Paying For Gay Media

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From the Seattle Municipal Archives

Being some more considered thoughts on the crisis at Star Observer.

BnewS & Melbourne Star went out of business. Evolution survived by closing and then rising from the ashes as Evo Media. Now Sydney Star Observer is looking for $75k to save their bacon. Can it be that LGBTI media are just not viable any longer as free offerings? Should we we paying a cover price and subscriptions to the print editions and websites?

Star Observer’s income statement for year ended 30 June 2012 – the most recent I can find – shows:

Rent $63,806

Operating expenses $181,653

Employees $166,298.

$75k won’t even cover a year’s rent. It’s only a tad more than their 2011/12 loss of $67,654.

In 2011/2 sales took a nosedive of almost a quarter of a million dollars, from $1,964,724 the previous year to $1,747,937. Since then, we are told, things have gotten worse. Stories are circulating of problems with staff payments and superannuation.

Why have revenues collapsed? Gay media get their money from two main sources: gay men’s venues, and government funded agencies like AIDS Councils. Neither are doing well at the moment. The federal government isn’t feeling particularly generous towards anyone at the moment, and is in any event unsympathetic to our community. Meanwhile venues are struggling – and failing – to stay afloat. The money is drying up.

At the same time, the Star says it spent a lot of money fighting legal actions and paying settlements. (As an aside, I wonder why this wasn’t covered by insurance?) Steps taken to rein in costs, like moving from a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine format, while shunting news off to the website, don’t seem to have helped, yet. Hence the appeal. There are many good reasons to support the Star. As they say:

“The Star Observer has publicised and supported pretty much every LGBTI organisation within Australia, including Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Midsumma, Brisbane Pride, ACON, the Victorian AIDS Council, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (NSW and Victoria), Queer Screen, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, Aurora Group, the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Positive Living NSW, and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association.”

However, the appeal does not say precisely what they are going to do with the money. I for one would like to see a detailed business plan for the next 3-5 years, including their proposals on reducing costs and securing additional income streams. For example, do they really need to be located in Oxford Street, now that it’s no longer the epicentre of gay life? Could they not function equally well from an office in the suburbs, for example?

At the time of writing, with 14 days to go, they have reached about one third of their target. They are going to have to give the community a lot more reasons to support them than we have seen so far if they are to hit the bullseye. The question for me is a simple one. Do we still need community media, and, if we conclude that we do, what should it look like, and how do we pay for it?

As a former editor and writer for LGBTI papers and magazines, my concern is with the content. I’m not interested in pages of pictures of pretty boys off their faces on a Saturday night. I’m interested in a newspaper that does real journalism around the issues affecting our community.

This is where, despite their claims, the Star seems to be falling down. I have seen a fair amount of comment on social media about the quality of the Star’s journalism, not all of it complimentary. Whereas the appeal stresses the paper’s ‘investigative journalism’, the criticism stresses a lack of substance. But maybe we’re expecting too much.

A community medium like the Star is hamstrung when it comes to reporting on the most important stories affecting LGBTI people. Real journalism and stories of substance are expensive and dangerous to produce. There are, and have been, many stories out there that needed to be told, that none of our community media would touch, because they would almost certainly lose revenue as a result, and embroil themselves in litigation. This is true whether the subject of the tale is, say, a community organiser, a venue owner, a community organisation, a politician, or a government official or department. Printing critical articles about any of these risks an instant loss of revenue.

Community media on the current model can’t afford quality investigative journalism.

LGBTI media is a risk-averse culture. The day I walked in the door at BNewS / Melbourne Star, I was told ‘do not take sides, do not run campaigns, above all, do not run articles critical of advertisers.’ I didn’t always follow this advice, of course, which did not exactly endear me to the sales staff, who were continually on my back to write copy praising advertisers.

This was known on their side of the office as ‘editorial support’ and on mine as ‘advertorial’. I have no problem with this so long as “Advertising Features” are clearly flagged as such. That did not always happen.

Government funded organisations often reinforce threats to withhold advertising spend, by also withholding editorial co-operation.

‘Yes this is an unfortunate incident, but it has been dealt with, and really, Doug, publicising it could only damage an organisation which is vital to the community, I don’t see that any purpose is served by talking about it, no we won’t be making a statement. . .’

Politicians often withhold cooperation unless they’re guaranteed favourable coverage. A very senior politician, currently a Cabinet Minister, once refused to be interviewed by me on The Rainbow Report on JOY 94.9 because I was not a Liberal Party sympathiser, and I declined to supply a complaisant interviewer. Others have declined because I wouldn’t supply questions in advance, or faced them with experts who could actually argue with them.

[To digress for a moment: this kind of backstage management is of course a double edged sword, because as a journalist you can at any time decide to expose the process. “No-one from the minister’s office was available for comment”, “the manager did not respond by the deadline”, or “the director of the organisation declined numerous offers of an interview”, all leave people to draw their own conclusions. This may lead the recalcitrant interviewee to make an official complaint, which ties up management time and makes them even more risk averse. A journalist needs to know that management will always have their back. Without that, any kind of investigative journalism – or any real journalism at all – becomes very difficult, if not impossible. However, to get back to the issue . . . .]

