The Queer Issue
AMERICA'S 140 or so gay newspapers have two new problems. Mainstream media have finally decided homo news is real news, and they are breaking most of the big stories before the gay weeklies and monthlies report them. At the same time, online news outlets, especially the gay ones, are posting all the gay news that's fit to publish before gay newspapers have a chance to print it.
The best gay papers have adapted, to some extent. Most report the previously reported news but try to give it a fresh twist. A few--including Toronto's Xtra and San Francisco's Bay Times--have gone the route of non-gay alternative weeklies, paying local writers good money for cutting-edge analysis, investigative reporting, profiles, interviews, and arts coverage, leaving breaking news to the daily media. L.A.'s Fab, my personal guilty favorite, has taken a unique approach. Its layout, headlines, and, in many sections, its writing style, deliciously mimic a supermarket tabloid.
"We [ask] reporters how [they're] going to do it differently," says Jeff Epperly of Boston's Bay Windows, one of the nation's top five gay weeklies. "How can we as people closer to the subject matter do something better? The mainstream press often goes for flash over substance." Jim Baxter, editor of the biweekly Front Page in Raleigh, North Carolina, has dramatically reconfigured his paper's efforts. "I heard [Editor in Chief] Judy Wieder talk about how [the national gay magazine] The Advocate realized that their website was the place where they would break the news--three to five stories a day--and the biweekly magazine would become the place where the stories were analyzed and commented on," he says. "The website would drive the print edition, not the other way around. This was one of those light-bulb moments over my head, and that is exactly what we have been trying to do with our website ever since."
The Internet also has usurped another one of gay newspapers' most valued functions historically--the personal ads. Now we look for love or a hot fuck faster, cheaper, and more successfully online. "I'm trying very hard to push the idea of us having a highly sophisticated, interactive, immediate personal ad section for Boston and New England on our website," says Epperly. "If we don't, someone else is going to. The Internet is even killing the club business in many ways. You can sign on and have a profile and find tailor-made what you're looking for."
Baxter says, "We went from an average of $4,000 per month in [phone-sex and personal-ads] revenue to just $400 per month last year. This year, nothing at all. The Net and sites like AOL and Gay.com have taken all the personal-contact stuff."
So what is the future for gay newspapers, those institutions that in the 1970s--perhaps even more than gay bars--created, made tangible, and nourished the so-called "gay community"? Some gay papers will throw in the towel on breaking news and adopt the format of non-gay alternative weeklies. In markets with very gay-inclusive dailies and broadcast media, this is a realistic option now. Other papers will start breaking news online to stay competitive with Gay.com, PlanetOut, the local daily, and the Associated Press wire service. "In order to compete," says Gay.com reporter Michelangelo Signorile, "gay papers will be forced to break news on their websites, and then feed it onto the wires--just like the mainstream papers now do--before their print editions are out, so that they can have a part in shaping the news. The big gay sites that are now breaking news will only add to this pressure on the rest of the gay media."
For the gay newspapers that do choose to keep pace, either direction they go--joining the news stampede online or becoming an intelligent weekly alternative to it--will cost more than they're used to spending. In one scenario, you hire more professional reporters and put them to work on a daily schedule. In the other, you pay professional freelancers 50 cents or more per word for investigative pieces, cutting-edge analysis, and hip arts coverage. Some papers, of course, will make no effort to adapt, will become irrelevant, and may disappear.
Rex Wockner is a San Diego-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in more than 250 gay publications in 36 countries over the past 16 years.