Ad declines lead gay media to cut back
by Matthew S. Bajko
The staff layoffs and downsizing plaguing mainstream news outlets is also hitting gay media newsrooms as advertisers pull back due to the faltering economy.
The financial woes have led many LGBT media outlets to reduce page counts, lay off writers, and scramble to find new sources of revenue. One paper, the New England Blade owned by HX Media, shut down last October.
"I know some papers are more stretched than others. Some are victims due to the economy," said Bob Witeck, the owner of an LGBT-focused marketing firm based in Washington, D.C. "It is worrisome."
This month, San Francisco-based PlanetOut laid off 33 percent of its workforce as it prepares to merge with Los Angeles-based Here Networks, which acquired an 80 percent stake in the faltering online LGBT company for reportedly $5 million.
It was just the latest announcement of an LGBT media company's woes. Gay publications across the country have instituted various cost-saving measures in order to survive.
Chicago paper Windy City Times closed down it newsroom, and reporters and editors now work from home. The Advocate went to being a monthly instead of every other week, and folded its OutTraveler into the magazine. Cleveland's Gay People's Chronicle went from being weekly to twice a month.
"I would say that the publishers I have talked to are very conscious of their budgets and running their businesses and are being as lean as they can be," said Chuck Colbert, who covers gay media for Press Pass Q, a newsletter focused on the LGBT press. "I don't hear any panic. I hear concern, and people say in terms of the recession, they will pull out of it and the goal is to remain standing."
The National Gay Newspaper Guild, made up of gay-owned publications across the country, is also facing its own troubles. The group is in a "retooling mode" as it figures out how to operate in a new media landscape, said the guild's president, Sue O'Connell, who co-owns the Boston-based weekly LGBT paper Bay Windows and is a senior executive with the Edge-branded LGBT Web sites.
"We are trying to figure out what direction the guild is going to go in," said O'Connell.
LGBT newspapers throughout California have been hit especially hard, as local governments struggle to balance their budgets and state lawmakers remain deadlocked on how to deal with a $42 billion deficit. The economic uncertainty has impacted many of the papers' loyal local advertisers.
And with the passage of Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage in California, the advertising bonanza from wedding-related businesses that LGBT news outlets in the state saw beginning in mid-2008 dried up after the November election.
Car dealers, once a major source of ad dollars, have also disappeared from the pages of local gay papers. Hurt by the ongoing woes besieging both Detroit's Big Three automakers and foreign car companies alike, local dealerships can no longer afford to advertise or have closed up shop.
The lost revenue is taking a noticeable toll on gay publications. San Diego's 20-year-old Gay and Lesbian Times reduced the size of its weekly editions and cut its staff last year. To further save money, the remaining employees are taking staggered unpaid leaves throughout January and February.
"We've trimmed expenses, and we're publishing a leaner product – but you'll find we have not sacrificed our news content and value," wrote the paper's publisher, Michael G. Portantino, in an editorial in the January 1 issue. "Our team members are all in, and they are convinced this magazine is a viable, valuable community resource. As a team, our staff will weather the storm, and our sales staff will assist clients in doing the same."
San Francisco-based lesbian magazine Curve let go five people last year. The publication's founder and publisher, Frances Stevens, said she had informed her staff of the magazine's financial problems prior to the layoffs.
"I will lay off people before we can't make payroll. It wasn't a surprise to them," said Stevens, who launched the magazine in 1990 under a different name.
The magazine has dropped down to 70 pages each month from 100 last year, and Stevens also shaved a quarter-inch from the magazine's page size, a savings of some 20,000 pounds of paper over the next 10 months. Along with reducing her paper costs, the shrinkage cuts down on what she pays for ink and postage, said Stevens.
Troy May, publisher of San Jose LGBT magazine OutNow , said the state's budget problems have led to two of his ad contracts being canceled. Santa Clara County pulled its HIV prevention campaign, and the city of San Jose canceled its ads aimed at attracting gay people to move downtown.
"It's been really tough. We are just barely keeping our head above water," said May, though he added he has "no fears of going under any time soon."
Another blow came when the American Musical Theater of San Jose, a major advertiser, went bankrupt. The company had renewed its ad buy, and still owes May several thousand dollars for past ads.
"We likely will not see that money," said May, who took over the monthly magazine three years ago. "Luckily, we just got a contract with the San Jose Rep for 2009. It is a brand new account."
To make ends meet, May lowered his rates this year to entice advertisers to remain and is using fewer freelancers. His printer reduced May's rate, and the magazine has scaled back from 48 pages down to 40 in January, and most likely to 32 for the February issue.
"It is going to be a tough year, I think. We will be scrambling for every ad we get," he said.
