Corporate Folly and the Collapse of Queer Media

A recent boom and bust cycle provides a lesson in why LGBTQIA+ media should be owned by LGBTQIA+ people.

by | October 2, 2020

On July 24 of this year, just shy of its three-year anniversary, Grindr sent an email to every contributor to its online publication, INTO, announcing that its servers would be shutting down. The news that the site would finally go dark was unsurprising: A year and a half earlier, the company announced a “pivot to video” that involved letting go of their entire editorial staff, an announcement that came six weeks after INTO staff writer Mathew Rodriguez reported that Grindr’s straight president, Scott Chen, wrote in a Facebook post that he believed “marriage is a holy matrimony between a man and a woman.” Though the end of INTO was foreseeable, writers were surprised that every piece of content they had produced — including widely praised reporting on transgender prisoners, LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, gay Muslims, and small town Tennessee drag queens — would be erased. “We appreciate your contributions to making INTO an award-winning LGBTQ+ platform,” the email said. A month later, the site vanished. (It went live yet again in September, with a banner announcing the site would be deactivated and requesting that readers who would “like to preserve any site content” do so by an already-passed August 21 deadline.)

Three years after launching a declaration that it would hire “millennials to write for other millennials” in an effort to “expand Grindr’s sphere of influence beyond the gay, bi, curious, and queer male community,” INTO has become a zombie site. But in 2017, the future looked much brighter for LGBTQIA+ media; the site had launched amidst a short-lived queer media boom. Two months after INTO’s debut, Condé Nast launched them (an outlet I have contributed to). Both launched with staffs of high profile LGBTQIA+ journalists: At INTO, former Out Magazine editor-at-large Zach Stafford led the team as editor-in-chief, and activist Raquel Willis wrote a monthly column on transgender issues. Them hired Meredith Talusan, winner of a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism; Tyler Ford, who was included on the Dazed 2016 list of 100 people shaping youth culture; and Phillip Picardi, former Teen Vogue digital editorial director, who had leveraged record-breaking digital growth at Teen Vogue to secure the funding from Anna Wintour for them. It was the first title in Condé Nast’s incubator project for new media brands, and launched with advertising partnerships from Burberry, Google, Lyft, and GLAAD. 

Together, they represented a new guard for LGBTQIA+ media: one that spoke to a diverse queer community while also appealing to advertisers looking to cash in on the next generation of consumers. While Stafford promised INTO would resonate with the transgender community, the queer community, and people of color, Grindr emphasized it would offer “ad clients a brand-safe environment.” In Condé’s press release announcing the launch of them, the marketing language was laser-focused. “60% of Gen Z consumers support brands that take a stand on issues they believe in personally, and more than half of Gen Z identifies as queer, making equality a high priority for the population…In just three years, Gen Z will represent 40% of all U.S. consumers and currently wields more than $44 billion in spending power.” These incentives, coupled with Picardi’s track record of helping turn Teen Vogue into a source for woke commentary and 200% increases in web traffic, made them seem like a safe bet with advertisers as well as readers. (Picardi’s fame didn’t hurt; he was profiled in the New York Times with a mention of his habit of “meditating before a staff meeting.”)

It also helped that INTO and them launched a year after the #GayMediaSoWhite campaign called out racism in LGBTQIA+ media. A 2016 Splinter News analysis of 224 covers from Out, The Advocate, and Attitude from June 2011 to May 2016 found that 40% featured straight, white, cisgender men, compared to just 9% featuring LGBTQIA+ people of color. With the back-to-back launches of INTO and them, it seemed like companies were finally prioritizing groups long overlooked in queer media. As Stafford told the LA Times months after launching INTO, “[LGBTQIA+ people] need media that knows us and is for us and by us.” The effect of having two fresh, new outlets join the LGBTQIA+ media industry reverberated over to Out by 2019. The legacy outlet unveiled a softer, italicized logo to coincide with an all-new staff and an editorial focus on the young, diverse LGBTQIA+ community that INTO and them had been catering to since their launch.

