Six o'clock on a Friday evening in The Yard, one of Soho's popular gay bars. Some customers are drinking in groups. Others are skimming the news in the Pink Paper, reading the record reviews in Thud or glancing at the pin-ups in Boyz. As the evening progresses, the titles will be discarded or tucked into bags, but, for now, they are a diversion.
The same is happening up and down Britain. You know a bar is gay by the free weekly papers stacked in the corner. Picking them up on a Friday night is a ritual. In London, six titles jostle for the readers' attention: from the Pink Paper, a sober news-based tabloid, to Boyz and a crop of similar lifestyle paper/magazines, all with a pouting cover boy to help "sell" their formulaic but profitable blend of soft porn, listings and club talk. Scotland has two news magazines of its own, and the Manchester- based All Points North has just relaunched as a tabloid in the North.
For a decade and a half, this is how the gay community has spread the word. Amorphous as this community is, the free press is integral to the infrastructure. But the institution is under threat. The papers are caught in a ferocious price war. Quality - either in reporting or the actual appearance of the product - is haemorrhaging as newcomers seek cheaper ways of attracting advertisers. In the rush for pink profit, the interest of the "community" that each paper purports to represent scarcely counts.
There's a history: the free gay press started life in 1981, when Capital Gay set out to fuse news of London's burgeoning pub and club "scene" with campaigning politics. Financed by adverts for the venues in which it was distributed, the freesheet and its later competitor, the Pink Paper, employed experienced journalists to sniff out hard news. Homophobic MPs, lax local councils and prejudiced police forces were hounded, but facts and figures were checked and leads professionally followed. Certain standards - and a certain seriousness - were maintained.
Then, a decade on, with the gay scene emerging from the first shock of the Aids era ready to party, Pink Paper's proprietor, Kelvin Sollis, spun off Boyz, a cheeky what's-on guide. With a strict "no politics" rule, it captured the gay-is-fun mood and exploited the new pink commercialism. Where the serious papers had disdained advertorial, Boyz made a virtue of it, until it became nigh impossible to distinguish where editorial pages ended and advertising began. The commercial gay scene bought the approach - big time. The new title and its later national version, Boyz UK, subsidised the Pink Paper when necessary, and inevitably Capital Gay began a slow decline, finally closing last June.
Which left Sollis - often described as the "gay Rupert Murdoch" - and his Chronos Group with what amounted to a virtual monopoly. Sollis had Positive Times under his belt, a free monthly for HIV-positive gay men, enhancing his credibility as a serious publisher while scooping up lucrative local authority and voluntary sector advertising. He had also bought All Points North, and moved it to premises in Manchester's glitzy gay "village". Within hours of Capital Gay's demise he announced a new tabloid, the Gay Gazette. Now owning six publications, and with the Boyz titles alone turning over an estimated pounds lm a year, Chronos appeared unassailable.
"Sollis established an empire, but something has wobbled," says Nigel Edwards, who walked out as the Pink's acting editor in February. The Gay Gazette folded in January. Sorted, a brash colour magazine touted as a replacement, failed to materialise and is now planned as a four-page insert in the Pink Paper. At least 13 staff have departed since Christmas, including the group finance director, the head of advertising, and the company personnel manager. Positive Times is seeking its fourth editor in a year. The relaunched All Points North is without an editor after the previous editor of the Pink Paper refused to transfer and was let go. The Manchester office has closed, advertising staff have moved back to London and just two journalists remain, now occupying smaller premises.
What has happened? By moving the gay press toward lifestyle advertorial, Sollis may have created the conditions for his own ruin. Rivals are crowding into an already saturated market. Consider Get It, a grainy Boyz lookalike. A recent 22-page issue contained three pages of editorial against eight pages of sex phone-line ads. Its advertising rates are bargain basement. The other three non-Sollis titles in London - Thud, QX and Guys - are pursuing similar strategies: chasing Sollis's advertisers by cutting costs, filling space with listings and ever more explicit contact ads. And, at the end of March, two more outfits announced they were joining the fray. It's a vicious circle: as the pie gets smaller, the more rates drop, and the worse the papers get.
With no real competition on the news front, the Pink Paper has already seen standards fall. Although several stories per issue now carry an "exclusive" tag, there is scant evidence of journalistic drive. Weighty gay-relevant issues in the broadsheet press often pass the paper by, and the broadsheets often write the issues up with greater insight and better quotes. And the appointment, after a round of musical chairs, of 21-year-old Paul Clements, the paper's youngest-ever editor, has done little to restore confidence in a commitment to journalism.
Roger Goode, group managing editor at Chronos since January, insists all is well. He says Boyz's revenue is rising, and two more unspecified projects are in the pipeline. Remaining staff, he points out, have just had a 5 per cent pay rise: "We're doing better than the competition, and that's why I'm sitting in a nice office with modern art on the walls and they're not." He insists that margins have not been hit by the price war and denies that Boyz has been forced to match the low rates of Thud, its most aggressive competition. But one pub landlord says he pays the same for a third of a page in both.
How to slash costs? One former Chronos insider recalls more than 70 employees leaving the group over a three-year period - at a time when the total staff tally never exceeded 30. Such brief tenure may partially explain poor editorial policy and reporting, but it does not account for more idiosyncratic policies. One former Pink staffer says he was incredulous at Chronos's stance towards Stonewall, the lobby group that plays a pivotal role in lesbian and gay law reform. "No pictures of Stonewall were to appear. If there was a story you couldn't avoid, it had to done to the minimum," he says. Goode, a former Stonewall press officer, says there has been no such policy under his tenure: "It's totally history, if it ever existed." Stonewall refuses to be drawn, saying it never comments on any aspect of gay publishing.
"A year ago we had the Pink Paper and Capital Gay," says David Smith, editor of the glossy monthly Gay Times. "Now there's just one of them. If that were under threat, it would be a matter for serious concern. It's a very busy news time, with lots of things going through Parliament and a general election on the horizon."
David Cook, editor of Radio 5's Out This Week, is concerned about news values generally. "Lifestyle titles clearly have a role to play, but you get the feeling you're the killjoy because you're reporting reality. Everyone else is doing fun and froth because that's what the advertisers want." The question is, if content is slanted to what the advertisers want, how can readers trust the content? Where do they go for objective coverage?
Some readers want more. In Fleet Street terms, Boyz is the Sun and Get It the Sunday Sport. "Where," complains Dennis Wright, a 28-year- old civil servant, "is the gay Independent or the Guardian?" Which is both the point and, perhaps, missing the point. It's possible that the new breed of assimilated gay man has no need, beyond the listings pages, for a gay press, preferring quality coverage from an increasingly accommodating mainstream to shoddy reports from ghetto confines. But it's Saturday evening and The Yard's customers are content to peruse their freesheets. "People are picking the new papers up," says the former Capital Gay proprietor Michael Mason. "The fact that quality isn't there doesn't mean readers aren't getting what they want. Like it or not, 4 million people buy the Sun. Is the gay community any different?" Indeed. One might even ask - should it be any different?
Simon Edge was the last editor of `Capital Gay'.
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