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Judy Wieder

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The Not-So-Sudden Death of The Advocate

Posted: 11/04/09 02:48 PM ET

A very early, very different, rough first-draft (unintended for anyone's eyes) was accidentally posted by the HuffingtonPost. This happened for a few minutes on Nov. 2. The official posting of Ms. Wieder's article has always been dated 11/04/2009.

In case you haven't read the "official stories" or the gossip, Regent Media, the latest owner of The Advocate--once the national LGBT newsmagazine of record for America (41-years-old exactly!)--is reducing the publication to a 32-page mini-mag, taking it off the newsstands, and packaging it up with its "sister" publication, Out magazine. Subscribers will get a magazine they never wanted (Out) and, of course, the still-free website.

What the hell happened? What colossal cluster of f-ups managed to devastate a magazine that was so important even ten years ago that every serious news media in the world turned to it for back up sourcing when covering gay issues? A magazine that was such a desirable icon in the community, it gave its then owners, LPI Media, the resources to buy/rescue its nearly bankrupt rival, Out. A magazine that not only reported on, analyzed, and clarified the nonstop information that sites like its own advocate.com coughed up relentlessly, but actually made news. Breaking news that appeared in the magazine became news that other media chased.

In its glory days, The Advocate, was the only gay media to score the first in-depth interviews with politicians, gay and straight: Barney Frank, Al Gore, Steve Gunderson, John Kerry, Gerry Studds, Barry Goldwater, Rudolph Guilianni, Hillary and Bill Clinton, David Duke, Howard Dean, Jim McGreevey, etc.; as well as once-closeted celebrities of all kinds: George Michael, k.d. Lang, Bishop Gene Robinson, Rosie O'Donnell, Billy Bean, Martina Navratilova, Chad Allen, Liz Smith, Gore Vidal, Melissa Etheridge, Richard Chamberlain, David Geffen, Jason Gould, Ellen DeGeneres, Esera Tuolo, RuPaul, Greg Louganis, etc. Robust and irresolvable subjects such as: Should We Out?, The Mind of A Gay Basher, Monogamy (for Gays), The Gay Heroes of the Terrorist Tragedy, Why Are We Gay?, Addicted To Sex, Beyond Bi, Battered Lovers, Inside The NFL Closet, Up Against The Mormon Church, Wake Up And Smell The Hate were written by seasoned journalists from a gay perspective that simply couldn't be duplicated--even when, in the late 90s, some of these subjects and celebrities became big-ticket sellers for mainstream media.

When Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe called a press conference to say he was gay, claiming, "The Advocate is going to out me!" (not entirely true, by the way. I was the Executive Editor at the time, and the far more exciting story is the one that went on behind the scenes--a feverish brouhaha starring editors, writers, the publisher, and an advertiser. But I'm saving that one for my book), the world was riveted to The Advocate. What would the magazine tackle next?

OK, that was then. I get it. The media and world has changed. So what are we saying? Issues of the day are so uncomplicated LGBTs can digest them through short videos and skim-the-surface articles? We've advanced to the point where we now have everything straights have and are wildly welcomed round the world so let's move on? Have you been on walkabout? The rock is nowhere near the top of the mountain. Younger people may not embrace in-your-face activism as much as older generations had to--although the thousands and thousands of young faces in the streets last year protesting Proposition 8 certainly suggest a far more dynamic generation than most surveys indicate. No, I refuse to believe it's all about hook-ups, videos, sound bites, and downloading for them.

A year ago the CEO of Regent cavalierly told me that he backed the current Editor in Chief and Editorial Director of The Advocate when they made the decision to revamp the magazine into more of a community based publication (online and print), more about the readers and their interests, definitely not a newsmagazine, and with no celebrities. Help! The Advocate , once the keeper of the flame, the vessel for the entire history of the gay movement since 1967, with each new agonized-over news story becoming another link in the chain of that awesome legacy, now a community help line occasionally interrupted by ads from other Regent products?

And, please, indulge me a minute about celebrities, since I (along with former Advocate EICs Richard Rouilard , Jeff Yarbrough, Bruce Steele, and Anne Stockwell), worked my ass off to convince terrified gay and straight celebrities of all fields to venture into a scary gay publication like The Advocate. I did it because celebrities drew reader/browsers into the bigger issues you're trying to explore in the publication. Nine out of ten times, if we did it well, we'd have a much bigger audience for difficult subjects people otherwise resisted.

In the early 90s, the use of straight pro-gay celebrities (Madonna, Roseanne) gave great comfort to a readership choking on the self-hate most straight institutions were spewing at them about AIDS. In the mid-90s closeted celebrities suddenly began to come out. To everything a season: you can never underestimate the good Chastity Bono and Cher did at that time for young kids struggling with their mothers. At the turn of the century (2000), using even news celebrities such as Sharon Smith--whose lover was mauled to death in San Francisco by a neighbor's dogs--to discuss the rights we don't have as domestic partners, became a regular practice at the magazine. We were hardly alone. Who can forget Time magazine's cover with Brad Pitt from Seven Years In Tibet and the cover line, "Buddhism in America?"

Did it always work? No. Would it have been great if readers/browsers had flocked to the issues without celebrities? Sure, it was a hideous, time-consuming dance with publicist to make anything happen. But it was what had to be done so we did it. At any time we could have said, "Oh forget it, no more celebrities. Who needs to hear from Sean Penn about Milk? He's not talking to any press. Oh, really? That's what Tom Hanks' publicist told us when Philadelphia was about to come out. So we explained that it was fine for Tom to skip all the other press, but for him to go out there playing a hugely important gay character with AIDS at such a crucial time in history, without speaking to the magazine that connected directly to the audience he would be representing, well, bad idea. So Tom gave the interview. And Sean Penn? A macho bad boy with God knows what kind of past attitudes about and actions towards gays, rising out of the ashes of his loner life to literally embody every molecule of Harvey Milk--this wouldn't be an interesting journey for Advocate devotes to have followed?

Maybe, people just don't care about that stuff anymore? That must be it. Award winning think pieces? Getting interesting LGBTs to tell their stories, how they deal with shame, self-hate, stunted growth, and derailed creativity? How they finally find a way out? All the way out? Maybe everybody is already out. I'm just living in another era. We're beyond gay...again. Is that why The Advocate quit this incredibly difficult work? Am I to assume that younger LGBTs today simply had no interest in reading about the significance of openly gay Adam Lambert soaring his way through American Idol ? Or later learning from the once must-read publication what it was like for him in an exclusive interview? They'd rather pick up Details and watch him making out and posing with women? Pleeeeeease! Just shoot me! I don't believe it. Or worse, how could this publication ever let candidate Obama become President Obama without first addressing this constituency about why he thinks marriage is between a man and woman only? Where were the hard questions? Where was The Advocate?

I'll tell you where: "Straight Guys Tell"...all about what they think of gay men. That's their latest cover story. Honestly, in what universe is this a timely story? Oh, and note how seductive this subject is for gay women--a demographic Regent Media has killed off completely. Not that they' did that all alone. Women are a pain in the butt, a near-impossible sell, period. I would know. I am one. As EIC of The Advocate for 7 years, we managed to move their percentage numbers up from 3% to nearly 30% at one point, but it was a nonstop, disheartening battle. And yet, so what? The right owner (not Regent and, God help us, not PlanetOut) would be interested enough to understand that The Advocate was once the only read gay women over 30 indulged. Figure it out! After all, a cogender Advocate sold the best of all.

