Queerty is Dead (Maybe). Can Gay Blogs Stay Afloat?
On April 18th Queerty, a popular web blog covering primarily gay-oriented lifestyle and news, announced its demise. For over five years the popular site that boasted that it was "free of an agenda, except that gay one" was frequently referenced by mainstream media outlets like ABC News, the Los Angeles Times and gay newspapers such as EDGE. Newsweek even called it "a leading site for gay issues." And when it ceased to publish, the future of queer blogging came into focus.
But wait: not so fast. On April 25th, Queerty announced that the site is "coming back." "You heard right, after a few weeks of downtime, Queerty will soon return as the one place you need to turn each day," read a blog post on the site. The owners of Queerty, 353Media, who were blamed by creator David Hauslaib for shuttering the site after "technical difficulties," aren't talking about the hiccup in coverage - yet. But has this controversial website actually resolved its difficulties? Or is the hand-wringing over the ability of gay blogs to prosper just beginning?
There is no denying that Queerty had a large, daily readership. However, in its later years -- the last two in particular -- the site often came under fire for its content. Remember the Corbin Fisher fiasco? Queerty bloggers accused the site of causing teen suicide because they were going after illegal downloaders' and that it would "out" teens to their families by doing so, despite one shred of evidence that that had happened -- or even could happen.
The blog also adopted some controversial stands on various issues and riled its readers with headlines many considered sensational. And it continued to champion a young man who pontificated in his underwear on YouTube, despite the numerous shrill pleas from its commenters to put the column to rest.
It's unlikely, however, that the blog's content contributed to its temporary demise; good blogs, after all, are supposed to be incendiary, lest they lose their readership to the next voice from a basement capitalizing on a low barrier to entry. The most likely cause is that which causes many bloggers sleepless nights: where's the money coming from?
Show Me The Money
In the free-economy that is the World Wide Web, advertising dollars are the self-evident key to commercial success. It's relatively simple to build an audience by proliferating rumors, gossip and flesh; but if a blogger wishes to be paid, he either needs to jump the barrier to fame himself (Perez Hilton), or she needs to attract advertisers to her site. WordPress might be free, but time and web traffic are not; and the appetite for self-funding a blog, no matter how intoxicating the comparably large voice offers an individual.
But advertisers are notoriously shy when it comes to opinion, controversy or overt sexual content - the very bread and butter of the majority of the gay blogosphere. Most content providers to whom we spoke admitted they use remnant advertising - Google AdWords, the Gay Ad Network, etc. - to eke some revenue from their efforts. And the relative anonymity those services provide offer a degree of insulation; remnant advertisers care more about audience quantities than they do about where they aggregate.
That's not always the case, as the Bilerico Project's Bil Browning reports. But he still is quick to point out that blogging for money is a serious challenge.
"We use several ad services to make money but make the most off direct sales," Browning says. Despite the fact that he says qualified, intelligent writers are willing to compromise their rates in return for working for a high-visibility site, he's simply not making a ton of cash. "We only pay two people and if you count up the hours spent working on the site, the pay is definitely below minimum wage."
Browning says the LGBT community barely supports its blogs as opposed to the political right wing.
"The LGBT community has invested very little in the progressive blogosphere, unlike the right wing who funds popular bloggers and websites to the hilt," he remarks. "Blogging is an incredibly difficult business and 99.9 percent of LGBT bloggers never achieve a living wage."
As if the work weren't low paying enough, John Aravosis, editor and founder of AMERICAblog, an online LGBT political news daily, pointed out that the recession didn't spare blogs in favor of larger media: "Everyone took a big hit when the economy crashed," he laments.
AMERICAblog's income is still down significantly from where it was two years ago, "but we're surviving, in no small part thanks to our ad vendors," Aravosis says. "We do run remnant ads, but we also get ads specifically sold for our sites, and lots of other ad networks that I don't even begin to pretend to understand."
Remnant ads offer a unique set of challenges; not only do they pay out pennies on the dollar, essentially reducing a webpage's earning ability significantly below its cost to produce, but it also "screams" mass advertising; those who are savvy in the ways of web advertising can look at a website and know which ads are remnant - and most gay blogs are full of them.
Moreover, a careless webmaster or blogger can get rapidly into trouble with AdWords or other mainstream advertising vehicles; anti-gay forces are notorious for launching ads onto gay websites without approval.
Aravosis reports the formula for success at AMERICAblog: "We never expanded beyond a few of us, and the fact is that everyone except me has a 'real' job, and while several of them are being paid a stipend, it was never intended to supplant their real income."
Which Content Is King?
To differentiate itself from its ever-increasing competition, a blog must choose its editorial mission wisely; and in this era of instantaneous news, social networks are increasingly vying for the attention of consumers with a bite-sized appetite for commentary, snarky or otherwise.
Michael Jensen, editor-in-chief of AfterElton.com, has a policy of not printing gossip or anything that speculates on the private lives of people they cover. Above all, the content has to be gay-specific. "It needs to be of interest to our readers in terms of having something to do with gay and bisexual men in pop culture and/or what gay/bi men are interested in."
