As gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans -- and their news -- become mainstream, will the gay news sites that have long supported the LGBT community be able to survive? I spoke with nine different well-known LGBT publishers, writers, and industry insiders about the current state of gay media -- and if it has a future. Towleroad partner and creator of Out magazine, Michael Goff, Pam's House Blend's Pam Spaulding, John Aravosis of AMERICAblog, the Vice President of the Human Rights Campaign, and many others share their unique perspective.
Is there a future for the gay news and politics sites and blogs that focus on and advocate for the LGBT community, or will we continue to see them consolidate -- or just disappear? Why are so many gay news sites finding it so challenging to stay afloat? Are advertisers leery of being associated with distinctly gay sites? Is this niche just too "niche?"
"Whether corporate-run or a one person shop, the outlook for gay news blogs is that most of them are not turning a satisfying profit," writes Nikki Usher, at Harvard's own niche journalism site, Neiman Journalism Lab, in a recent article, "How niche is too niche? The case of gay news blogs."
Publishers of gay news sites talk about the issues Usher's piece raises: inconsistent advertising and few advertising network options, and lack of support from LGBT organizations. While visits at many LGBT sites are growing, most journalists and bloggers work very hard to attract and keep each and every reader.
The Battle For Readers
Readers are loyal, but with the mainstreaming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender news (Chaz Bono being a great case in point), smaller publishers are battling for the same pool of readers now that news giants like CNN and ABC News have decided to go after. Often, LGBT readers nonchalantly send friends to non-LGBT sites, via social media like Twitter and Facebook, for the same stories that LGBT-focused sites often cover first, better, and with greater context, unknowingly impacting the very financial viability of the LGBT publications that exist to support them.
Readers, trained that everything online is free, feel loyalty to the sites they peruse but rarely recognize that there is great financial and personal cost to running an independent news organization. Unfortunately, far too few consider clicking the "donate" button.
Complicating this race for readers and advertisers for LGBT news site owners is Google, which recently opened up its Google News platform to blogs that previously were relegated to the far-less trafficked Google Blogs section. Historically, publishers had to jump through hoops to prove they were a legimate news-gathering organization. Apparently, those requirements are no longer being followed.
Traditional news organizations like The New York Times now compete directly in the Google machine for the same readers as, say, Perez Hilton, delivering readers staggeringly different and inconsistent alternatives -- for better or for worse.
Usher, a Ph.D. and assistant professor at George Washington University, says gay news sites "should be perfect illustrations of booming niche sites that can monetize off a predictable and loyal audience looking for news and information it can't find elsewhere," then lists four sites and four reasons why they are not.
MTV's 365Gay, Bilerico, Queerty, and Pam's House Blend, all within the last year decided to re-organize. Bilerico cut staff, Pam Spaulding found a larger publisher to manage day-to-day challenges, Queerty closed and re-emerged under a different owner, and 365Gay simply shut down.
Does Sex Really Sell?
As to why these sites changed, changed hands, or went away, Usher suggests "advertising hesitation" as the main problem, claiming gay news sites are "too political, too news-focused and not entertainment-focused enough to be considered a place to advertise by, say, Skyy Vodka or online dating sites like Manhunt." Some sites, Usher notes, have resorted to combining "sex appeal with news."
But the sex-plus-news formula may be more a negative than a positive. "NSFW" (not safe for work) stories -- and therefore, sites -- are avoided by many readers while surfing at work or on company-owned laptops and smartphones. Most readers would be pretty surprised to see NSFW images on CNN, The New York Times, or other well-respected sites. Should their expectations be different because the content is focused on LGBT readers?
Michael Goff, a partner at the successful blog Towleroad, believes major advertisers may not want to appear on pages that show a lot of skin. "If you're going to do it, you better have a really big audience," he warns.
Advertising Hits Home -- Or Does It?
But "advertising hesitation" may in fact not be the main issue. Other issues have a drag on the success of all niche news sites -- including the economy and the ever-changing worlds of technology and social media, like Twitter, Facebook, and now Google+. But Usher uncovers an issue that has stuck in the craw of several LGBT news site publishers.
"Instead of advertising directly on those sites, for example, Human Rights Campaign will go to Google ads instead of banner ads. It's easy micro-targeting without all the hassle of having to work with individual sites. HRC gets a deal; the sites, however, get pennies."
John Aravosis, founder of AMERICAblog, in response wrote, "HRC buys cheap Google ads because it's 'hassle' paying gay blogs a decent price." Aravosis called their actions "outrageous" and proclaimed, "No gay blog should be running HRC ads that come through Google for pennies." He posits, "If a union can ask you to use union shops, isn't it fair for us to ask our organizations to use ad vendors who charge a livable rate for our ads?"
Fred Sainz, HRC's vice president for communications and marketing, says that Usher's piece "gives the impression that HRC only buys ads through Google. That's not correct. We have often gone directly to blogs, bought ads through BlogAds and, yes, purchased them through Google. Can we and will we do better? Yes."
