Online Queer Female Media is Dying…What Now?
Bottom line up front: online queer female media is on its deathbed. It is no longer a question of “will it?” but rather “how soon?” Given the (woefully short) history of online queer female media, it seems almost certain that the current landscape of a few major sites will be replaced by a constellation of small, individually run sites within the next two to four years. After that, the market could either regroup into a few large sites again, or it could stay indefinitely atomized. The answer depends on financing.
In the past two years, there have been multiple articles on multiple media platforms identifying the slow and somehow inexorable death of LGBT journalism. These articles clearly and concisely trace the rise and fall of queer media, linking its decline to increasing demands on the part of corporations for profit margins over social benefits. The conclusion that these articles generally reach is that because the heterosexual males running the business end of media conglomerates can’t see a way to monetize queer audiences, they have preferred to shutter LGBT sites rather than to explore alternative ways to monetize their readership. As John Paul Brammer writes in his article “The Lesson of Into”: “A resolution would require a fundamental restructuring of how media writ large operates and who operates it, a gutting of the offices of authority under capitalism.” Writers like Brammer are right: queer sites are bringing in insufficient revenue to cover their overhead and pay their contributors. To blame the decline of these sites on straight, white males, however, is an oversimplification. I would argue instead that the closure of queer news sites has little to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with how regular individuals, the faceless readers who make up a site’s traffic, interface with the Internet. In short, just as video killed the radio star, the Internet has inadvertently killed online media.
In her article “Does LGBT Media Have a Future,” former AfterEllen and Into editor Trish Bendix admits that the problems that queer journalists and queer media sites are facing are not totally limited to our community. In just one week in January, for example, layoffs were announced at BuzzFeed, Verizon’s media division, and Gannett, a print newspaper conglomerate. News sites everywhere have been tightening their belts and trimming already small staff for years (popular blogs like The Toast were shut down years ago). Bendix argues that much of the problem, for both LGBT and non-LGBT sites alike, is revenue-based: most advertising money isn’t spent on online sites. As a result, online sites must find an alternative source of revenue or they will quickly go under financially, and historically, LGBT sites have struggled to find that alternate funding. But one reason that the queer press feels like it is being hit harder than “straight” press, if such a thing were to exist, is that there were so few LGBT outlets to start with. If twenty-five newspapers out of 1,000 close across the United States, it becomes a small but interesting data point about the future of print journalism. If five LGBT sites close out of ten, it’s a massive existential crisis for the field.
When it comes to websites for lesbian and bisexual women in particular, this financial dilemma—which had been looming on the horizon since 2014 at the latest—has brought us to a crisis point. Bendix recently tweeted that AfterEllen was for sale again (it was last bought by Evolve Media in 2014), and in her article, she mentions that the founder and CEO of Autostraddle, Riese Bernard, is considering selling Autostraddle because it is barely surviving financially even with subscriptions, private donors, advertising, and events like its annual A Camp. If both these two bastions of queer female journalism and pop culture are lost, there will be all but nothing left. While Curve may be able to continue as both a magazine and a website, kept alive by its ad revenue and subscriptions to the print magazine, the rest of the queer female media landscape will be completely atomized, dispersed between generic news/pop culture sites that occasionally publish LGBT content (Huffington Post, Slate and Buzzfeed, for example) and small, individual lesbian sites run by one to three people as unpaid passion projects.
Given the LGBT community undeniably has a high degree of social cohesion, it begs the question why queer women are unable to save their landmark sites. AfterEllen and Autostraddle are iconic, bedrock websites in the queer female media landscape. They have often played a major role in readers’ coming to grips with their sexual orientation; helping them understand their identity and find a community. Couldn’t readers raise the money to keep these sites afloat through crowdsourcing, fundraisers, and subscriptions? The answer, unfortunately, is no. In addition to Autostraddle’s example, a mere 230 donors financed season four of the Brazilian webseries “RED” even though approximately 44,500 viewers watched the season for free, proving that fans would rather watch for free than donate even a token amount. Any effort on the part of sites like AfterEllen and Autostraddle to fundraise through crowdsourcing would likely have similar anemic results. Nor could fundraising necessarily be counted on. In 2017, an effort by AfterEllen to fundraise for hurricane relief raised only $1,000, an amount insufficient to run the site for even a month.
As a hypothesis, the reluctance on the part of Internet users to pay for content would seem to be a consequence of being habituated since the 1990s to receiving free content. The vast majority of the Internet is free, like a giant library or playground that users are invited to peruse at their pleasure. Unlike a print newspaper, which charges its readers a subscription fee, none of the queer female sites have required that readers pay for their online content. Asking readers to pay now through a new subscription service would likely fail because most readers would just diversify away from the site to free content. Why pay to read articles when the Internet is full of other free LGBT content, from message boards to Facebook to Instagram to Twitter?
As noted above, the closure of the major queer female media sites will leave only smaller sites, which have a much smaller and less centralized readership and are run by unpaid bloggers. So long as these sites lack budgets, their ability to generate significant content and bring on additional contributors will be constrained, which will in turn hamper their ability to generate widespread name recognition for their sites. In time, it is possible that some of these small sites will try to advantage of the vacuum left by the loss of AfterEllen and Autostraddle to expand and replicate the growth of those very same sites in the early and late-2000s and take a similar leadership role in the queer female media. However, at present it seems they can only be successful if they are able to find a new financial model, one that either generates more advertising revenue or gleans consistent and predictable donations/revenue from readers. The silver lining is that queer media likely do not have to find the answer to this problem themselves. Given that the revenue problem affects all online media, when eventually someone finds a solution, that solution will almost certainly be quickly implemented throughout the Internet. The only question is: “What will that look like and how long will it take?”