Now, three years after INTO and them sprang up from the pocketbooks of gay dating apps and powerful publishing houses — and legacy outlets like Out got facelifts they couldn’t afford — we have little to show for it besides a trove of soon-to-be-deleted reporting and a model of what not to do. INTO has shuttered, and them has lost both its buzz and most of the original staff, including Picardi, who told BuzzFeed News after his departure in November 2018 that he left because “revenue was so much a part of the story for me and my role that I wasn’t able to … fully oversee editorial in the way that I wanted.” This year, the only new LGBTQIA+ platform to make any sort of noise has been Netflix’s Most, an “LGBTQ social channel” that has employed writers like Rose Dommu, John Paul Brammer, and Evan Ross Katz as meme-makers for the queer content Netflix puts on its streaming service. 

As the effects of the pandemic rip through the publishing industry, it’s fitting that the biggest story in queer media this year is that the newest outlet that prominent LGBTQIA+ writers are flocking to isn’t a publication, but a social media channel by the world’s largest subscription streaming service. The “trendiness” of the community is clearly still enticing, but sustainability isn’t built off trends. If queer media is going to survive, the only way forward is to take note of what went right, sift through what went wrong, and learn from our mistakes so we can ensure a sustainable future for the queer media we deserve.

Like a big, queer comet in the night sky, INTO flamed out spectacularly within two years, crashing into the reality of an industry in which chasing social media algorithms (and not pissing off your conservative owner) seem like the only path to profitability. Still, the publication has a respectable legacy among the exhausted LGBTQIA+ journalists who watched it soar and crash. For both NBCBLK editorial director Michelle Garcia and freelance entertainment journalist Tre’vell Anderson, INTO was a beacon of what queer media could look like. “INTO represented what we always knew queer media could be, in terms of paying people competitive rates and doing deep, investigative storytelling about LGBTQIA+ communities,” Anderson told Study Hall. For Garcia, their formula for success was simple: “INTO is a great example of what happens if you give really good journalists money.” By the time it shuttered, two reporterd features on the site had won Excellence in Journalism awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA): Chase Strangio’s 2018 piece “How Transgender People Have Survived (and Thrived) Under a Year of Donald Trump,” and Emily Starbuck Gerson’s 2019 longform feature “How Four Latinx Lesbians Restarted Their Lives After Being Wrongfully Imprisoned.”

It was just before the launch of INTO and them in August and October 2017 that I began working at Out as an associate editor. The publication, founded in 1992, was rivaled in legacy only by The Advocate, whose history began in 1967. For a year, I worked alongside a small digital team of five people led by Justin Moran, the site’s then-digital managing editor who had previously worked as a contributing writer at Nylon. For the year he worked at the site in 2017, he spearheaded an effort to diversify the digital side of Out that had us churning out content about new queer photographers, trans musicians, and QPOC-run party collectives — an editorial strategy that would be mirrored by INTO and them when they launched midway through the year. As the digital team tried to bring a diversity to Out’s editorial coverage, we found ourselves undercut by outdated editorial decisions from a print team whose median age was twice that of ours on the digital side. It was a classic case of the old guard clashing with new perspectives, but ideological divides were just the tip of the iceberg. 

I quickly discovered as I settled into the publication’s apartment-turned-office above a Carroll Gardens pet food shop that Out was hopelessly tangled in a web of financial mismanagement and bad business decisions. Unpaid gas bills lead to heat shutoffs in the winter, forcing the entire staff to work from home; unpaid invoices and legal threats were intentionally ignored; and a lack of any long-term plan lead to my temporary promotion to interim digital managing editor after Moran quit and moved to Paper Magazine, a shift that involved no training, a slight pay bump nowhere near the amount Moran had made, and no timeline for hiring a replacement. I was left to manage a team who had all been there long before I was hired and who had largely been left to their own devices. An attempt to institute an editorial calendar was met by intense resistance; increased output and traffic goals led to innumerable ten-hour days at the office; and the lack of any structural support led me to burn out completely within six months.

