Feature

What does the future hold for LGBT+ media?

With publishing in a state of flux, given the recent surge of LGBT+ coverage from mainstream media and the rise of LGBT+ publications - will the momentum last?

The LGBT+ community is, arguably, more visible than ever but the media sector dedicated to covering its issues is increasingly struggling to thrive. The Drum talks to the industry’s biggest players to find out where its future lies.

Despite a commitment from mainstream media outlets to cover LGBT+ topics through dedicated verticals, given the challenging media landscape of the past year there are simply fewer staffers to cover the biggest issues facing the community.

“The mainstream news world saw it as an opportunity,” says Tag Warner, chief executive at Gay Times. “I think that was done as this kind of surge. And then they realised they were entering a complex space that requires a deal of knowledge, understanding and sensitivity."

At the start of the year, BuzzFeed’s decision to lay off 15% of its workforce came under scrutiny when it was accused of letting go of people of colour and LGBT+ employees –​ including its deputy LGBT editor and LGBT video producer. Anecdotally, when The Drum spoke to people within other publications who did not want to be named, when push comes to shove, these editorial sections are often the first to go.

But it’s not just mainstream news outlets making cuts. Despite being a social network of 4 million daily users in about 200 countries, Grindr struggled to make the books balance in its publishing division. Earlier this year, it was forced to lay off the whole editorial staff of its LGBT publication ‘Into’, claiming the company was pivoting to video.

And in some instances, a migration towards LGBT-first publications is sometimes too alluring, meaning retaining talent is a problem. Conde Nast set up ‘Them’ in 2017, becoming the publishing house’s first LGBT-focused title. It was led by Phillip Picardi but after less than two years at the helm, he made his way to Out to become its editor-in-chief.

But LGBT-first publications are also feeling the strain from a time of media uncertainty. In June this year, under Picardi’s steerage, Out went through its second round of staff cuts. Parent company Pride Media said it was due to a lack of funding and an increasing number of unpaid ad placement and commission fees.

Meanwhile, in July of this year, the LGBT+ news platform Gay Star News closed down. In an article, now taken down, the online publisher admitted that while it has always been a tough business, “this year, it got unexpectedly much tougher”. It has since returned to business following a buyout by Iconic Labs, which rescued it from oblivion.

And while the web has given a platform to minority issues, keeping such outlets alive and kicking is a constant battle as they contend with the same issues facing all publishers.

Set up in 2005, PinkNews is an online LGBT+ newspaper that closely follows political progress on LGBT+ rights around the world. According to online analytics platform SimilarWeb, the website entertains around 3.5 million viewers a month, making it the fourth-biggest LGBT+ online platform.

“PinkNews faces some of the same challenges you might expect for a digital publisher,” admits PinkNews head of strategic partnerships, Cai Wilshaw. “So, declining ad revenues, the continued impact of the Facebook/Google duopoly and changing audience habits.”

But one major problem it and other LGBT+ publishers face is filters, with brand safety measures often actively excluding LGBT audiences with blocked keywords. This amounts to around three-quarters of articles on LGBT+ topics being flagged as 'inappropriate' for advertisers. As a result, LGBT-focused websites are caught in the crossfire and end up losing significant ad revenue.

And, as Wilshaw cites, digital LGBT publishers also struggle in the face of Facebook and Google (together taking 63 cents of every ad dollar spent online) which heavily regulate what we see.

New revenue streams

However, in the face of such challenges some publishers are rethinking their entire business models. Take the Gay Times; when its chief executive James Frost stepped down last year, it welcomed a 25-year old, who did not come from a publishing background, to the top job.

“I am Gay Times' target market,” says Warner on his appointment. And despite not being from a publishing background, he contends his “naivety and ignorance has helped transform the organisation quite quickly”.

When Warner arrived, the Gay Times magazine was on a pedestal – "it was the business, and everyone treated it, in an editorial sense... like a God,” Warner admits.

