The state of gay media

With Southern Voice gone, will Atlanta's LGBT community still have a voice?

When Georgia's first gay, African-American lawmaker, Simone Bell, formally took her seat in the state House of Representatives last week, the occasion marked a rare progressive milestone – for the South, anyway.

Too bad no newspapers were paying attention.

"The mainstream media, and even the alternative media, isn't going to cover the gay community with the same level of detail that a gay newspaper would," says frustrated state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, during a break in House action.

Drenner, who became Georgia's first gay state elected official in 2000, laments the November closing of Southern Voice as a major setback for Atlanta's gay community. Bell's first day on the job wasn't the only story that seemed to fall through the cracks in the wake of the sudden demise of the state's premiere gay weekly. Just days after the 21-year-old newspaper was shuttered, Chamblee banned discrimination against gay city workers, a story that didn't appear in the AJC until nearly a month later.

Also, Ed Scruggs, an 80-year-old veteran activist who'd marched in the Atlanta Pride parade only two weeks earlier, died. But with SoVo gone, there would be no print obituary recounting Scruggs' contributions to gay causes, only a short article on the Project Q media website – a situation that concerns Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state's largest gay rights group.

"If younger gays can't read about people like Ed, they won't understand the struggles that got us to where we are today," says Graham, who believes SoVo served a critical role in a place that the current issue of the Advocate crowns as the "gayest city in America."

"It's imperative that Atlanta have a gay media outlet," he adds, "because it helps bring the community together by covering stories, events, groups and politics that are important to us."

Of course, it's not as if there aren't plenty of folks competing to fill SoVo's shoes – and market niche.

In addition to Project Q, a news and entertainment webzine launched in September 2008 by two former SoVo staffers, there's Gaydar, a weekly nightlife magazine, and Atlanta Free Press, a newsprint publication whose first issue came out in December.

And three more startups are in the offing: Just In magazine, which is aiming for a younger demographic; Georgia Pulse, a bimonthly print publication backed by state House candidate and restaurateur Keith Gross; and, most notably, GA Voice, which is being shepherded into existence by SoVo's founder, Chris Cash, and freshly laid-off editor, Laura Douglas-Brown.

Suddenly, the city has become the scene of a gay media war that's already produced some drama. Before it could even go to press, Atlanta Free Press – which calls itself "Atlanta's new, premier LGBT online and print media" – had dropped its editor after it was reported by local websites that he'd previously been fired from SoVo for fabricating quotes.

"Atlanta is an attractive market, so I can certainly understand the desire by other folks to serve such a big LGBT population," says Project Q founder Matt Hennie. "What people are going to find is that news operations are tough to set up. People have to believe in the journalists that are behind it."

GA Voice sprang out of a Dec. 3 meeting of SoVo supporters and former employees who didn't want to leave Atlanta without a gay newspaper. Still in the planning stages, the proposed publication has received a $12,000 private grant, and thousands more in individual donations, as well as organizational help from a corps of volunteers, says Douglas-Brown, who joined SoVo as a reporter in 1997.

While some readers had criticized SoVo for becoming more corporate and less fun following its takeover by Window Media in the late '90s, the paper didn't fold because of lack of readership. Instead, its owners borrowed millions they couldn't pay back in an ill-conceived attempt to build a national newspaper chain. (Incidentally, CL's former owner made a similar move, one that cost him his six-newspaper chain.) The company went into receivership in early 2009, a move that all but guaranteed its eventual closure.

Although GA Voice will be starting small – publishing only every other week at first – Douglas-Brown notes that, in its final months, SoVo's payroll had been whittled down to three editorial staffers. "So we won't be dramatically smaller than that," she says.

Certainly, Atlanta's gay media rose from humble beginnings. The city's first gay newspaper, the Barb, began printing in 1974 and lasted only a decade. The mid-'80s saw the launch of Cruise, a nightlife magazine; ETC, a weekly news and entertainment magazine; and the News, an occasional newsletter published by the Atlanta Gay Center.

Jack Pelham, former editor of ETC, says the early publications practiced unapologetic advocacy journalism: promoting Atlanta as a gay destination, supporting the annual Pride Festival and urging readers to come out of the closet.

"Back in the '80s, the AJC and Creative Loafing didn't really cover the gay community in any depth," recalls Pelham. "So the gay press was the only place we could find out what was happening."

By 1988, when SoVo was created as a nonprofit, biweekly newspaper at the height of the AIDS crisis, the gay media was the only source of detailed coverage about the disease and its toll on the city's gay population. SoVo later spun off David, a popular nightlife magazine.

Those early publications, says Georgia Equality's Graham, were the primary way to get the word out about rallies, vigils and demonstrations. "In the days before the Internet, SoVo and ETC were critical tools for organizing the community," he says.

But what about these days, when a few well-chosen Tweets can wrangle a crowd within hours and even daily newspapers routinely cover gay issues?

"There are so many other places to get information – e-mail lists, websites, Facebook – that the gay media must redefine its role," says Pelham, who admits he read SoVo only sporadically in recent years.

But Cliff Bostock, a longtime CL contributor and former editor, says a strong local gay media is needed to tell the stories that even gay-sympathetic publications ignore.

"The mainstream media don't develop stories from a gay perspective," says Bostock, who also wrote a column for years in ETC. "Mainstream papers cover the cultural aspects of gay life only superficially."

Anti-crime activist Kyle Keyser says his recent campaign for mayor as an openly gay man benefited from coverage by the gay press.

"I certainly wouldn't have had as great an opportunity to reach out to my community had they not been there," he says. "Gay news sources help the LGBT community maintain a collective identity."

And the gay media also give voice to subcommunities within that community.

"Southern Voice was very trans-friendly," says transgender activist and blogger Monica Helms.

"They covered Transgender Day of Remembrance, Southern Comfort and other trans events. Vandy Beth Glenn's trial was a lot better documented in Southern Voice than you would get in the AJC," she says, referring to the state legislative aide who was fired in 2007 after announcing her transition from male to female.

Dr. James Darsey, professor of communications at Georgia State University and a specialist in gay media, says it may not be necessary for another newspaper to assume SoVo's role as the singular conduit for the various subgroups within the gay community – as long as those voices continue to be heard.

"Every reform movement and every subcommunity in America over the years has had its specialized newspapers," he says. "A single paper served the purposes of our community; it wasn't the case that there were no divisions, but everybody understood that those divisions had to be subordinated for survival."

Adds Darsey: "We can afford to have divisions now."