The other reason for the superficial quality of much LGBTI journalism in our community media is time and cost. Looking back though the books, I see that during 2006/7 I was employed by BnewS / Melbourne Star as a freelancer on three days a week at $50 per hour – later cut to $30 after the two papers were merged. Needless to say, I worked many more hours unpaid, because it would have been impossible to produce the paper otherwise.

[This kind of forced volunteering is common in cash strapped community organisations, who employ people for two or three days a week, knowing full well their professionalism and devotion to the cause can be relied upon to drive them to put in six or seven. And if it doesn’t, pressure from management and peers will shame them into it. It’s why internal relationships in these places are often so tense and adversarial.]

That might seem generous, until you consider that I got no superannuation, holiday pay, sick pay or expenses, and the papers closed for about four weeks every year. Until the merger, I had complete editorial responsibility for Melbourne Star, researching and writing all of the news and much of the feature content and advertorial copy. And sub-editing pretty much everything. On alternate weeks I also contributed items for BnewS.

[By comparison, the entertainment editor took care of all the arts: movie, theatre, music and clubbing segments. In addition to a salary, he got all the free CDs, DVIDs, theatre tickets etc sent to the paper. Some of these were passed on to reviewers in lieu of payment. Advertising staff got a base salary plus superannuation and sick pay, plus benefits from any contra deals, such as bottles of wine, free meals at restaurants, sample goods and so forth.]

Given the time pressures involved, some of my copy was little more than rehashed press releases. Certainly there was little time to pursue stories in any depth. But we did the best we could with the very limited resources at our disposal.

Since those days payment for freelance journalists has pretty much collapsed everywhere, leading to fewer people of talent coming into the business, and many of us leaving it. Not that LGBTI media ever paid that well to begin with.

For a while Southern Star, successor to the Melbourne Star (now folded into Star Observer), paid $150 for an opinion column or 15 cents a word for a feature article.  Other gay papers offered as little as 6 cents a word.

Mainstream outlets were not much better. In 2011/12 Crikey and The Drum each offered $100 for a 1500 word story that might take a week or more of solid investigation and writing to produce. An op-ed in the Herald Sun might net $200, but the chance of one of those is rare. Fairfax used to be similar, until they decided that if a piece was ‘campaigning’ on an issue, such as, say, marriage equality, they wouldn’t pay for it at all. To Murdoch I go not, on principle. In fact, I’ve stopped writing for all of them.

It was never easy to make any kind of money from journalism, but it has become far, far worse now. Now you’re expected to work for nothing, or at best, a hope. I was approached by an online business to create and run a gay site to add to their collection. The job involved curating news content, producing a blog, a video blog, and podcasts, in return for a (small) percentage of whatever ad revenue the site produced. If it ever did. But no actual pay.

Today, if you want to make a living, online content writers working in financial services command up to $45 an hour, or $60-70k a year. And that’s about the best you can get.No wonder LGBTI journalism relies heavily on up and coming talent, students, interns, work experience, and volunteers.

I don’t mind volunteering for a good cause, if I know at the outset that’s the name of the game. In more than ten years of producing and delivering news bulletins, featured specials, Freshly Doug and The Rainbow Report at JOY 94.9, I earned nothing except a few plaques to put on the wall. Which is fine. I happily volunteered my time and expertise, and would do it again, if I could find a sponsor with deep pockets and a lot of patience to put me on their payroll!

But I will never write for a commercial site for ‘exposure’ or a some hypothetical ‘percentage’ which may or may not materialise somewhere down the track.

It is worth noting that despite getting almost all their talent for nothing, even JOY has a hard time financially. Several times it has teetered on the brink of collapse, most recently during the GFC, but managed to climb out of the hole. And it has only done so by relying on donations from the LGBTI community.

[Sponsorship – the community radio equivalent of ads – is so limited by law that it can never provide enough. Memberships can only raise so much. Only by appealing continually for donations, and constantly running fundraising events, can JOY keep going.]

Now Star Observer is heading down the same road. Because $75k will not be enough. They themselves admit that they are hoping for more. For $125k, to be exact. And this will just be the beginning. Are we prepared for this appeal to be the first of an indefinite number? Because as far as I can see, there’s no plan besides, “Quick, we need $75k to plug this hole” – and then what? Wait and hope that the floundering monthly mag starts to make a profit? That online advertising grows to fill some of the gap?

JOY has proved that the community will maintain and support media through donations and subscriptions, if the offering is pitched right. As a community owned non-profit, maybe Star Observer should embrace a similar model.

I believe we still need community media, which is why I’m prepared to buy a subscription to JOY. I’d be prepared to throw a few dollars Star Observer’s way, too, if I knew what they were going to do with it and could have confidence in their plans.

To donate to the Star Observer appeal, click here: http://www.pozible.com/project/185044

To take out a JOY 94.9 membership, and/or donate, check out the website http://www.joy.org.au

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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)