It is a bittersweet homecoming for the Advocate.
The biweekly tabloid opened offices in Malibu this September as the largest and most recognized gay publication in the country. It grossed more than $4 million this year and turned "a nice six-figure" profit, according to publisher David Goodstein.
New corporate offices on Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the ocean, Goodstein said, will provide top-flight working conditions for his employees.
Clearly, the Advocate has come a long way since a decade ago when it served as a bulletin for the Los Angeles gay community.
Despite its success, however, the Advocate is still searching for the circulation and influence that Goodstein envisioned when he moved it from Los Angeles to San Mateo in 1974. Goodstein said he left Southern California to emphasize that the Advocate would focus on the entire country, not just Los Angeles. The magazine returned to the area last fall.
Circulation of 73,000
Goodstein said the Advocate has a potential circulation of 250,000. The Audit Bureau of Circulation in Chicago, however, shows a circulation of 73,000, down 10,000 from its peak in 1983.
Today the magazine's editors are less confident, but cling to hopes of reaching more readers. Executive editor Robert McQueen admits that the staff has "almost given up on this magical 100,000 (circulation) figure that we shot for for a long time." And Goodstein called the lack of growth "the biggest disappointment we have had," but said that the staff continues to "chip away slowly" at the circulation goals.
Insiders at the Advocate and observers on the outside blame several factors for the lack of growth: better coverage of local events by local gay newspapers, saturation of the market, lack of mailing lists used by other magazines and limited access to newsstands.
"In some senses it (the Advocate) has gone from being a prime source of news to being a secondary source," said Geoffrey Stokes, a media critic with the Village Voice. "There are other gay newspapers that offer greater coverage of local issues, from politics to corporate board rooms to gossip columns."
Most big cities have two or three gay publications, according to Jim Kepner of the International Gay and Lesbian Archives. "A national newspaper does not give enough attention to any one area to satisfy local concerns," he said.
But McQueen believes the magazine, which sells for $2.50 a copy, may have already reached all its potential subscribers.
"We are the largest gay publication in the world," the editor said. "If you take the Kinsey figures, there would be 27 million gay people in the nation. But we are not sure how many really identify with the gay community, how many are readers and how many want to read about the gay community. We don't know what the real market is." (The Kinsey study on human sexuality estimated that 10% of the population is homosexual.)
Goodstein said the lack of access to mailing lists and magazine stands have hurt the Advocate.
"Those are the two ways that magazines have traditionally used to gain circulation," he said. "We would have been up to 250,000 now if we had those lists." But national magazines have refused to sell their mailing lists to the Advocate, Goodstein said. And most chain stores have refused to open their news racks to the Advocate.
The opportunities have been denied because the magazine is for gays, Goodstein said.
Most large chain stores stay away from magazines that are "controversial" because of explicit sexual content, according to Jack Cergol of the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, D.C. He said that publications that cater to heterosexuals, such as Playboy and Penthouse, are just as scarce as the Advocate on magazines racks.
The Advocate, typically about 60 pages of newsprint, will sport a new graphic design and other changes in 1985.
In April, separate entertainment listings for the East and West coasts will be inserted for the first time. The change is designed to localize coverage, McQueen said. Ads in the entertainment section will cost one-third of the $1,600 charged for a page in the main magazine. McQueen said the magazine's ad rate had become so high that it priced out local businesses. Southern and Midwest sections may follow if the East and West pages are a success.
Other changes include a new Washington bureau, an in-house distribution company to resolve the mailing and newsstand problems and glossy covers with four-color reproduction.
About four years ago, Goodstein said that he was no longer willing to subsidize the magazine out of his pocket. The company cut promotions and other costs "severely" and advertised aggressively, according to McQueen.
The magazine also plans to occupy a new building on Pacific Coast Highway sometime in the new year, in addition to its corporate building. When the move is complete, 41 of the magazine's 52 employees will be housed there.
The move to Malibu seemed a natural, according to company officials, because Goodstein lives there, it is near the magazine's Los Angeles readership base and accessible to a large pool of potential employees.
Media critic Stokes said the Advocate is the most professional of the gay publications that he follows, but it could be better.
"They are not nearly as ambitious as they could be given the money they seem to have," Stokes said. "They don't seem to be willing to underwrite a reporter for three months to do something with a lot of depth. But their coverage is broad and in that sense, good. And their reporting on AIDS has been first rate."
A recent issue featured a range of stories from news of FBI surveillance of gays to analysis of election results for gay candidates and issues to an essay on homophobia in Great Britain.
Stokes said public health care for poor gays and the lives of gays in Third World countries are examples of stories that have received scant attention in the Advocate. He said it focuses instead on the lives of young, upwardly mobile gays "who get into spending."
But Stokes conceded that bent may be necessary for the Advocate to make enough money to survive.
McQueen said the magazine has tried to write stories about all members of the community, including minorities, even though its readers are mostly well-to-do professionals and businessmen.
He said the magazine has improved its coverage in the last year by assigning full-time news editors to offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. But the magazine does not have the money to assign reporters to the kind of in-depth pieces that Stokes described, McQueen said.
"I would like to improve," McQueen said. "But I think that the Advocate does a good job of covering the gay movement already." Another issue that has been discussed persistently since Goodstein took control in 1974 is what to do with the racy pink classified pages that are inserted into the center of the magazine. In state-by-state listings gay men can find graphic offers of every form of sexual activity.
"There has always been a terrible conflict," archivist Kepner said, "between the image of respectability he (Goodstein) wishes to project and the ads that sell best, and those are the sleazy sex ads."
The editors considered and decided against dropping the pink section this year.
"We just decided we could not afford that risk at that time," McQueen said. But he does not apologize for the ads. "I think it very openly and honestly portrays gay men. They will be in their suits and ties at work being very professional during the day and at night they will don their sleazy clothes and go out and play."
Goodstein said experts in human sexuality have told him the ads are "useful and healthy." He said that repression of sexual feelings could be psychologically harmful.
Goodstein's Liberation Publications Inc. began publishing a beefcake magazine called Advocate Men in May. The company will launch another periodical within 18 months, Goodstein said. And beyond that, it is looking at videotapes and computers to spread information and advertising to gay men.