News
6 min

The next 25 years

Do new technologies & rights successes spell the end of the queer press?

THE POOP ON JOURNALISM'S FUTURE. Kamal Al-Solaylee explores the crisis facing news outlets and sees signs of hope for queer media. Credit: Corey Pierce

I saw the story on CityTV and read a cursory report in the Toronto Star. In both it was just another tale of Toronto on a busy news day: A young man was charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder for failing to disclose his HIV status to his partners. The TV report was framed as a “Have-you-had-sex-with-this-man?” story that Mark Dailey, the “voice of CityTV,” delivered with his trademark calm sensationalism. It wasn’t until I read Xtra’s coverage of the same that the full implications of the charges against the unidentified man hit me. Why attempted murder of all possible charges? Was the sex not consensual? Did the police cross the line between public protection and homophobia?

While queer visibility and our legal rights have taken great strides forward, I still believe that gay-owned and operated media can tell our stories or provide angles that mainstream news organizations are either incapable or unwilling to feature. Much as we would all love to dress up in military fatigues, plant a rainbow flag on Parliament Hill and declare gay mission accomplished and queer media a relic of a repressive past, stories like the above prove that there’s still work to be done.

Just don’t look for mainstream news outlets to take the lead. They have their own life-or-death scenarios to confront. Journalism as an older generation knows it — daily newspaper, weekly general-interest magazines, broadcast evening news — has entered the end game of dwindling subscribers and viewers, a steep, recession-induced decline in advertising and an internet culture where anybody can pass for a reporter and content is expected to be free.

Moods, words and actions in the industry swing between loud panic and quiet resignation. One day it’s all about surviving the recession through layoffs or cutbacks. The next it’s revolutionary, sci-fi-heavy talk about redefining what journalism means in the 21st century. All the while the internet juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. According to one recent study there are now more than 70 million blogs and 150 million websites; numbers that are increasing at 10,100 an hour. Not all blogs are news sites, of course, but a significant number of bloggers are engaging in “acts of journalism” — rendering traditional news outlets irrelevant while simultaneously feeding on the original reporting done by the news outlets’ paid staff.

Mass access to news and the creation of affordable venues for self-expression is vital to the democratic role of journalism, but it’s also destroying the business case of news outlets. Let’s be clear about one thing: Good journalism costs money, honey. It won’t be long before journalism becomes a case of getting what we don’t pay for.

Any wonder that whenever a group of journalists, gay or straight, get together the atmosphere is funereal? We are all Norma Desmonds now. Our moments of glory are behind us. But as many newsrooms shut their doors or operate on skeletal budgets, it’s only fair to acknowledge that what is nearly killing journalism financially is also making it stronger and better editorially.

As a (print) news junkie who now makes his living teaching journalism, I recall with amazement the time when I had to wait a full day to read my paper. How archaic is that? The internet — that patron saint of instant gratification — has given me immediate and universal access to news. Technology has also enriched my news-reading experience through hyperlinking, multimedia, archiving and (select) readers’ comments.

I’m not as evolved technologically as my friends, but even I can see how smart delivery on mobile devices — from chic iPhones to sleek BlackBerrys — is changing how news is spread and read. The beloved ink-stained newspaper looks more and more like a mangy, flatulent old dog that no one will adopt at the pound. Take the poor thing out of its misery. This dog had his day. The future of news is reader-friendly. Now if only it was as business-friendly. Don’t misinterpret my emphasis on business as selling out. There’s a case for it.

Historically the press in North America has straddled two models: A public model where its role as a watchdog of democracy and voice for the voiceless is, self-aggrandizing aside, part of its mission. The second, less glamorous, model is that of market forces. News organizations are businesses — and in many cases publicly traded companies — accountable to their owners and shareholders. Turning a profit is as vital to survival as breaking stories. The balance between the public and market models is what guarantees financial survival, freedom from government pressures and earns news outlets public trust. In theory, anyway. If the soul-searching among news organizations is to lead to any effective changes, editors and publishers must acknowledge that journalism has sacrificed too much of its high moral ground to commercial pressures.

We in queer media are obviously not immune to the vagaries of the current recession or to the wholesale migration to the internet. We do however have many cushions to soften our landing in this new landscape. After all, and like many alternative press titles, we’ve been giving it away for free for so long. A gay and lesbian publication like Xtra has a long (quarter of a century!) history of maintaining progressive, sex-positive editorial content as well as advertisers. We don’t need to adapt to the era of free content since we ushered it in.

The concentration of the queer community in urban centres also bodes well for the future of our media. Our numbers in cities like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver create a critical mass that boosts circulation numbers and deliver targeted demographics to advertisers with ease. We do not need to confront the realities of running small-town newspapers or local TV stations that are being offloaded by media chains in an attempt to save operational costs.

Our demographic is also showing brilliant signs of diversity in age, race and culture. Gay men and lesbians are coming out at a younger age, adding to our tally and visibility. The thriving numbers of gay and lesbian families and marriages give queer media a chance to expand coverage of our communities beyond the once-dominant travails of young and buffed-up white males. There are simply more stories to tell. In journalism that’s never a bad thing.

A cursory look at gay media through the years also suggests early versatility and adaptability to technological and commercial models. As soon as it became clear that cruising and hooking-up sexual culture was moving from print to phone lines to online, we were there with services like Cruiseline or Squirt.org. Both are owned and operated by Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra and fab, among other print and digital titles, in a clear, if troubling, sign that we’re joining our straight and corporate sister organizations in engaging in our own version of media monopoly and concentration.

Such media concentration must be coupled with a focus on the local to find and tell our stories effectively. Many industry commentators see local news as a possible saviour to troubled media.

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As queer media gets bigger and transnational it’s vital to keep activism — advocacy journalism even — high on our news agenda for the coming 25 years. Despite claims to the contrary, print news organizations in Canada remain as straight as a stripper’s pole and as white as the paper on which they are printed. TV networks are hardly different. It’s misinformed to suggest that the voice of queer activism is redundant because many gay battles have been won; or because the CBC has had an afternoon talk show with out gay men for two seasons; or because we can prance around west of Queen St W in Toronto without reasonable fear of bashing.

I know from my experience at The Globe and Mail that even the most socially enlightened editors were allergic to gay stories that didn’t fit one of two frames: legal news or wacky fun — militant or mincing. Some senior political, news and business reporters in various organizations are still so closeted you’d think we’re in 1969. It’ll be years, if ever, before a travel story in any major Canadian paper includes tips on cruising or bathhouses in destinations of appeal to gay travellers or you read an arts feature about lesbian erotica. I hate to acknowledge it but freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one.

I also wonder if those who believe that queer media is too single-minded — at a time when the zeitgeist is to be more inclusive — ever think about what it’s like to be a young queer in a small town anywhere in Canada. Do they know the horrific stories of queer people in many corners of the world (including parts of the United States)? If the history of queer media is synonymous with liberationist movements, shouldn’t we in the more privileged parts of urban Canada expend our energies supporting and highlighting struggles outside our backyard? Who but queer media can cover these issues?

Twenty-five years after the first issue of Xtra much has changed but, for better and worse, much more stayed the same. Despite the doom and gloom in the industry I’m optimistic about the vitality, survival and need for gay and lesbian media. That optimism is conditional on editors, writers and readers seeing value in our stories, histories, struggles and escapades, colourful and mundane. The biggest challenge facing us today is not technology or finance but becoming as diverse as the people we claim to represent.