Rivendell paves the way for LGBT publications
by Chuck Colbert
For more than 30 years, Rivendell Media, the nation’s leading LGBT publications-placement firm, has left its mark on advertising — the business of LGBT newspapers.
Founded in the summer of 1979 by entrepreneur Joe DiSabato, Rivendell now represents more than 150 local and regional LGBT publications to national advertising agencies.
But three decades ago, bringing the reach of gay media to Madison Avenue was a pioneering endeavor.
“Rivendell was the first to ‘professionalize’ the idea of media going after the ad market for numerous publications,” said Mark Segal, publisher and founder of Philadelphia Gay News. “No one ever thought of that before.”
DiSabato’s trailblazing nudged the organization, growth and professional development of the LGBT press. He was, for instance, a driving force behind the formation of the Gay Press Association during the 1970s. In 1984, Rivendell also organized the National Gay Newspaper Guild, a group of the nation’s most widely read publications. Until its demise in 2008, the Guild included San Francisco-based Bay Area Reporter, Boston’s Bay Windows, Michigan’s Between the Lines, Dallas Voice, South Florida Blade, Frontiers in Los Angeles, Gay & Lesbian Times in San Diego, New York Blade, PGN, Atlanta-based Southern Voice, Washington Blade and Chicago’s Windy City Times.
More recently, Rivendell is the driving force behind the establishment of the National Gay Media Association, which initially included a group of publishers from eight regional LGBT media outlets. The newly formed group aims to be the “premier vehicle for national advertisers to reach the gay and lesbian marketplace,” said Todd Evans, who now heads Rivendell.
Founder DiSabato died unexpectedly from an asthma attack in the early 1990s. For a short time, his life and business partner Michael Gravois ran Rivendell until Evans took over in 1994.
Meanwhile, NGMA will “bring together common marketing procedures and standards, and encourage and promote national advertising,” Evans said.
The list of NGMA newspapers includes some of those that were part of the Guild. The founders are Bay Area Reporter, Bay Windows, Between the Lines, Dallas Voice, Gay City News, Georgia Voice, Washington Blade and Windy City Times.
What’s so important about organizing LGBT media? Doing so gave them economic clout, enabling placement of national advertising in regional publications.
“There was no way publications like ours could have ever gotten the attention” of the New York City-based national advertising center, explained Jan Stevenson, publisher of Between the Lines. Only Rivendell could do that, collectively representing significant numbers of LGBT publications, she said.
“If you want depth of numbers, more depth in the market across the country,” said Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim, “then you have to get it from the regional gay media, including their companion websites.”
As PGN’s publisher Segal explained, local advertising is the “bread and butter” of LGBT niche publications. National ads are the “cream.” And they are “sure nice to have,” as most publishers readily acknowledge.
The number of LGBT media outlets in the United States has varied over time from as few as a handful to more than 200, according to estimates. By 2009, however, the number dropped below 200. Still, LGBT niche media reaches an estimated three million readers. That long and deep reach into the gay market is no small measure when compared with the much smaller readership of national LGBT publications, which is estimated, at most, to be several hundred thousand.
Early on, there were only a handful of gay publications, including the New York Native, San Francisco’s Sentinel and Boston’s Gay Community News, among others. With the advent of the gay-rights movement and increased visibility, more and more papers sprang up across the country.
Then along came Anita Bryant’s antigay campaign in 1977.
“Anita Bryant woke up larger portions of the gay community, helping to increase press runs,” explained Don Michaels, former publisher of the Washington Blade. “Then came AIDS in 1981 — a huge boost to the gay press as people turned to it to follow AIDS coverage because the mainstream [media] was kind of slow to get off the ground.”
Michaels went on to say that many initially feared advertisers would run the other way. The reverse happened. Pharmaceutical ads — and million-dollar revenues — flooded LGBT media. During the early years, alcohol and beer, HIV/AIDS pharmaceutical advertising and phone-sex revenues accounted for the bulk of Rivendell’s business. As late as 1994, phone-sex ads were a million-dollar account for Rivendell, according to Evans, current chief executive officer and president.
From the mid-1990s to the present, national advertising increasingly diversified — for example, automotive, entertainment, financial services, travel and tourism — as Fortune 500 companies eyed the potentially lucrative gay market.
This new dimension necessitated a more professional sales and editorial endeavor. Robert Moore, publisher of the Dallas Voice, recalled his experience from 25 years ago as ad director.
“I was very green, a good student but I needed a good teacher,” he said. “The value with Rivendell is they taught me what was valuable information, what I needed to give to people and how to take a product and turn it into something that would get noticed.”
Rivendell’s methodology also applied to the local market.
“Many of the issues are the same as national,” Moore said. “You still have to know how to talk to people in an intelligent manner.”
On the editorial side, “Rivendell made the gay press a more professional business because they raised the bar,” said Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications, a public-interest communications firm. The dynamic changed, she went on to explain, from, “I’m at a gay paper because I am not really a journalist” doing “advocacy” and “can’t get a job in the mainstream,” to, “I’m now a real journalist,” able to work in the mainstream or gay media or both.
Rivendell’s success also boosted workplace equality.
“You can only run a paper on love, passion and politics for so long,” said Bob Witeck of Witeck Communications, a strategic public-relations and marketing firm. “You have to have a grounding and support of an advertising base,” insofar as “commerce has been a big driver for LGBT civil rights. As business gets to know us, employees and their partners have driven the movement toward equality. When you are treated equally in the workplace, it’s harder to discriminate anywhere else.”
Portions of this essay first appeared in Press Pass Q, a trade journal for gay media professionals and a soon-to-be released new book, Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America, edited by Tracy Baim.blog comments powered by Disqus