Warner made it his mission to switch the whole thing on its head. “We now describe ourselves as a full-stack agency,” he said on its transformational year.

"I'm the consumer of a lot of this content and I know that I could never pay for it - it feels alien to me,” he says. So, rather than apply a paywall to its website, the team thought out how they could create premium content that people buy into without a subscription service.

This year saw Gay Times pour money into production, enlisting the finest photographers, stylists and brands in town. All done in-house, to ensure its magazine, website and social channels ooze a premium vibe.

It upped the cover price, distributing the magazine to higher-end bookstores, away from high street business – elevating it to the rank of 'coffee table mag.'

Brand partnerships

In recent years, there has been a marked increase in brands partnering with the LGBT community and publishers have tried to take advantage of the rush.

PinkNews’ Wilshaw puts this down to visibility. "Pride events, LGBT+ representation, equal rights – these all contribute to LGBT+ issues being elevated in a way that suddenly attracts attention". He argues that "as with any unique audience, brands are keen to understand how they can take into account the unique needs and behaviours of the LGBT+ community, and rightly so".

Wilshaw highlights that it's not a "passing phase". Now, 49% of Gen Z identify as something other than 100% straight. "The stats don't lie. If you’re not interested in the LGBT+ community yet, you will be soon," he predicts.

PinkNews has different approaches to working with different brands. Wilshaw says for some, it's about showcasing their incredible work as a diverse employer. In such cases, the digital publisher would partner on its flagship events, such as its annual PinkNews Awards, which celebrates politicians, activists and brands that celebrate the status quo.

For those wanting to reach LGBT+ people through their marketing efforts, it "leverages our 30m+ audience to reach this audience in an authentic and engaging way".

"When people ask how do you monetise your content, I say... by not monetising our content," says Gay Times' Warner on his adversity to the term 'branded content' which he "hates".

Instead, he says Gay Times is a 'partnership organisation' that looks across everything from strategy, through to content production. One such 'partnership' Warner is proud of is its collaboration with Apple Music. While playlists were inevitable, what happened in between wasn't.

Rather than picking out a selection of disco classics you expect to escape from rainbow coloured Pride floats, they set about commissioning their own playlists, in a bid to support emerging queer music acts.

The project featured next-generation queer talents such as Kim Patras, GIRLI, Vincint and Alma, who appeared across digital billboards in London and Manchester during the 50th anniversary Pride celebrations this year.

"We developed something that had so much," Warner explains. "It was so incredibly meaningful, as it did something that gave value back to the community."

Looking forward

Despite progress, even today, the mainstream media can be found guilty of insensitively poking fun. “When Elton John got married, there was a front-page that read ‘Elton takes David up the Aisle'," says HuffPost's head of entertainment Matt Bagwell. “It’s making sexuality a joke when it should be about being respectful.”

While the marginalised community get more show time by mainstream media, Bagwell calls for “normalisation” of reporting.

“Andrew Scott from Fleabag spoke a couple of weeks ago, to say he doesn’t like being described as ‘openly’ gay,” Bagwell divulges. “It’s about making LGBT people unremarkable, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Whether we will get to a point where LGBT media doesn't sit apart from the mainstream, Bagwell is hopeful.

"I'm an optimist, I like to think certainly within my lifetime, we will get there," he hopes. "But the way things are at the minute, with so much finger-pointing and polarisation, it does sometimes feel like two steps forward, four steps back.

Although HuffPost doesn't have a dedicated LGBT section, Bagwell says the great thing is you get to work across different sections of the site.

Last year, he wrote a frank and powerful piece titled 'Pride and Prejudice,' in which he discusses the time he was the victim of a homophobic attack, and how society has changed in the twenty years since.

And with hate crime on the rise, the need for LGBT coverage is paramount. "We live in changing times. The world is moving at an incredibly fast rate. We're living in an epidemic of murders of trans people, particularly trans people of colour," says Warner. "So for us, going forward, we need to make sure that we are always reflecting back that ever-changing nature of the world around us.”

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