While we struggled to meet parent company Pride Media’s metric goals for the site, we were also forced to write content for both Out and BlackBook, a lifestyle publication founded by Evanly Schindler, who coincidentally also handled our finances and had a history of lawsuits. Even as we worked to diversify the publication, it was too little, too late. When them and INTO launched just three months into my time at Out, it felt overdue, but morale plummeted as we dealt with financial and managerial decisions that made it impossible to keep up with the new, well-funded publications that had become our competition overnight. 

Throughout 2018, as INTO won accolades from GLAAD, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), Out’s budget issues reached a critical point. Paychecks to the entire editorial staff began to get delayed by weeks at a time. By June, the pay issues had become so bad that the print team refused to go to the office, even as a print deadline approached, according to a New York Times report. Out of the chaos came a shocking announcement: Phillip Picardi would be leaving them to take over as Out’s editor-in-chief. With his hiring in November 2018 came the mass layoff of nearly everyone on staff, including me: an email on November 27 that informed me that my contract had been terminated on November 15, nearly two weeks earlier, but nobody had thought to tell me. It then took five months to receive a final paycheck. Even with the rocky transition, I wondered how Pride Media had attracted Picardi given their financial circumstances. With Picardi taking over, the future for Out seemed bright once again — at least from the outside. (Pride Media did not respond to a request for comment.)

If INTO was an example of what a brand new, inclusive outlet could do, it was Picardi’s brief time as editor-in-chief at Out that showcased what a legacy outlet could transform into, starting with a historically diverse new staff. In addition to installing Food 4 Thot podcaster Fran Tirado as deputy editor, Keep It podcaster Ira Madison III joined as a columnist; Raquel Willis became the first transgender woman in a leadership role in Out’s history as the executive editor; Garcia became managing editor; and Anderson was director of culture and entertainment. The former CEO of Pride Media, Nathan Coyle, joked that Picardi’s hires comprised the “Avengers of LGBTQIA+ media.” 

“[Out] was a vision of queer media that I think we all want to see,” Anderson said. “One that is inclusive, one that pays us what we’re supposed to be getting paid. One that reflects the fullness of our queer and trans communities. But money did not allow us to continue doing that.” While I had already witnessed Out’s financial mismanagement firsthand, most of the LGBTQIA+ Avengers, including Picardi, went in unaware of the full extent of Pride Media’s fiscal problems. When Picardi took over, Out owed more than 40 writers, photographers, and editors over $100,000 for their work. Within two months of Picardi’s tenure at Out, a redesign of the logo and a strong push for diversity and inclusivity in both staffing and editorial content had been overshadowed by #OutOwes, a campaign that spotlighted Pride Media’s mismanagement rather than the editorial direction spearheaded by the new Out staff. 

The campaign took shape after Austin Dale, a freelancer owed $1,775 by the magazine, took to Twitter to voice his complaints after his emails to executives went unanswered. Other freelancers joined in, and Dale created a spreadsheet to track all the unpaid invoices that the company had ignored. Eventually, the National Writers Union agreed to represent 25 of the freelance contributors who were owed more than $40,000 for their work at Out. As the pay dispute was playing out publicly, Picardi made a statement on Twitter two months into his tenure: “I entered this position unaware of the full extent of this situation but remain optimistic about and committed to its resolution. My team and I stand together in rebuilding this brand on a foundation we can all be proud of.” By May, he had threatened to resign over the issue. According to a source from a Daily Beast report on the situation: “Phillip told Adam [Levin, Pride Media CEO] that he couldn’t continue to work for him when he was exploiting queer people for their labor.” 