Aravosis remains dissatisfied. "Every progressive organization has a responsibility to support the community across the board. If they're willing to pay $60,000 for ads in major newspapers, then they can up their support for the gay Netroots, as well."
For those unfamiliar with advertising rates, $60,000 is more revenue than some small niche news sites or blogs will see -- ever.
Does Mainstreaming Help Or Hurt?
Jennifer Vanesco, editor-in-chief of the recently shuttered 365Gay, sees the battle for readers and advertisers more optimistically. "The mainstream media is doing such a better job covering a more diverse swath of America. It's about long-term media trends instead of the LGBT market doing something wrong, and as we've become more accepted, we've become more mainstream."
Aravosis stresses the "significant influence" LGBT sites offer. "When my deputy editor, Joe Sudbay, went to the White House Christmas party, the president immediately knew who he was. That's not over-saturation; it's influence, and it's something our community needs more of, not less."
Pro-LGBT Advocates Against The Right
LGBT news sites and blogs often work as advocates for their community, as well, something traditional news organizations, like CNN, do not. The loss of LGBT media is not only the loss of a news outlet but the loss of a soldier in the battle for equality.
Conversely, right-wing, anti-gay pundits, religious and "family" organizations, blogs and news sites, from media mogul Andrew Breitbart's fictive news reporting and opining empire, to Rush Limbaugh, to Fox News, all walk in lockstep, delivering a unified message daily.
"The right wing has no problem using its 'wing nut welfare' to amplify its messaging through politically compatible blogs," says Pam's House Blend's Pam Spaulding. "The left is at once averse to that model but also queasy about what any blogger might say that is off-message or not 'safe,' and thus don't want to make that investment in the blogs as part of overall movement support. That activist/reader reticence, along with the current feeble support through ads and direct fundraising campaigns, will never raise enough money to make LGBT-focused blogs sustainable."
Bil Browning, founder and publisher of Bilerico, agrees. "While conservatives are funding right-wing Internet sites, blogs, and pundits to the hilt, the left has abandoned progressive citizen journalists since Obama's election," says Browning. "For LGBT news and political analysis sites, this tightfistedness on the part of Democrats, LGBT and other progressive organizations, and large funders has resulted in quite a bit of belt tightening."
Many serious LGBT news and analysis sites are consolidating, reducing staff, or going out of existence entirely. Browning feels that "at this point, the left and LGBT leaders should be investing in our sites as an inexpensive way of moving their message, but instead they expect citizen journalists to work for solely altruistic reasons. Just because we believe in the same ideals doesn't mean we don't need to eat and pay our rent, too."
Viability And Paying The Rent
Paying the rent is a common concern for LGBT bloggers, many of whom work 12 to 18 hours a day, often seven days a week, battling the knowledge that more than one full-time job may be necessary to survive.
Award-winning journalist Karen Ocamb, who is both the news editor at Frontiers in LA, the largest LGBT publication in Southern California, and the editor of LGBT POV, illustrates what many bloggers wearily feel:
"I would not be able to pay the rent if I only blogged at LGBT POV. I have Google AdSense -- but frankly, the ads are whatever Google sends down the pike." Ocamb notes that "the ads only bring in pennies" and acknowledges, "I have seriously considered crashing LGBT POV because I am so frustrated at not having the time to do the kinds of pieces I want to do. Let's just say I carry a packet of low-dose aspirin wherever I go."
And what is the solution for credible LGBT news organizations that suffer simply from not having achieved the economy of scale (i.e., reader traffic) necessary to be a sustainable, viable business, and having to play in the same ballpark as, say, USA Today, or the highly trafficked and highly respected Towleroad?
"This is a similar problem the LGBT community has been having for decades," says Michael Goff, a partner at Towleroad, which was started by former Genre magazine editor in chief Andy Towle in 2003 and has grown to be one of the few LGBT sites that is doing well. (Goff notes this is their best year ever.)
Goff, who in 1992 founded Out magazine, the iconic, first national publication to attract both big-name writers and big-name advertisers to the gay market, says, "We live in a unique moment in time," and adds, "I feel privileged to be a part of the industry, though I am aware that most media properties don't make it." His mission is to show that "homophobia is standing in the way of making money."
Goff suggests struggling sites may want to give up some independence and band together. Respectfully acknowledging the shuttering of 365Gay, he says, "This market is not big enough for MTV." But Goff is optimistic and says that even "our most insurmountable problems are really very small."
AMERICAblog's Aravosis observes, "In the end, we're almost ending up where we all started -- earning income by asking for donations, which is something a lot of us did before ads were viable," he says. "Our readers were incredibly generous back then in helping to keep us going. And we're going to need our readers to help us again, or the gay Netroots may shrink dramatically over the next year or two. And that is not good news for the future of our civil rights."
With embarrassingly low advertising rates, a rough economy, and the mainstreaming of gay news to larger publishers, will your favorite LGBT site be around next year? If readers, advertisers, and the left unite and support them, yes. If not, the field may narrow dramatically. To the detriment of us all.