Publish, Not Perish: LGBTQ Media Confront COVID-19
The LGBTQ media are reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, as venues remain shuttered and public gatherings are cancelled or postponed in markets across the country.
But those at the helm of several publications say they’re determined to keep delivering the news, information, and insight their loyal readership relies on, by shoring up steadfast relationships and cultivating new clients.
“Almost immediately, we got calls to cancel advertising” at the onset of COVID-19, recalls Jan Stevenson, co-publisher and CFO of Pride Source Media Group, whose biweekly LGBTQ print publication, Between The Lines, is normally available for free pickup at over 600 locations throughout the greater Michigan area (see pridesource.com for more info).
The closure of most of their distribution sites, notes Stevenson, led to the decision to publish “only a PDF version of the paper, and to include all the booked ads, except for events that were cancelled, at no charge.”
Pride Source, which Stevenson owns alongside her wife, Susan Horowitz, sent a message to advertisers “acknowledging that with everything they are facing, the last thing they need to worry about is their ads with us—so we froze, in place, all contracts, to be revisited when things open up. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and thankful.”
Between the Lines re-established itself as a print publication when the hard copy edition resumed on April 30. Still, says Stevenson, “Michigan’s largest Pride celebrations have all been either rescheduled or cancelled. It will result in a huge loss of revenue for our publications. We are conserving our resources now, applying for whatever assistance we can, and hoping to weather the rest of 2020.”
Pride month and its perennial attendant revenue “is everything for every gay publication,” says Troy Masters, publisher of the Los Angeles Blade (losagnelesblade.com), a weekly print publication that, like Between the Lines, is part of the 12-member National LGBT Media Association (nationallgbtmediaassociation.com). “It represents a disproportionate percentage [of annual sales income],” notes Masters.
Says Masters of the postponed LA Pride Festival and Parade and other events: “Events are critical in this market and very popular with potential sponsors, but that is presently impossible… Asking people to spend money on marketing is very hard, although we have had success talking to our regular clients about collections. We’ve actually gained a few small ones. A hardware store comes to mind, but we remain down in advertising numbers and revenue.”
The Los Angeles Blade, which normally prints up to 35,000 copies, is now printing around 15,000, and has gone down from an average page count of 28-32 to 16-20.
On March 6, anticipating the looming crisis, the paper revised its distribution to focus “on every residence and apartment building on key blocks of West Hollywood, as well as grocery stores we can access,” says Masters, who notes the Blade continues to be available via street boxes, albeit only within the West Hollywood area.
Norm Kent, founder/publisher of the South Florida Gay News (southfloridagaynews.com), is similarly determined to forge ahead.
“I will just give you the grim outline,” says Kent. “We are facing a disease that is threatening our lives, as well as our livelihoods—and I am more concerned about our community surviving and my friends living than I am my newspaper printing. You can start a paper up again, not a life. So what material losses I endure are inconsequential compared to the friends I may lose.”
The advertising revenue lost from the postponement of April’s Pride of the Americas festival in Fort Lauderdale and March’s Miami Beach Pride and Palm Beach Pride, notes Kent, represents “the balance of our year. So we’re going to have to find a way to engage this adversity, with a smaller paper that is laser-focused, understanding that bigger is not always better, and sometimes, less is more.”
Last March 24, recalls Kent, “I published one of the largest weekly gay papers in history, at 124 pages. One year later, the paper was 28 pages. But the real losses are being endured by the social service programs that were the intended beneficiaries of those events.”
Notes Kent, who left his position as executive director of AIDS Project Florida to found his publication, “I’ve always cared more about people than profits, and that’s why I’m going to use all my resources to tread water in the tides of a rising ocean—and I’m pretty confident, because I’m a good swimmer.”
Some silver linings remain, notes Masters, of the Los Angeles Blade. Advertisers including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, AIDS Project Los Angeles, and the City of West Hollywood, who’ve been a consistent presence throughout since the paper’s 2017 inception, have increased their visibility throughout the COVID-19 crisis, both in print and online.
Stevenson says that online traffic is up significantly, noting, “People obviously want to stay connected, and are concerned about how the pandemic is impacting LGBTQ people and organizations. The other non-pandemic news about LGBTQ issues—like the passage of anti-trans legislation—is getting a lot of traction.”
Furthermore, says Stevenson, local health departments wanting to communicate messages about HIV testing and COVID-19 services have come on board, along with several others who’ve requested banner ads and other online outreach.
That presence sends more than just a message about products and services.
“Our community is especially receptive to seeing that people are supportive,” maintains Masters. “That’s always true, but in a pandemic that echoes the trauma of the AIDS crisis, it’s especially true. We want to know that our gains are important and that we are included.”
“There are some real heroes out there in LGBTQ media, like Comcast and [HIV/AIDS treatment provider] Gilead, who are continuing their campaigns in LGBTQ media,” says Todd Evans, president and CEO of Rivendell Media (rivendellmedia.com), which places advertisements for the National LGBT Media Association. Together, the association’s members — including Boston’s Bay Windows and the Dallas Voice— reach an estimated 500,000 weekly print and online readers.
“In a time when the news is dominated by a crisis,” notes Evans, “LGBTQ consumers want to know who is supporting us, and who is not.
One big difference with this crisis versus 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and the financial crisis of 2008/2009, says Evans, is, “We’ve had virtually no cancelling of ads. I’ve had a few campaigns that were just ready to start now, so they’re delaying, which makes sense. So I think that shows that advertisers are waiting for information—how long we stay at home, how long distribution points are closed.”
That said, says Evans, “The community still needs its news. We still want to know who supports us, and who doesn’t. I know myself, as a super-consumer of news media, when it comes to the LGBTQ community, I only find out, especially the political stuff, via our own media… I truly feel, at the end of this, that we will be stronger than ever as a community, because we’re used to fighting—and we’re also used to being under attack.”