The news may have shocked many on staff, but for Garcia, who worked for The Advocate from 2006 to 2015, it was no surprise. “Going in, I knew that [Pride Media] did not have money,” she said. “The CEO had made this whole show about how they were going to recruit all of us and we were being paid competitively to a New York media job salary. Knowing what I know about [Pride Media], there was no money to pay us competitive New York salaries.” Queer media workers have historically been underpaid compared to those working for mainstream outlets, so the promise of being well-compensated at Out was enticing. But the company was not able to sustainably pay those salaries. After only eight months, Garcia left the publication, becoming deputy editor of news and issues at Vice in July. In her informal exit interview at Out, she describes a senior executive telling her that “we’ll be able to make payroll now that you’re leaving.” By the end of 2019, Picardi had resigned from his position.

The queer media bubble may have burst spectacularly (leave it to the gays), but it’s telling that there was even a bubble at all. INTO and them’s attempts to become a must-read LGBTQIA+ outlet for millennials and Gen Z flamed out, but their parent companies still poured resources into the titles to get them started. One challenge for the new outlets was something Garcia witnessed firsthand during her time at The Advocate: “If you [work] in queer media, you [know] there’s interest, but the revenue that comes to queer media [from advertisers] is very limited,” she said. The problem, as Garcia sees it, is that advertisers are scared of people in the LGBTQIA+ community who “are not cis, gay men who just look like nicer versions of straight men” and avoid running ads “next to pieces about black trans women in prison and the treatment that they are facing when they walk into a prison” or articles about “non-binary folks whose views on gender might make some executive uncomfortable.” Words like “lesbians,” “bisexuals,” and “same-sex marriages” are often flagged as unsafe and inappropriate by brand filtration systems, according to a study last year by ad-verification firm Cheq, further disincentivizing advertisers from investing in LGBGTQIA+ media.

 LGBTQIA+ publications are also often owned and operated by executives who are either not LGBTQIA+ people or are actively homophobic. On Tuesday, Pride Media owner Adam Levin was called out by LGBTQ Nation for donating to anti-LGBTQIA+ Republicans, breaking a 2018 pledge to stop the donations after it was revealed that he had a history of giving money to politicians with anti-LGBTQIA+ records. These are all problems that mainstream media outlets simply don’t have to consider; a broader culture of racism, homophobia, and erasure makes the fight for profitability and sustainability in queer media that much harder. The pandemic has shown just how dependent media organizations are on ad revenue — and how quickly ad dollars drying up can tank a publication — putting LGBTQIA+ publications in a position of greater precarity.

A handful of LGBTQIA+ outlets are instead looking to subscription services as a revenue model that avoids the pitfalls of catering to advertisers. Beyond the behemoth New York Times’ millions of paid subscribers, the rise of subscription plans at smaller outlets have proven that there are other avenues to profitability beyond ad sales. Back in March, Nieman Lab’s dire report on the “destruction of local news” offered a silver lining: weekly subscription sign ups at some local newspapers are up two to five times over pre-virus levels. Digiday, in an unironically exclusive, subscriber-only guide to subscription strategies, explained that “subscriptions and direct reader revenue are some of the healthiest ways to operate commercial publishing businesses.” 

It’s this need for paying audiences that prompted Gay Times, a UK-based publication, to launch a subscription program called GayTimes+ in April 2020. An advertisement for the program reads: “LGBTQ+ media is dying. There are fewer LGBTQ+ titles today than 10 years ago. Our stories need a place to be told more than ever.” Though the timing seemed to reflect the crunch that COVID-19 had put on the industry, the program had actually been in the works for three years and was just the latest in a series of smart business moves at the publisher. Since the appointment of 24-year-old Tag Warner as CEO in January 2019, the Gay Times has built up their live events portfolio, boosted their social media following to a monthly reach of over 28 million, launched a philanthropy initiative called Amplifund, reduced the print magazine frequency to quarterly, and pledged to never go behind a paywall. With GayTimes+, subscribers have the potential to access a curated newsletter; the print magazine; digital copies of issue since 1984 via their app; priority access to events, seminars, and panels; and free branded merch and “further benefits with commercial partners,” depending on which of their subscription tier. It’s the kind of throw-everything-at-the-wall strategy that media companies in all sectors are trying out to find profitability beyond advertisers.

