Is "The Advocate" Getting Savvy or Selling Out?
Has The Advocate, the biweekly magazine for gays and lesbians, sold out? Critics say yes, pointing to budding indicators of a corporate mind-set. The most recent sign came last week, when The Advocate's parent company was taken over by Planet Out, an online gay community that has raised $19 million in financing to date. With AOL as a distribution partner, The Advocate's circulation of 88,000 and Planet Out's 500,000 members are guaranteed a glorious new mainstream status.But the birth of the "gay media monster" has a dark side, critics say. The controversy centers around a long-standing partnership between Planet Out and The Advocate, both of which are sponsors of an upcoming march for gay rights. Set for April 29 and 30, the Millennium March on Washington has two goals: At the same time organizers aim to promote equal rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community (known as the GLBT), they also plan to deliver the GLBT as a niche market ready to pay through the nose ring for gay-friendly goods and services.In pitching to advertisers, organizers promised "extensive online presence on the March website, millions of impressions ... and high-visibility on-site recognition." And it worked. To date, sponsors include four pharmaceutical companies and two financial services (Rainbow credit card, which guarantees that "every time you make a purchase, you support the lesbian and gay community," and Christopher Street Financial, "the premier firm providing a full spectrum of financial services" to the GLBT community "on a global scale").Another service you can sell to a niche is information, and that's where the media companies come in. Planet Out has given the march organizers $250,000 in cash and $750,000 in kind, which includes maintaining the offical march Web site, at www.planetout.com/mmow. The Advocate has donated $425,000 of in-kind services, which includes printing full-page color ads in 20 issues and publishing 300,000 copies of the offical program. The home page of Planet Out links to the march Web site.To commemorate the march, The Advocate is publishing a special issue, a chronicle of the movement featuring George Michael and Melissa Etheridge on the cover, scheduled to hit newsstands April 11. The special issue will be distributed free with the official program in D.C. hotels and bars during the weekend of the march.But wait: Bill Dobbs believes The Advocate's sponsorship of the march "has compromised its editorial integrity." Dobbs is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process, a group of activists who condemn the march because it was not organized in the democratic tradition. He calls this year's march "a marketing event in search of a purpose."Profits from the march will be distributed to a variety of gay and lesbian organizations. But The Advocate can expect a benefit: Its sponsorship will help promote the brand, sell subscriptions, and forge relations with advertisers. Dobbs suggests the partnership between The Advocate and the Millennium March is tantamount to the pairing of the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center. The dark heart of both deals: A media outlet devotes editorial to a business partner, then reaps the profits.Advocate editor in chief Judy Wieder calls the criticism "growing pains" for the movement, explaining, "It's difficult for certain people in our readership to see the magazine rise up into the mainstream." Wieder denies that The Advocate's sponsorship has affected its editorial coverage. "If I compromise as the editor in chief," she says, "if I sell out, then I've lost the product that everyone wants. I hope that we hold on to our integrity and I will die doing that."Wieder's denial of bias seems credible. A recent Advocate article about the march disclosed that the magazine "is a corporate sponsor of the march" and quoted Dobbs's claim that the march is "financially and politically unaccountable" to the GLBT community. But the online version promoted the march heavily (www.advocate.com/html/stories/806/806_washmarch.html). For example, it links to a site where you can sign up for a mass same-sex wedding to be held April 29. (For $25, couples can "be registered in a permanent historical archive" and receive "a limited edition, personalized certificate of participation.")Wieder sees a natural overlap between politics and the marketplace. On the one hand, she says, "People do not have equal rights in this community, and it's very important to constantly bring that fact forward." But, "in a competitive world, to make sure that your brand survives, you have to do certain things that make purists like Bill Dobbs freak."She feels the special issue is justified in "celebrating the march," but admits a proprietary motive. With so many "gathering in one place for the most important date in gay history since Stonewall," she says, "of course we're going to be there. Of course we want to have people see the name."Finally, she says, when you're promoting a cause, "You have to use things that are proven to catch people's attention, like celebrities." To that end, she is proud to be a producer of Equality Rocks, a concert scheduled for April 29 in D.C. And she doesn't see any conflict with her editing role. Instead, the title reflects her access to George Michael, due to having interviewed him in the past, and her ability to persuade him to perform in D.C. Otherwise the concert would have featured lesbian singers from Etheridge to k.d. lang, but no "openly gay man."Wieder's latest coup: She has arranged for Michael to sing a duet with Garth Brooks, which she says "could be the emotional centerpiece" of the show.Dobbs sees the hype as a "harbinger" of "more media manipulation" to come.