Chris Crain is finding out that what goes around comes around. Especially in the publishing world. As editorial director of the gay newspaper group Window Media, Crain recently used the editorial pages of one of its publications, the Southern Voice, to criticize last year's purchase of New York-based Out magazine by Liberation Publications, which also owns the L.A.-based Advocate. By bringing these two former competitors under the same corporate umbrella, and under shared editorial direction by Advocate editor Judy Wieder, Crain argued, the national gay media were losing a necessary diversity of voices.
But even while making his complaint, his own company was in the process of acquiring two of the country's most respected gay newspapers--the Washington Blade and the New York Blade News. Now Crain is on the receiving end of outcries over what many consider the corporatization and potential homogenization of the gay press.
"I was certainly aware this might happen while I was writing the editorials," Crain says. "But the major distinction here is that they bought their competition. My concern was that Out and the Advocate have become virtually indistinguishable, with gay-for-pay straight celebrities on the cover."
"Chris Crain was very critical of us," says Wieder. "And now, lo and behold, he's in the same position. I think it will be very interesting to see how they handle it."
"It" is the chorus of voices raised in protest over a sequence of mergers and purchases that have left many in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community concerned that the power of their press is being wielded by fewer and fewer hands. Many fear that the mainstreaming of the gay press both mirrors and contributes to a torpor that has settled on the gay and lesbian movement.
Last year, on the heels of the Advocate/Out marriage, the Internet company PlanetOut merged with its rival company, Online Partners, which runs Gay.com, creating the largest online source for gay and lesbian news, chat rooms and personal ads in the country. PlanetOut then announced its intention to buy Liberation Publications, plans that subsequently fell through but not before raising a hue and cry that included a call for an antitrust investigation.
Earlier this year, Henry Scott, who left his post as president of Out magazine shortly after the acquisition by Liberation, sent an e-mail to members of the gay community calling their attention to "the dangerous monopoly among gay media" and asking them to call on the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to review the PlanetOut/Online Partners merger, which, he wrote, "threatens to further diminish the opportunity for vigorous debate over issues of politics and culture and style that is our community's greatest strength."
Yet even Scott concedes that the greatest strength of the two sites was never their reportage or commentary; it was, and is, their personal ads. In fact, that was Scott's second concern--that the new combined database would begin charging for their previously free service. Thus far, there has been no official response, but Scott, who was instrumental in setting up the deal with Liberation Publications, continues to speak out over what he sees as the dwindling diversity in the gay media.
"I voted for the merger [of the Advocate and Out]," he says. "I made a mistake. I think gays and lesbians have a lot of complicated issues, and they need media forums to have those discussions."
According to John-Manuel Andriote, a Washington, D.C., journalist and author of "Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America," there hasn't been a real national political media forum for gays in years. "In the '90s, we saw a shift in cultural values," he says. "We had these very slick, very mainstream magazines and a rise in content devoted to celebrities." Out magazine was, he says, the ultimate example of this. "It embodied homosexuality as a lifestyle from the beginning. It put out there the idea that all gay people live in really nice houses and take cruises in the Mediterranean, which isn't the case. Obviously."
Many gays, he says, have been lulled into a false sense of equality, a false sense of security. "Gay men and lesbians still have a long way to go before they enjoy full equal rights and acceptance in mainstream American culture," he wrote recently in a column castigating the gay press in the Gay and Lesbian Review. "The national gay press should again embrace the mission of serving as a vehicle for social and political change." Instead, he says, the gay press seems content to flaunt its wealthy demographics to advertisers and target its audience as consumers rather than activists.
Taking a Political Stand
The 35-year-old Advocate premiered as a pamphlet protesting arrests of gay men at Los Angeles gay bars and for years was a blend of news, protest, personals and sex ads. Like the gay movement, it was radicalized by AIDS in the late '80s and dramatically transformed from a loosely defined lifestyle magazine to a more pointedly political publication. By the mid-'90s, mainstream publications were covering many gay and lesbian issues, and the Advocate found itself competing at national newsstands. It went glossy, put straight-but-gay-friendly celebrities on the cover and broadened its purview to include fashion and style. When Out magazine premiered in 1992, it was less overtly political than the Advocate had been and was geared a bit more to educated men with money.
Wieder dismisses the idea that the Advocate and Out have become clones under her tenure. If anything, she says, they have grown even more distinct, with Out laying full claim to lifestyle and fashion, and the Advocate digging back into the political trenches. "This month, we have Sharon Smith [the partner of the woman mauled to death by dogs in San Francisco] on the cover of the Advocate and Nathan Lane on the cover of Out. How much more of a difference could you get?"
For some, it's not the covers that matter as much as the pronoun--the "we." Wieder is editorial consultant for both magazines; she heads the staff box of the Advocate, and although her name falls toward the middle of Out's, it is in the same size typeface as that of the editor in chief and the publisher.
According to Wieder, it is the keystone of her job that the two magazines be compelling in completely different ways. "Why on earth would we want two publications that were the same? That would defeat the purpose."
Still, a look at the magazines' demographics show a virtual mirror image. Although the Advocate draws a few more women (21% to Out's 16.5%), both target virtually the same age range (Advocate, 42; Out, 39) and claim a readership with a 93% college-graduate rate and median incomes of $95,000. Both even have similar circulation stats: the Advocate, 94,000; Out, 100,000.
Fears of Blurring the Line
The line between niche-marketing and niche-journalism is what has some people worried about the Window deal. Until fairly recently, the president of Washington, D.C.-based Window, William Waybourn, simultaneously ran a public-relations firm called Window Communications.
"Even if [the PR company] has been closed," says New York lawyer and gay activist William Dobbs, "many of us find the precedent very disturbing." The PR question aside, others are simply concerned that the nature of the two Blades will change under a new owner, and the fact that the owner also runs several other gay publications exacerbates, rather than assuages, those concerns.
"People look at the Washington Blade as the gay paper of record," says Kathy Renna, spokeswoman for the New York office of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an organization with which Waybourn was once affiliated. "And because of that, because of the relationship many have with the paper, I think a lot of people will really be watching to see if anything changes."
The staffs of all the group's publications will remain separate and self-sustaining, Crain says, although he will oversee "story budgets, the look of the papers and the larger vision of the group." Like Wieder, he sees his role as ensuring that the criticism of the hypothetical is dispelled by the reality. "I have an obligation to increase, not decrease, the diversity of voices."
His first goal, he says, is to beef up the editorial and opinion pages of the two Blades--the concern over one person running the editorial pages of half a dozen publications doesn't seem to faze him. "Obviously, we'll be looking to meet local needs, finding local voices."
The local press, many say, has been the only consistent voice the community has had over the years and continues to pick up the slack as the national publications worry about newsstand sales. In New York, Dobbs says, a few small slick giveaways, the "club rags" are timely and pertinent to their local readers and lately have been giving the anemic New York Blade a run for its money. In Los Angeles, similar publications, including Frontiers, are considered by some to be more radical and timely than any of the national publication.
As the gay press follows the community into the mainstream, many believe that self-criticism must begin in a serious way. "Whatever's going on, there is really no platform for criticism," says Dobbs. "The gay press does not police itself. And as the conflicts grow, it is becoming more and more important to look at all this."