You Get What You Pay For

"24hr Swimathon Supports Berkeley's June 2010 Measure C" by Seth Goddard is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Water polo (not necessarily gay)

Big fuss about Sydney Star Observer calling for ‘buff guys’ to be on their Mardi Gras float. Everyone piling on, talking about ‘body shaming’ etc.

There’s a very old saying, “He who pays he piper calls the tune.” So who pays the bills at Star Observer? It sure as hell isn’t the readers. You can pick up a copy at no cost. So guess what? Whether you like it or not, the concerns of ‘the community’ over what the paper prints, and who it uses in its promotional activities – like the Mardi Gras float – are second order concerns. Especially since it ceased to be community owned.

“Until 2019, the Star Observer operated as a not-for-profit, community-owned organisation, before it was purchased by the newly formed Out Publications, part of the AltMedia publishing umbrella.”

Star Observer website

As the former editor of three gay papers, two in the UK and one in Melbourne, I learned a bit about LGBTI publishing. Let me share some knowledge.

WHO PAID FOR THE PAPERS

In the beginning most of the gay press relied heavily on contact ads, overwhelmingly placed by gay men. There used to be page upon page of these, providing a solid, reliable income for the papers. Gay men paid for the gay press.

When HIV arrived, governments bought ad space to get the safe sex message out, providing yet more income. Advertising overwhelming directed at what governments and the AIDS industry like to call MSM (because some men don’t like to call themselves gay).

A second source of income in the UK at least was sales, mainly through gay pubs and clubs, and direct subscriptions. Newsagents and mainstream distribution channels initially wouldn’t touch us. Gay News was launched using money from prepaid subscriptions, plus help from a few moneyed gays such as Graham Chapman from Monty Python.

IT’S ALWAYS BEEN GAY MEN

All this is to point out that the gay press has from the beginning been overwhelmingly created by gay men, for gay men, and relied on gay men for its income – which we will no longer pay. Therefore no-one should be the least bit surprised when a paper like the Star Observer calls for buff, attractive boys to gyrate on its Mardi Gras float. The owners know what their audience likes and wants – handsome, chiselled, young, and mostly white men.

BNews and Melbourne Star, which I edited for a time, were free papers, picked up mainly in the bars and clubs, plus sexual health clinics, some bookstores, VAC (now Thorne Harbor Health), PLWHA etc., Joy 94.9 etc. They had previously earned their money from contact ads, with anything else just the cream on top, but now the internet and especially hookup apps had completely destroyed that income source.

Which left the AIDS industry, business, government and political advertising as the main income sources. Political advertising was negligible except during election campaigns. Governments chiefly bought space for LGBTI sexual health issues, channelling most of the money through the AIDS organisations. Businesses bought for many reasons, but quickly discovered that their ads had negligible impact on sales. The only thing their ads bought was a reputation as an LGBTI-friendly business.

But – and this is crucial – they still wanted to see their ads reaching the largest possible audience. They wanted to see large numbers of copies printed and distributed, and only small numbers ‘left over’ or returned.

MASSAGING THE NUMBERS

Over the years LGBTI papers used various figures to persuade advertisers their money was well spent, such as claiming that each copy was read by at least x number of people. Some outright lied, claiming to have printed and distributed, say 10,000 copies, when in fact they printed far less. This was easy for those publishers who were, say, owned by printers. But, leaving the dubious stats behind, there was the evidence of the advertisers own eyes.

Pubs could see how many copies were left of each edition. And they could see what made people pick up copies, and what made people glance briefly and leave them behind.

Put one or more buff semi-naked young men on the cover, and the customers would take most of the copies. Put a woman on the cover and pickup numbers would drop by a third or even half – unless she was a well-known artiste such as, say, Liza Minelli or Britney Spears.

Put an older man on the cover, especially if he was fully dressed, and pickup would drop, again by a half or a third. Ditto a lesbian, whether attractive or not.

Melbourne Star, which came out alternate weeks to BNews, had actual news on the front cover, not pinups. The pickup was never more than half that of BNews. In the end, Melbourne Star was relegated to a news section inside its sister paper.

The fall in numbers would upset the advertising department, who would pressure the editorial department to run more pics of boys in speedos, and fewer of, say, Shelley Argent or Rodney Croome or Alex Greenwich or Kerryn Phelps.

MONEY TALKS, DICTATES CONTENT

One of the most loved sections of the papers was the ‘scene’ pictures taken in pubs and clubs. For some unfathomable reason, people loved to see pictures of themselves off their faces at three am printed in glowing colour across a two page spread. Personally, I thought the section a total waste of space.

Here again, the bar and club owners, via the advertising department, exerted pressure. People, they said, will not come and drink in my establishment if they think it’s full of – and here I’m paraphrasing an actual conversation – creepy middle-aged/old farts with fake tans. Unless you print pretty, buff, young guys – plus a few drag queens for colour – and hide the rest, we won’t advertise in your paper.

NOT JUST MONEY

As an aside, you may wonder why reviews of shows, music, pubs, clubs, restaurants in the gay press are, at best, anodyne, and at worst, fulsome. If they were anything else, the supply of free meals, tickets, CDs, DVDs, downloads, meals and drink cards to the editorial and sales staff would instantly dry up.

Since the gay press is perpetually short of money, these were an important source of income for the staff. I know of one entertainment editor who made a tidy sum on the side on-selling review copies of CDs and DVDs, show tickets, etc., who admitted frankly that if it weren’t for these ‘perks, “I couldn’t afford to work here darling.” An ad sales manager who had a pretty passable and well-stocked wine cellar, and other sundry goods for personal consumption or on-sale.

This situation arose because many advertisers, realising the papers weren’t much good for anything beside virtue-signalling, tried to negotiate contra deals, whereby they provided these things in lieu of money, in return for ad space and favourable editorial, or as we called it, “editorial support”.

WE GET WHAT WE PAY FOR

In short, we get the LGBTI press we are prepared to pay for. And since we are not prepared to pay for it, we get what we deserve. As long as the gay press is free press, you can’t complain about who they want to put on their floats or feature in their pages. You are not paying the piper, so you don’t get to call the tune.

The piper is paid by commercial ‘scene’ businesses, virtue-signalling straight businesses like QANTAS or Virgin, AIDS organisations, government departments and politicians. They are the ones who ultimately decide – albeit indirectly – that there must be buff boys (not necessarily gay, either: many gay businesses use professional models at gay events) on the Mardi Gras float.

If you want to see diversity – of skin colour, body type, sexuality and gender etc etc – represented in LGBTI media, you have to pay for it. Then you can tell the piper what tunes to play.

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)