Gay-themed magazines offering less news, more lifestyle
By Sam McManis , The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
Sunday, April 29, 2007
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Back in the day, gay and lesbian publications were all about the activism. The Stonewall riots. Workplace discrimination. AIDS funding.
All the serious, important stuff.
Now, these niche newspapers and magazines seem more about the “active lifestyle,” as the media cliche goes. Home improvement. Fashion. Celebrity culture. All the fun, frivolous stuff.
Such a transformation is not merely a measure of the acceptance that gays and lesbians have achieved in society. It also shows that gay media are not immune to the trends that have recently dominated mainstream publications – in other words: flash over substance, influenced by (what else?) the Internet.
One difference: Gay and lesbian media are seeing greater success under this new rubric, while some mainstream periodicals struggle to stave off irrelevancy and insolvency in the digital age.
This trend holds in Sacramento, where established free magazines Mom Guess What (monthly) and Outword (biweekly) continue to draw national audiences and advertisers.
And next month, the national free quarterly Jane and Jane, a lesbian lifestyle magazine based in Sacramento, will celebrate its first anniversary.
It’s all about economics, says Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a gay and lesbian marketing firm. An estimated 15.3 million gay men and lesbians spent more than $660 billion in 2006, according to a report released by Witeck, and the firm expects the buying power to increase to $835 billion by 2011.
And perhaps, it’s also about giving readers what they want.
Which means not the strident political activism of years past. Sure, gay marriage remains a galvanizing issue, but Witeck says younger gays and lesbians are “post-label,” meaning that their sexual orientation does not completely define them.
“They strive for true inclusion,” Witeck says, “and are looking for content that gives them wider latitude about personal independence and sexual expression while still giving them a unique place to find community, personal connections and entertainment.”
And that is what Sacramento’s gay and lesbian readers get from Outword, Mom Guess What (also known as MGW), and Jane and Jane.
In the case of Outword and MGW, stories about social issues remain, but the vast amount of ink – including the covers – is increasingly entertainment- and celebrity-oriented.
Meanwhile, Jane and Jane calls itself the “first home and family magazine for lesbian lifestyles.” And in look and content, it reads like a younger sibling to Sunset magazine.
Outword, arguably the “newsiest” of the three periodicals, ran its annual home-and-garden issue on April 12; the issue before that featured the movie “300” as its cover story. MGW’s latest issue, available now, has celebrity “fitness fatale” Jackie Warner of Bravo’s “Workout” as its cover girl. And Jane and Jane’s cover story for spring: “10 Ways To Nurture Your Love Life.”
“The reason we created Jane and Jane is because we didn’t see other lesbian publications that spoke to us,” says Alison Zawacki, co-publisher with Debbie Wells. “We’re not necessarily political people. We aren’t that interested in celebrities and the latest parties. We’re more settled.
“It’s important for mainstream society to see we are just like everybody else.”
Wells says that when Jane and Jane launched last year, some people naturally assumed the magazine would tackle weighty issues in the lesbian community.
“We’re still very supportive of gay and lesbian causes,” Wells says, “but we have to do it in a way that fits with our (magazine’s) mission.
“So you might see a (travel) story on gay-friendly Reno or a piece on preparing for lesbian weddings. That’s how we address the issues.”
For Jeffry A. Davis, MGW publisher, the pressure to balance news for the gay and lesbian community with coverage of the entertainment and lifestyle scene has been hard.
That’s one reason why, starting later this month, he will start a biweekly newsletter as a supplement to the magazine.
“I don’t want to alienate anyone in the Sacramento market,” Davis says. “By bringing back the newspaper with the hard news, it will make some readers who miss the old Mom Guess What happy.”
Davis changed MGW from a newsprint publication to a monthly glossy last May, two years after buying it from Linda Birner. Readership, he says, has tripled since the redesign, with demographics morphing from primarily lesbian (under Birner) to a 60 percent male audience.
“We’re a flashier product now,” he says. “The younger crowd doesn’t like to read news. They like to see photos. They want to see themselves in the magazine, know what’s going on in night life.”
Davis, 29, has worked in a variety of capacities at MGW since he was 18.
So he says he’s seen how the interests of readers and advertisers have changed.
“When we do covers with national figures or (scantily clad) male models, the national (ad) accounts love it and want more, and so do most of our readers,” he says.
By contrast, Outword publisher Fred Palmer tends to lean more toward content that is related to local issues, even as he works to satisfy the growing appetite for lifestyle and entertainment, he says.
“I don’t think our content has changed,” says Palmer, who has owned Outword for its entire 12-year existence. “My background is as an activist and it still shows in the magazine. We do try to be a mix. But I still see us as a newspaper.”
In February, Palmer severed an eight-month agreement with a national online media company, Out in America, to provide content for its Web site. Palmer says he found it too taxing on his resources to cover local issues for Outword and national issues for the Web. “It just made sense to stay focused locally,” Palmer says.
Jane and Jane, however, is trying for a national scope. There’s competition, for while two established national publications, Girlfriends and On Our Backs, folded last year, such lesbian-centric magazines such as Curve, the Lesbian News and Velvetpark continue to maintain their audiences.
But Jane and Jane is different, say its 30-something publishers.
“When we look at other magazines, you see Ellen DeGeneres or Melissa Etheridge or “The L Word’ on the cover,” Wells says. “We don’t do that. And in reading gay media, it seems dominated by male content and the things that appealed to women are getting slimmer.”
So Wells and Zawacki, partners in business and in life, developed the idea of a lifestyle magazine for lesbians five years ago when both were working as designers for the magazine Business 2.0 in San Francisco.
It wasn’t until Christmas 2005, however, when Wells was the design director of Prosper magazine in Sacramento and Zawacki was freelancing as an illustrator, that they took the publishing plunge, using their own savings.
“We’re doing OK, and advertising is covering our expenses, but it’s no cakewalk,” Zawacki says.
Still, they have recently hired a full-time editor, signed on with an agency that will funnel in more national ads, and are ramping up to become a bi-monthly starting next month.
“There are subjects in our magazine that pertain to everybody,” Zawacki says. “My father reads it. We want to be inclusive and be open to everyone.”