The Bay Area Reporter has not been immune from the economic downturn. Beginning with its January 8 edition, the 38-year-old weekly cut its page count down to 32 pages and has kept the smaller size for the last two weeks. It was the lowest number of pages for the paper since the early 1990s.
General manager Michael Yamashita, who has worked at the B.A.R. since 1989, said the paper's advertising has declined across the board. National advertising and local ads began decreasing in 2007 but the falloff escalated in recent months.
Last year the paper
Until then, rather than cut staff, the paper is keeping its page count down and did not raise its ad rates this year.
"We are willing to work with all of our advertisers to see what we can do to be mutually helpful for each other," he said. "I don't think it is a gay phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that impacts anybody who has any dealings with this economy."
In Sacramento, local LGBT paper Outword , which comes out twice a month, dropped down to 24 pages from 40 this month. It let go several contract writers and is publishing with just three full-time staffers.
With a print run of 10,000 that is distributed as far north as Reno, Nevada and to Fresno in the southern portion of the Central Valley, the paper sponsors many events in the LGBT community. It still plans to provide free advertising, but will no longer run full-page ads.
"Everyone looks to us for free ads. We are trying to keep an eye on those," said Fred Palmer, the paper's publisher. "We can't sponsor every event. We are asking those organizations to support us and buy ads in the gay paper so we are around next year."
Unlike other gay papers that attract national ads, the 14-year-old paper's advertising is largely reliant on local businesses. Last October, many advertisers began pulling out and have yet to return.
"We got hit with a triple whammy. The economy hit so everybody in the mainstream media is down and the alternative press is down. Then the lack in holiday ads hit us," said Palmer. "A large majority of our community donated to Prop 8 and that hit people in November."
Palmer, who is also a founder and president of the Capitol region's Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, said similar to gay business owners who buy ads in his paper, he was distracted by the fight against Prop 8.
"I spent a good chunk of my November doing post-Prop 8 stuff as an activist and was not selling ads like I normally do," said Palmer.
OutNow's May said he prays same-sex couples will soon be saying "I do" again in California.
"If gay marriage was allowed in this state, then gay and lesbian publications would just be filled with advertising," he said. "We are really looking to the court to overturn Prop 8. We know that will help keep us afloat through 2009."
Colbert noted that the winter months are always slow in terms of advertising for gay papers.
"When summer picks up it may be a better indicator of how people are weathering this," he said.
Many gay papers make the bulk of their money off their annual Pride issues, when an onslaught of advertising triples the size of the papers, or with specially themed issues on travel or health issues. Publishers are holding out hope the same increase in ads around those special editions will be seen this year.
"A large portion of our revenue is based on our romance, travel, and Pride issues," said Palmer.
New revenue streams
To make up for the lost ad money, many gay publications have taken various steps to bring in more revenue. They are sending out e-mail newsletters readers subscribe to online that come with ads in addition to links to the latest edition's stories.
Last year, San Diego's paper instituted online coupons for local businesses that readers can download. OutNow started a business directory it promotes in each issue and on its Web site. It also launched its own online store to sell clothing and other merchandise branded for its readers in Oakland, San Jose, Palm Springs, and the Santa Cruz area.
"It is another way to not only earn revenue but give something to the community that they don't already have," said May.
In an effort to bring in more cash, some publications host their own events, such as Outword, which hosts happy hour events, and Curve, which is holding parties in San Francisco and Sacramento this month to celebrate the final season of Showtime's The L Word .
"A lot of us are trying to be creative for our clients. They are all asking for more bang for their bucks," said Palmer.
As companies slash their marketing budgets, Palmer said he is trying to point out their ad dollars will go farther in the gay press compared to daily newspapers or glossy magazines.
"Our rates are much, much lower than daily and weekly alternative papers," he noted. "Even with the economic downturn, gay couples will still travel, eat out, and do a lot of things where we spend money."
Witeck said gay media continues to be one of the more affordable ways for advertisers to reach consumers.
"The cost per eyeballs in the gay media is much less compared to most other print media around," he said. "I am hopeful local advertisers will see the value."
Stevens with Curve said she is pushing to increase her subscriber base as a way to makeup for decreased ad revenues.
"They will make sure we are still around another 20 years," said she of her readers. "When the dust settles Curve will still be on top and a lot of other magazines won't be around."
Portantino also sounded a positive note for the future of his publication.
"In 20 years – 20 years from this date today – the Gay & Lesbian Times will continue its record of fair and accurate reporting, generous giving, and providing resources to members of our community," he wrote. "We are not going anywhere."
Full disclosure, Matthew S. Bajko is a freelancer for OutNow in San Jose and had his monthly column in Sacramento's Outword dropped at the end of December.