GayTimes+ followers in the footsteps of two queer, feminist publications, Autostraddle and Bitch Media, that have built durable brands on subscription models that treat readers less like pageviews and clicks and more like a community. Autostraddle has catered to lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, and non-binary people since 2009, and Bitch Media began as a ten-page feminist zine in 1996. Both have endured largely on the strength of their readership, with Autostraddle in particular building a loyal following that extends beyond paid subscription plans. That publication has brought in money through everything from merch to a queer adult camp, A-Camp, which has been offering a “soothing refuge from the heteropatriarchy” since 2012. At Bitch, fans of the independent, feminist media organiazation can join The Rage subscription service with six different monthly membership options, ranging from a $5 Dissenter level to a $100 Mastermind level that sponsors three one-year subscriptions to the magazine. 

According to Garcia, Anderson, and Bitch Media senior editor Rachel Charlene Lewis, the only way forward for queer media will be a “for us, by us” model. “Queer publications have to be owned by queer people, and preferably queer people of diverse backgrounds. They have to be owned by people who care about the community,” Anderson said during our conversation. Even with the support of a diverse editorial team, the risk is real that “you might have a sales team or a founder who’s homophobic or hates trans people or is just generally racist,” said Lewis. “You find yourself in rooms — or Zoom, at this point — with these people who don’t actually want you there, but they need your work to get the clicks. And they’re the one who makes all the money.”

As apocalyptic as this period in the media industry feels, it has also clarified what matters. Queer media and LGBTQIA+ journalists cannot survive if we have to remain trendy enough to attract funding from advertisers and executives. “When we put things out into the world as media, we are providing a lifeline to a lot of people,” Garcia said. “It’s not just a way to make money.” In an ideal world, Lewis believes that queer media should be queer-owned. “[Publications] where you don’t have a board of a bunch of straight people telling you what you can and can’t write about,” she said. “If we can get to the point where more of us have the power, there is hope for all of us and that we can keep putting out more than just clicky content that makes some white guys richer. Content that we actually need.”

One source of inspiration — and an unintended chronicle of queer media’s woes — has been John Paul Brammer’s advice column, ¡Hola Papi!, which he brands as a “Queer Latinx Dear Abby Huffing Poppers.” After launching on INTO in 2017, the column moved to them, jumped over to Out after Picardi took over, and has now resettled on Substack as a free newsletter with a merch store. Next year, it’ll be adapted into a memoir and published by Simon and Schuster. It’s a testament to Brammer’s skill and charm that a devoted community has followed ¡Hola Papi! as it jumped from one melting ice sheet of queer media to another. 

The subscription model will not fix everything — even with a loyal readership, it’s difficult to fund certain kinds of reporting — but these outlets’ continued existence and dedicated audience speaks to the power of understanding one’s community. What happened at INTO and them offers a warning: New publications envisioned by straight executives who want to capitalize off of the next generation of LGBTQIA+ people will inevitably miss the mark. If LGBTQIA+ publications are going to survive, they’ll have to build revenue streams that circumvent advertisers and tech behemoths like Facebook, and the community-building being done at publications like AutoStraddle, Bitch, and Gay Times can only help an industry in search of solutions. As for LGBTQIA+ publications, it’s clear that with a dedicated, paying audience willing to support LGBTQIA+ news written by passionate LGBTQIA+ journalists, we can begin to break free of the constraints that come with being owned by publishing companies run by people from outside of our community. Sustainability for queer media won’t come easy, but we have the building blocks to create a future where the queer media we consume is truly made for us and by us, instead of just being branded as if it is.

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