Queerty's content, on the other hand, sported a healthy dose of coverage of porn and sex mixed in with some original reporting about serious affairs and breaking news stories. The mix "kept readers coming back over and over again," according to Bil Bilerico. But he chose to funnel political and cultural commentary to his own blog.
"Finding your own niche is important in blogging," he opines. "We wanted a differently-flavored community at Bilerico Project so we've shaped our site around the identity we wanted to portray."
John Aravosis admits that although he wasn't a regular reader of Queerty, "I did read it from time to time when a particular post caught my eye."
"They had a reputation for being somewhat wry and contrary, but I'm not convinced it necessarily turned readers away," he continued, adding, "people like gossip. They like a bit of a zing to the site. Perez Hilton certainly doesn't suffer from the controversy some of his posts generate."
As for AMERICAblog, they concentrate on serious news and commentary and leave the pop culture and gossip to others. "Our number one priority is commenting on the news of the day from an insider's perspective," said Aravosis. "That means we look for something happening now, something we think our readers should know about, something they'd like to know about, and something about which we hopefully have some inside knowledge so that we can add value to the post, and not just simply link to an interesting article without adding our own commentary (though we do that too sometimes)."
Today, the influence of LGBT bloggers can be witnessed in arenas as diverse as political races and social gossip. They tell people what's hot and what's not. They inform and influence how many gay individuals vote, dress, or approach hot button issues. Politicians and opinion-makers increasingly seek them out. And the power of that quick post has attracted even mainstream publishers to get in the game.
"I think blogs have faced at least two challenges over the past few years," Aravosis tells EDGE. "First, the economic crisis and the hit all publications took to ad revenue. Second, competition. There are a lot more blogs nowadays."
Mainstream blogs like Politico and newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald and New York Times have begun covering the gay community in some depth -- and have the journalistic resources to outrun smaller blogs. Aravosis believes the impact is minimal: "Name one gay blog run by a non-profit or a newspaper that can compare to, say, Pam's House Blend or Towleroad? I don't see it," he said. "So, I'd say that political blogs have seen increased competition, but gay blogs, not so much."
Will Social Networks Kill Blogs?
It's no secret: in the world of gay blogging, the fastest-growing segment doesn't have a snarky name or a defined mission: it's called Facebook.
"The rise of social networking sites have spawned more short-form postings from folks who would shy away from starting a 'blog' but have no problem sharing on a more conglomerated site full of their friends," said Bilerico.
Witness the furious sharing of news items such as Osama Bin Laden's death, which buzzed the phones of millions long before the President took to television to officially announce the event. The comments from the gay social network apparatus were often as hip as any irreverent blog post:
"In a mansion!?!?!?!? - oooooo Pakistan gonna be in trouble...."
?"Sorry it took so long to get you a copy of my birth certificate, I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden."
"May they feed his body to the fox that's living on Trump's head..."
Is there a future for a consolidated gay voice, when so many are piping up to voice their opinions on the same topics?
"I do think that, at least initially, Twitter and Facebook probably hurt blog traffic, as people who used to visit a blog several times a day now visit once in a while when they see a particular Tweet or Facebook post that interests them," Aravosis says.
But Bilerico isn't worried. He believes that the ubiquitous sharing of tidbits on Facebook and Twitter source from his or other blogs. And, he adds, blogs offer what a short tweet just can't: in-depth reporting.
"While we do plenty of sexy, funny, and short news posts, we're best known for our longer political commentaries, essays, and cultural examinations," said Bilerico. "Our traffic just keeps growing as people seek out that type of content."
AfterElton's Michael Jenson agrees: "It's quite possible that social networking sties will have an impact on more traditional blogs," he remarks. "But I still think powerful eloquent voices will always rise to the top and continue to have an impact."
As social networking expands, however, the gay blogs increasingly find themselves in a constricting content squeeze; they must adapt again, or watch their advertising dollars polarize downward, direct to the social networks, or up to the larger content providers whose content they're increasingly beginning to emulate. Trend analysis has not traditionally been the purview of the blogosphere, and spot reporting is migrating the gay friend network, potentially hurting the business of blogging where it really counts: traffic.
Ironically, the crisis occurs as many gay blogs finally find their footing. Aravosis proudly points out that his blog is making waves at the highest political levels. "Joe Sudbay, our deputy editor, got invited to the White House last winter with four other political bloggers to sit down and interview the President of the United States for nearly an hour," he says. "That doesn't happen if you don't have influence."
"I think the gay blogs -- the gay Netroots, really -- have frankly kicked ass over the past two years on DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell especially, though not exclusively," he continues. "We know the White House reads, and maintains a relationship, with a number of the top gay blogs, and we know the Senate and House leadership follow a number of us as well. The influence is there. As is the effectiveness."
Which means that if the LGBT blog community follows the lead of Queerty - into the abyss of commercial valuation or trampled into quiescence by the cacophony of social networking - a valid form of social progress is slowly being pulverized back into disorganized, ineffective chaos. Queerty proclaims it will rise again; but the odds that this phoenix will fly grow increasingly long.