Stop the (LGBT) Presses!

Lucia Chappelle, of EILE Magazine’s monthly column from the US, California Dispatch, writes about what she sees as the main reasons for the demise of some iconic American LGBT newspapers:   

There’s something about a newspaper that helps forge a community’s sense of identity and purpose. In a fascinating give and take, the newspaper reflects the concerns of the community, and its framing of the issues influences the community’s concerns.

The digital age of citizen journalism, blogging, and instant-news-by-Tweet notwithstanding, there’s still a need for the intentional, organized outlet for professional journalism as a guide through the maze of ‘free’ information.

Southern California lost its preeminent regional LGBT newspaper, with the death of the 35-year-old Frontiers, in the fiery financial crash of Multimedia Platforms Worldwide (MMPW) that also took down New York City’s Next Magazine, and Agenda Florida.

You can chalk this up to the crisis in the newspaper industry as a whole, and heaven knows these aren’t the only papers that can’t keep their heads above the red ink, nor the only ones fighting to survive in the new media environment.

News organizations everywhere are being gutted, and infotainment is on the rise. But I see another problem that has plagued the LGBT newspaper game for much longer than the challenges of the current scene, something that points to our more fundamental, unresolved divisions.

It matters who owns the press, who frames the issues, whose image of the community gets reflected, who seeks to influence the community, and to what ends.

The Advocate, now one of the leading LGBT magazines in the world, began in 1967 as the newsletter of the Los Angeles organization, PRIDE, and grew to become our queer newspaper-of-record. It was sold in 1974 to Bay Area publisher, David Goodstein, who promised to turn it into a national powerhouse, by directing its appeal to ‘upscale’ gay men.

Fired employees mocked the new ‘Advocate Touches Your Lifestyle’ slogan, with T-shirts saying ‘Advocate Threatens Your Lifestyle’.

In an interview with Goodstein, I asked how the paper would handle women’s issues. He replied that he would consider hiring a lesbian journalist, if he could find one who hadn’t been “tainted by the women’s movement”.

When protests against racial discrimination at an upscale West Hollywood gay bar were exploding, The Advocate’s big investigative feature was a travel piece on all the places in the world where black gay men were considered attractive. The prejudice in the community was both reflected, and exploited, for profit.

AIDS brought an end to Goodstein’s sex-and-more-sex approach to success, and ‘Lesbian’ was added to the masthead, but the bent toward the upwardly-mobile remained.

The short-lived Pacific Coast Times, later Coast to Coast Times, was just one of the LGBT newspapers that tried to fill the gap left in Los Angeles, when The Advocate moved north, and then to compete with The Advocate on a national level.

Purchased by real estate developer, David Zohn, in 1978, the paper tried to put news first, and represent more of the community’s diversity, but Zohn bought into the idea that stratifying the community was the key to increased readership and riches.

He was adamant that a woman would never appear on the cover.

After he drove veteran editor, Ace Lundon, out, staffers began to suspect that Zohn planned to scuttle the paper in short order for a tax write-off, if it didn’t turn a profit right away. When he balked at paying freelance contributors, after moving the paper to expensive West Hollywood offices, staffers absconded with the production boards, to block the issue from going to press.

A settlement was reached, but Zohn pulled the plug on the paper a couple of issues later, at the end of the year, as expected.

The final edition had a picture of disco diva, Donna Summer, on the cover.

The ‘Gay Internet 90s’ brought out the drive to create a queer media dynasty. My memory can’t unravel the swirl of business dealings that had the parent company of The Advocate, and the now-defunct websites, PlanetOut, and Gay.com, buying and selling each other to themselves, in a mad game of ‘ring around the stock options’. No matter who was on top, the question of news versus lifestyle was always tied to whose news and whose lifestyle … and that ‘who’ was the affluent audience that could bring in the bucks.

Frontiers’ downfall may be the saddest story of them all. Born during the height of the AIDS crisis, Frontiers featured hard news, as well as entertainment and social avenues. It was definitely a bad sign, when news broke in February, that star journalist/News Editor, Karen Occam, had been unceremoniously let go.

MMPW founder and CEO, Bobby Blair, said the paper was going after a younger, digital audience, and wanted to “give the generation of Millennials a real shot at creating our content”.  Horrified shouts rang out around the country.

From what one can gather from reports on the situation, Blair wasn’t involved in the company’s day-to-day affairs much, from the time he axed Occam, until early September, when a lawsuit was filed by a Massachusetts investment firm that shut the operation down.

The suit alleges several different kinds of fraud, misrepresentation, mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. Not that Frontiers hadn’t faced financial difficulties before – they first filed for bankruptcy in 2013 – but the unfortunate pattern of queer publishers throwing bad money after good, in search of the ‘rich, dark, handsome strangers’, that will make them happy and prosperous forever, may be more at the root of the problem than the difficult business of running a newspaper.

It matters who owns the LGBT press. It matters who covers queer news. As Karen Occam said in an interview with Press Pass Q:

“…we see the nuances, the backstory, and the holistic context that comes with being second-class citizens still fighting for equality. Sometimes, when you are blissfully engrossed in being privileged, you don’t know what you don’t know. Or care. But we must. We report on the scope of our very existence”.

 

-Lucia Chappelle

About EILE Magazine

The new LGBT magazine; available online, for download and on podcast. It's time for another view.
%d bloggers like this: