Star Observer On The Brink

24hr News by Karl Frankowski

The country’s only not for profit LGBTIQ ‘newspaper’ is on the brink of collapse, unless it can find $75,000 in fairly short order to fix up its shaky finances. Stories are circulating of unpaid staff, and suppliers waiting for their money.  Star Observer has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible, asking readers and supporters to stump up the necessary.

Star Observer is only the latest in a line of Australian gay media that have diced with death. Melbourne Star/BnewS, disappeared completely leaving a mountain of debts. Evolution Publishing went bankrupt and rose again, phoenix-like, as Evo Media – minus the debts. Even much-loved radio station JOY 94.9 teetered on the brink many times in the early days, most recently only managing to hang on by a fingernail during the Global Financial Crisis.

The owners of Star Observer – Gay & Lesbian Publishing Ltd – claim that the costs of restructuring and transitioning to a new publishing model, plus unspecified legal expenses, have created this situation. Yet until a couple of years ago – around the time publisher Scott Abrahams left the organisation – GLP appeared to be modestly profitable (I haven’t yet tracked down a recent annual report).

You’ll notice that I put the word ‘newspaper’ in quotes in my opening sentence. That’s because I’m not exactly sure what Star Observer is any more. In print, it’s a monthly ‘magazine’, apparently, and the rest of the time it lives online.

All this revamping and restructuring appears, on the surface at least, to have failed. Why else would they find themselves in a $75k hole? In fact, reading their appeal in full, they would actually like $125k – a full $50k more. Which begs a question. Is $75k is only enough to clear their current debts? And given that the current model led to this shortfall, how will they earn a living in the future?

Leaving aside the Star’s troubles, what of the future for standalone LGBTI media generally?

When a gay news and information outlet shelters within a suite of offerings with broad appeal, things look OK. For example, SameSame thrives as part of Sound Alliance. HuffPost and BuzzFeed have lively gay sections. Does this mean gay media can no longer make it alone? Does this spell the end of the famous boast ‘gay owned and gay run’?

(Even back in the early days of such businesses, it was always a pretty hollow boast. At Gay News we used to joke that in most cases it meant ‘rip off and run before you’re found out’. )

Not-for-profit ventures do have a better survival record, but have to live with constant uncertainty, shoestring budgets, constant appeals for donations, high staff turnover and burnout. Look at the churn rate of board members, managers and presenters on JOY over the years.

However, the JOY experience is instructive. In the early days there were hopes the station could live mainly off advertising – sorry, that should say, sponsorship income – with membership fees and donations as the jam on top. But as a niche station, heard in only one market, JOY was often the last to be included in the ad budget, and the first to be cut when times got tough.

After several near collapses, the station finally faced the fact that memberships were the meat and potatoes, sponsorships the jam, and a third income stream – donations – would be crucial to long term survival. Now the stations fundraises continuously, and has set about building a Patron program to entice high net worth individuals to contribute, rather than repeatedly raiding ordinary punters for spare change.

Star Observer might well consider this model, or something like it. As well as rattling the collecting tin, they could pull together a number of high net worth individuals and businesses as committed long-term patrons (e.g., pledging a minimum of, say $5k a year each for five years), and use the money to build a trust with a solid financial base to guarantee the paper’s future. If it’s not already too late.

If you’d like to donate to the current campaign, here’s the link.

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)