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Anti-paywall Gay Times CEO unveils membership scheme amid coronavirus


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

April 27, 2020 | 7 min read

When Gay Times chief executive Tag Warner made a promise never to go behind a paywall, he could not have predicted that a global pandemic and subsequent ad spend drought would put his lofty commitment at odds with the very practical reality that Gay Times would need more revenue from readers in order to see the other side. His compromise is the launch of a new membership scheme called Gay Times+.

Gay Times

Anti-paywall Gay Times CEO unveils membership scheme amid coronavirus

Ahead of its 507th magazine issue, the long-lived LGBTQ+ media title saw “coronavirus accelerate what was already a pretty ambitious multi-year transformation for Gay Times,” he told The Drum.

Warner joined as chief executive in 2018 as a 24-year-old, with some years of media consultancy under his belt, he recalled: “I am Gay Times' target market."

His immediate focus was to drag it kicking and screaming into modern times by building up its live events portfolio and social media following (which now numbers 1.4m on Facebook, 385,000 on Twitter, and more than half a million on Instagram, contributing to a monthly reach of 28.65m.

He has always been a vocal opponent of paywalls. As a result, Gay Times+ is a ‘membership’ with no gated content, relying on incentives to entice memberships.

There will be a curated newsletter; a mag subscription (with a choice of covers); all issues published since 1984 made available via its app, priority access to Gay Times events, seminars, and panels and free branded merchandise as well as further benefits with commercial partners.

For non-members, the Gay Times’ website is being redesigned and will remain completely free to all users.

Changing times

Gay Times was a traditional publisher only a few years back. Solely focused on printing magazines for newsstands, it had a “decent digital presence and shopping portal” but was chiefly reliant on ad revenues.

“We were probably as traditional as it gets,” admitted Warner.

His appointment in 2018 saw investment in social growth which “dramatically expanded reach and diversified the audience to truly LGBTQ+”.

With these audiences built, there were numerous new revenue opportunities. It positioned itself as a consultancy and gateway to this audience. And after one year, brand partnerships, strategic consulting and production efforts with top brands comprised 65% of total group revenue.

It's not as if digital advertising delivered Gay Times substantial income. Many topics around gender, sexuality and LGBTQ+ culture have been gradually demonetised by over-zealous brand safety measures. It wasn't long ago that the title closed the programmatic well and began dealing directly with clients. "After years of battling the ad systems – we said ‘hey, this isn’t working for us or our audience anymore.'"

These shortfalls have proved an uphill struggle for many. In LGBTQ+ media, revenue diversification has been a necessity, not a luxury. Last year, Gay Star News was felled by a “tough” business environment. It has since returned to business following a buyout by Iconic Labs, which rescued it from oblivion. Meanwhile, Pink News has struck gold in Snapchat and other platforms, and is playing with a future in e-commerce. After all, who knows better what audiences want than these titles?

Meanwhile, the print industry has had its difficulties. The magazine, which should have been the foundation of Gay Times, was for years sucked into “stack em high, sell em cheap’ strategies”. It didn’t work. Warner said: “We became obsessed with undercutting the competition even to the extent we were loss-leading our content at times. I refuse to engage in a race to the bottom – especially when we’re interacting with a community that deserves more.”

As a result, the frequency of the magazine has been reduced to quarterly – it’ll be a fatter, more comprehensive read. Existing subscribers will be placed in the “equivalent Gay Times+ membership… at no extra cost” and will be first in line for the coming benefits as of June 2020.

“We want to start using the product for bigger explorations and investigative journalism features – which is a newer area for us. Photo essays, poetry and historical explorations will be expanded in the refreshed title."

The restructure of the mag has been considered to reflect how its recent social media boom has warped its demographic, the audience skews younger and more international. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has driven a surge in subscriptions. Warner summed it up well claiming the time of putting a London restaurant review in the mag is long-gone.

“We don’t think delivering just a magazine subscription is enough anymore - so it’s exciting to be able to offer our paying audience more.”

Why a membership?

The membership starts at £5 a month and stacks with packaged perks. The multi-tier membership plan has been in the works for three years; the partnership perks, in particular, were time-consuming to secure.

Its major selling point will be the access to five-decades worth of Gay Times magazines. This could prove attractive to new members keep to delve into linchpin moments of gay culture and reflect on its eventual breaching of the mainstream.

Warner said: “I said when I came into Gay Times I would never put a paywall up. Although you could challenge this move as a version of that, I think it is something entirely different.”

None of the existing website content is going behind a “paywall”. It remains free and the semiotics of “membership” as opposed "paywall" evokes the sense of belonging the publication aims to channel.

Warner emphasised: "It’s incredibly important that queer titles remain open. We’ve seen a lot of change, casualties and new entrants within LGBTQ+ journalism and I don’t think that change is over yet.”

He believes that we are seeing “more quality queer journalism than ever before,” and additional reader revenue will help it skirt higher yet.

“The membership model is about offering a percentage of our overall audience something much more meaningful, individual, and connected. It’s not about asking the majority of your audience to chip in.”

Warner suggests that the trick is to create a product that marries brand purpose with consumer privilege. He explains: “Some membership or subscription schemes chart ‘high on privilege but lower on purpose’ – such as video streaming services or huge newspaper titles. You don’t really mind if it’s on Hulu or Amazon Prime, you just want the access to that show. High purpose but low privilege examples are donation services or GoFundMe’s. You feel a huge emotional connection to the story, person, or cause so you give up money but expect nothing in return except that warm feeling.”

The Guardian’s membership scheme charts high in privilege and purpose, and appears to be working. Consumers get an endorphin rush for supporting journalism, and being part of its production. They also get access to award-winning reporting.

Building the style-same relationship with an LGBTQ+ audience is now Warner's focus, pandemic permitting.

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