Instead, Regent Media, following the "wisdom" of PlanetOut's CEO, put The Advocate under the editorial direction of Out's Editor in Chief. Yes, Out's EIC has been the boss of The Advocate's EIC. (Full disclosure: for a period of months I remained EIC of The Advocate when LPI Media bought Out and I was named Editorial Director. I hired an EIC for Out and assisted the Out team in working its way clear of the mess left by its previous owner. During the whole time I trained my Executive Editor to take over the EIC job of The Advocate, which he did. In time I was no longer an EIC of one magazine while overseeing another. Additionally, before I had to leave my Editorial Director job in 2006, I enthusiastically hired the current EIC of Out. It was a good move. He's a perfect match for the magazine--clearly not The Advocate or I wouldn't be writing this article.)

In truth, from the moment we bought Out, the magazine made money. That's why it was purchased. It was to be the company's money cow. Gay men, sexy fashion, pretty pictures of sexy men in sexy fashion, cool stories; it wasn't brain surgery. Gay men aren't like gay women. They don't take the wait and see attitude: are you worthy of my money today? They're easier to please. And, yes, they love Out.

The hard sell is, was, and always would have been The Advocate. With its harsh features and photos that no advertiser wanted to be anywhere near, the magazine depended on dedicated readers that renewed their costly ($40+) subscriptions year after year. For them to do this, the content had to be astonishing. It was unimaginably difficult for a small staff to keep it up every two weeks, but somehow it happened. You canNOT do a magazine like The Advocate for advertisers. They're not thrilled about newsmagazines. They're not fun. Go count the ad pages in Time or Newsweek. If those magazine depended on ads to survive, they wouldn't. It's their large circulation, their readership combined with their website visitors that carry the brands forward. We do it for the users, the readers. They will pay for it (online or print) if you make it absolutely essential and as exclusive as possible. And I refuse to get into another deadening debate about print media vs. online. It's distracting and sends us flying wildly past the point. The point is content: Information and really great stories! If that's NOT there, no one else will be either. What's the compelling new story?

Although I would be the first to say that the times have changed since the high dramas of the early AIDS epidemic or the stormy outing debates or the meth and unsafe sex collisions, I do not believe the fundamental reason for The Advocate is fini. There are shit loads of rights we don't have. But lecturing about it is a bore. Someone once said teaching people about good and evil won't get you much of a congregation, but telling them a good story like "Noah's Ark" will.

But, Buddy, that's hard work. And if your media is gay, there's even more resistance. You need to uncover your own facts, truths others would rather you not know; you need a team of editors, art directors, photo editors, writers and photographers who are insanely devoted to the magazine and to upholding its tradition of great journalism that other teams of editors before them have fought just as hard to sustain; and then you need the vision and creativity it takes to draw in what's essential for the story (an interview, a lost clue, a new piece of research) and you need the courage to deliver it! Sometimes that courage means spending the money it takes to send someone to where the story is, or hiring the right writer or editor for the job, or firing the wrong ones, or not changing the mission statement of a legend just because you can't figure out how to make it pay.

After LPI Media was sold for $31.1 million in 2005 to PlanetOut--who threw its wrecking ball at The Advocate, devaluing its content by putting it on Gay.com, spending no money on it's website, and ruining the importance of its subs to advertisers by offering them cheap with Gay.com memberships--it took them less than two years to diminish the worth of the company to the 4.7 million Here! Media (Regent) paid for it. Only Out pulled through in decent financial shape. That credit belongs to its EIC.

The original owners, publishers, and editors of Advocate ran it because they cherished it. In recent years, I fear the owners have purchased it because they wanted to say they "had it," like a feather in their caps or a notch on their belts, they owned The Advocate. Some even bragged that their mission was to "save it," that is until they understood what that really entailed. You can't save it if you don't know what it is. Save it from what, from whom?

Most of all, it saddens me to think that when I worked for The Advocate the one thing I always had going for any story we did was the power and reputation of the magazine. Often that convinced someone to talk to us, tell us something they'd told no one else. I fear that's no longer true. For many reasons, some I've mentioned, some I won't talk about here, some I know nothing about, our friend and warrior, The Advocate, has been badly bashed.

 

Follow Judy Wieder on Twitter: www.twitter.com/molokai65