Death Of A Star

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pic: Dave Crosby

Where did the Melbourne LGBTI press go?

Slowly but surely doing bit and pieces towards an autobiography. This is part of it.

I am going through a lot – and I do mean a lot – of old files from my LGBTI journalist career. Including some stuff that has never been on the net.

I find it very sad that a city like Melbourne with a large LGBTI community no longer has a community newspaper. There used to be three.

I caught the tail end of their golden era. Several things killed it, not least of which was venal and corrupt management. But that behaviour stemmed from trying desperately to keep afloat businesses whose principal income stream had vanished.

Internet dating, and then dating apps, meant revenue from personal contact ads disappeared. I did a quick back of the envelope calculation that showed LGBTI newspaper income must have fallen by at least half when everyone shifted to Gaydar, and then Grindr, which offered the same service for free, or close to it.

THE UK EXPERIENCE

Don’t take this as anything other but very rough guesstimation and speculation, but based on a quick scan of Britain’s Gay News (where I worked for a time) in its first two years 1972-3, by the end of ’73 it was probably earning the equivalent of A$1.25m pa at 2018 values. That paid office, print and distribution costs. The paper was entirely volunteer run, so there were no salary costs.

A rough count of the small ads and their prices showed they were probably responsible for about $75k, an amount which steadily grew as the paper became more widely available and well known. The rest came from retail sales direct to the public, wholesale distribution to newsagents and bookstores, reader subscriptions and finally, display advertising, which was minimal.

ADVERTORIAL DOMINANCE

Unlike in the US and the UK, the papers in Australia were all giveaway street press. They didn’t have an income from sales, or a subscription base. Their main income was from contact ads, and a little from display advertising, for which they were pretty much useless.

Advertising in LGBTI media (including radio) is driven more by a desire to signal corporate virtue (hey look, we’re gay friendly) and/or the desire to support the existence of the medium in question. This is why ACON and VAC use some of their government derived income to prop up LGBTI media, which gives them a direct line to their clients. But neither commercial nor community advertising is driven by any possible economic return, because there isn’t any. Or at any rate, not enough to justify the expenditure.

So, in return for their money advertisers demand “editorial support”, aka “advertorial”. PR disguised as journalism. Often little more than lightly rewritten press releases. And so editorial independence is compromised: write something critical of an organisation or company, and they will cut back or cut their ad spend entirely – this was a constant battle at BNEWS/Mel Star. That in turn means poor quality reporting, which pisses off the readership.

Of the gay press in Queensland, Associate Professor and historian Dr Shirleene Robinson,  wrote:

There are problems inherent in both queer newspapers depending solely upon advertising revenue for survival. Neither newspaper is in a position to direct criticism at major advertisers for fear of losing valuable revenue. This leaves Queensland’s queer press vulnerable to conflicts of interest. If a major queer advertiser were to perform a disservice to the GLTBIQ community, it is difficult to know how the queer press would respond. Would this community media feel free to draw attention to any abuses or would it feel that its reliance on advertising revenue prevented it from discussing such matters?**

PAYMENT IN KIND

The last piece in the puzzle was pay: in order to keep costs low, pay was either low – a few cents per word at most – or non-existent. Theatre reviewers were ‘paid’ in free tickets to the performances they reviewed. Music reviewers were ‘paid’ in free CDs. Anything they didn’t want to keep themselves, they sold.

Management and advertising staff supplemented their income with free samples of all kinds, which they also either used or sold. Advertisers liked to pay via contra deals, e.g., x cases of wines = y pages of advertising and advertorial. Not actual money. Try to insist on cash, not contra, and advertisers went elsewhere.

The only people who stumped up cash were ACON, VAC, Also, Pride, Midsumma, and whatever government department had an agenda to push, plus political parties and MPs during elections.

This all compromises editorial independence : write unflattering things about, say, Kylie, and you don’t get any more tickets to her shows, or copies of her CDs (I’m not suggesting Kylie ever did this, just using her as an example). Be rude about the Liberal candidate for Somewheretown, and you might not get any Liberal advertising.

COMPROMISED REPORTING

“You’re writing about X again! You’re running a campaign! You mustn’t campaign! You mustn’t take sides! You’ll piss off half the readers! No campaigns!”

Well, I ignored that one. What’s the point of a paper unless you campaign? So I left something to be desired as an editor, and probably helped to hasten the demise of the papers. But I console myself with the knowledge that they were dying anyway.

No one was interested in giving reporters, news people, freebies, so I only got what the management was willing to pay/could afford (as an aside, nowadays that’s mostly zero: you’re expected to write for the ‘exposure’). That turned me, in the eyes of the sales staff, into an unsustainable expense.

“Why are we paying for copy? We never used to pay anything for copy!!”

THROWING GOOD MONEY AFTER BAD

Eventual result: an unsustainable business, staggering along from week to week robbing Peter to pay Paul; running up huge debts with a printer, then switching to another, and another, until there were none left to go to. Not paying GST or staff super; not paying staff at all, or very very late; trading while insolvent. Finally, attempting to sell the wreck, only for the buyer to realise there was nothing but debt, and they could save their money by letting it fail and buying up any flotsam and jetsam.

Yes, you could say I helped them collapse because I insisted on getting paid, and they couldn’t refuse because they knew if I didn’t, I might at any time expose the whole house of cards. Because in addition to my editorship, I also had a radio show. I don’t believe I, or anyone else, should have to work for nothing in order to save an owners business. I hung on as long as I could for the sake of the other people involved.

But the truth was, it wasn’t a viable businesses, bought when it was close to the end of its natural life, which the buyer didn’t realise until it was too late. They then threw good money after bad until they had none left.
The same thing happened to other gay businesses disrupted by the internet, like gay video stores. Their day was done.

AS NIGELLA SAYS, “AND NOW…”

A city the size of Melbourne should have a gay newspaper, preferably in print as well as online, but unless and until readers are prepared to pay an economic cover price or subscription, it will not happen.

After the collapse of BN/MS I did some back of the envelope calculations. In order to be sustainable, and to employ adequate skilled editorial staff, you would have needed (at that time) to sell at least 5000 copies a week at $10 a copy. I didn’t, and don’t, think people are prepared to pay an economic price for what they say they want.

If I was to put all my Facebook posts and links, plus my stirrer content, behind a paywall (as Facebook may soon offer the opportunity to do), will you pay $10 a week to access it?

<<<<crickets>>>>

** this was also a constant problem at Joy 94.9

PS You can still find some BNews material via the Wayback Machine on the internet archive.

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About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years."Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)