I believe there are key changes in innovation and tactics that can guarantee the future of niche publications like mine and the countless other LGBT media in the nation:

First, we have to admit to ourselves that there is (or has been, or will be) a decline in print readership and advertising. If it hasn’t happened for your publication yet, it will. It is an inevitability.

Second, we have to admit to ourselves that the reason for the decline is the growth of online media. People can get news anytime, anywhere with just a click of the mouse or a swipe of a finger on their iPhone.

Third, we have to beware of jumping to dangerous conclusions, including the doom and gloom scenario Lavers suggests.

Fourth, we should take a look at all of our viable options (and maybe some nonviable options) and then take the best course of action for our local communities.

I have a vision more far-reaching than qnotes‘ current “two products” set up. I think it could be a great way for LGBT news outlets to innovate and continue to publish news in both print and online.

Right now, we focus on two products: one print, one online. They share the same content and name, but are treated differently as they have different needs, audiences and a completely different advertising structure. Some other companies might still think of themselves as publishing a newspaper that has a website. Neither business models are ideal, in my mind, and each have their own flaws. But, what if we took up a completely different concept — one drastically different from qnotes‘ or most other LGBT pubs and one more similar to the (non-gay) San Francisco Public Press? What if we inverted the business model and changed the focus?

A) Newspaper that has a website, vs. B) Website that has a print product.

Do you see the possible, revolutionary difference?

At some point, we will have to stop merely looking toward the future and instead start focusing on it, with our time, energy, money, staff and all other resources. We’ll have to step out of a print-as-king paradigm and start putting real effort into the future. It doesn’t mean print has to die. It just has to change. Print has to become secondary. In some cases, maybe print has to become luxury.

This change in the news industry will be like other revolutionary changes in our past. When the refrigerator and freezer were invented, ice boxes didn’t disappear. They simply changed, and started meeting other demands and purposes. Today, we still use ice boxes — mostly portable coolers used when freezers aren’t an option. The same type of change and reinvention of purpose took place when automobiles toppled horse-drawn buggies as the transportation of choice. Horses and buggies didn’t disappear — they just started fulfilling other needs.

When new inventions or market changes threaten to change old habits and business models, we have only two choices: We can hold on to the past — and, as Lavrusik says, remain fatally comfortable with slight and momentary increases in print ad revenues — or we can move on to the future, take calculated risks and embrace new strategies.

Change doesn’t mean death. We need change. It is healthy, and it is possible without forsaking our print products. We just have to get creative, inventive and smart.

7 Responses to “Is gay print media in its last throes?”
  1. Joseph B. Arrington says:

    I think there may be some creedence to holding them as two separate products, and treating them independently. Even with the “same” news story. Far too often, and you clairified that in your article, many professional news publications with a website and a print product do attempt to reproduce the same (identical) content across both products.

    Which has some major pitfalls. What works in print publication, and moreover what works for the audience that reads a print publication, and what works for a website are not the same. Print publications are a finite source that can only go so far (limitations of print production costs), their audience is typically looking for an in-depth explaination of the news within the confines of a textual description, they tend to be more patient with reading through a longer piece (actually most enjoy it) to get a full understanding of what is going on, and they are more willing to allow a print publication to provide a voice of authority on a subject.

    This is a sharp contrast to the typical web new hound.

    Those who use the web as a primary news source are typically looking for a short content piece that provides the main points and utilizes the near infinite capacities of the internet to allow them to see all of the angles of a news story, to view more content visually, and most importantly using the article online as a jumping off point to forming their own opinions.

    Traditional news reporting applied to the website can be a death nail, as it doesn’t meet the needs of true web news hounds, and replaces the print subscription of those more comfortable with the traditional news structure presented.

    Adressing the content of both poducts independently, and applying different styles, should create a minor change in print subscriptions (people who were poorly sereved by a print publication in the first place). Done properly, the readership both online and in print should be significantly greater that the total readership of the print publication alone. Additionally, it should give a better overall product to its respective audience.

  2. mark segal says:

    This article is at very least biased. If not just poor journalism. It’s main point is the failure of one company. While I agree with the analysis of Windows and the poor journalism and business practices that Chris Crain and David unger brought to LGBT media but their failure was a failure of their own, not gay print media in general. Your article did not look at the successes of new publication blooming in almost all the markets they covered. most notably the new Atlanta publication, published by Chris Cash one of the two women founders of the original Southern Voice. they made that publication a success until Chris Crain came along and destroyed it. And there is no mention of the long standing publication throughout the nation whop are doing just fine thank you. but most important is your lack of research and understanding of the NYC LGBT print media. The NY Blade was part of window;s when they Bought D.C. Blade. It like D.C. Blade was founded by Don michaels. At the time of it’s founding many of us who have been in this business told him not to go into NYC. it is a tough LGBT print market and has never had a successful LGBT newspaper. you only ned to look back Jack Nichols “Gay” from the early 1970’s. As for the Advocate and Out you fail to mention the corporate changes and constant change of format over the last 5 years. They like other print media must learn to accept new media and make it part of it’s over all plan. new media and print can both serve our community well, and their is no need for it to be look at as a competition. Blogs get the news out quick, print gets the in depth details out. If they work together our community wins.

    Mark Segal, Publisher Philadelphia Gay News

  3. Matt Comer says:

    Mark… Just for clarification, when you say “this article” and “your article” are you talking about my post or Lavers’ original Village Voice article?

  4. Matt Baume says:

    Mark has a unique vantage-point here, so it’s impossible for me to argue with his points. But from my position as both a blogger and print-journalist, I have to say that everything Matt Comer says here certainly rings true.

    In particular, his point about treating the newspaper and the website as siblings, rather than clones, is particularly apt. I think that is absolutely the key to success: create two complementary flagship platforms, then distribute content based on those strengths. I elaborated a bit here:

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going. This is all super-interesting and absolutely vital to talk about.

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  3. […] Michael Lavers wrote a piece, “Gay Print Media on the Wane,” for the Village Voice. I responded to that piece with my own thoughts last week, as did other journalists and bloggers. On Friday, I wrapped up a good portion of the week’s […]

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