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Regarding Media

Will Mergers Quiet the Voice of Gay Press?

Many fear takeovers will put power into fewer hands and put diversity at risk.

April 13, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Crain is finding out that what goes around comes around. Especially in the publishing world. As editorial director of the gay newspaper group Window Media, Crain recently used the editorial pages of one of its publications, the Southern Voice, to criticize last year's purchase of New York-based Out magazine by Liberation Publications, which also owns the L.A.-based Advocate. By bringing these two former competitors under the same corporate umbrella, and under shared editorial direction by Advocate editor Judy Wieder, Crain argued, the national gay media were losing a necessary diversity of voices.

But even while making his complaint, his own company was in the process of acquiring two of the country's most respected gay newspapers--the Washington Blade and the New York Blade News. Now Crain is on the receiving end of outcries over what many consider the corporatization and potential homogenization of the gay press.

"I was certainly aware this might happen while I was writing the editorials," Crain says. "But the major distinction here is that they bought their competition. My concern was that Out and the Advocate have become virtually indistinguishable, with gay-for-pay straight celebrities on the cover."

"Chris Crain was very critical of us," says Wieder. "And now, lo and behold, he's in the same position. I think it will be very interesting to see how they handle it."

"It" is the chorus of voices raised in protest over a sequence of mergers and purchases that have left many in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community concerned that the power of their press is being wielded by fewer and fewer hands. Many fear that the mainstreaming of the gay press both mirrors and contributes to a torpor that has settled on the gay and lesbian movement.

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Last year, on the heels of the Advocate/Out marriage, the Internet company PlanetOut merged with its rival company, Online Partners, which runs Gay.com, creating the largest online source for gay and lesbian news, chat rooms and personal ads in the country. PlanetOut then announced its intention to buy Liberation Publications, plans that subsequently fell through but not before raising a hue and cry that included a call for an antitrust investigation.

Earlier this year, Henry Scott, who left his post as president of Out magazine shortly after the acquisition by Liberation, sent an e-mail to members of the gay community calling their attention to "the dangerous monopoly among gay media" and asking them to call on the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to review the PlanetOut/Online Partners merger, which, he wrote, "threatens to further diminish the opportunity for vigorous debate over issues of politics and culture and style that is our community's greatest strength."

Yet even Scott concedes that the greatest strength of the two sites was never their reportage or commentary; it was, and is, their personal ads. In fact, that was Scott's second concern--that the new combined database would begin charging for their previously free service. Thus far, there has been no official response, but Scott, who was instrumental in setting up the deal with Liberation Publications, continues to speak out over what he sees as the dwindling diversity in the gay media.

"I voted for the merger [of the Advocate and Out]," he says. "I made a mistake. I think gays and lesbians have a lot of complicated issues, and they need media forums to have those discussions."

According to John-Manuel Andriote, a Washington, D.C., journalist and author of "Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America," there hasn't been a real national political media forum for gays in years. "In the '90s, we saw a shift in cultural values," he says. "We had these very slick, very mainstream magazines and a rise in content devoted to celebrities." Out magazine was, he says, the ultimate example of this. "It embodied homosexuality as a lifestyle from the beginning. It put out there the idea that all gay people live in really nice houses and take cruises in the Mediterranean, which isn't the case. Obviously."

Many gays, he says, have been lulled into a false sense of equality, a false sense of security. "Gay men and lesbians still have a long way to go before they enjoy full equal rights and acceptance in mainstream American culture," he wrote recently in a column castigating the gay press in the Gay and Lesbian Review. "The national gay press should again embrace the mission of serving as a vehicle for social and political change." Instead, he says, the gay press seems content to flaunt its wealthy demographics to advertisers and target its audience as consumers rather than activists.

Taking a Political Stand

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