We’ve read ’em, so now we weep
Now I know how my parents felt when The Saturday Evening Post went under in 1969, followed by Look magazine in 1971 and the weekly Life in 1972. Publications that had been a part of their everyday living for as long as they could remember were disappearing faster than reported cases of polio, and technology was being blamed. Americans were scrapping their subscriptions and relinquishing their reading time in exchange for extra hours eyeballing their shiny new living-color television sets. I still remember my dad shaking his head that there would be no more Life, as if the loss of the magazine meant the end of human existence as he knew it.
If we live long enough, I suppose we all see some of our favored cultural and journalistic institutions go bye-bye. But the last few months have made me feel much like my dad did in 1972, as several of the LGBT community’s most respected and beloved media and literary outlets went down in rapid succession. The first shock came in November when, after four decades, The Washington Blade suddenly ceased publication. Over the years The Blade had become not just a local or regional publication but “the newspaper of record” for gay readers around the world; its scope was wide and the information was reliable in the best of journalistic traditions.
How it had grown and prospered since I curiously picked up my first copy of what was then called The Gay Blade. That was in its first year, 1969-70. I’ll also never forget how important The Blade was when John and I opened our first card and gift shop on Capitol Hill in the early 80s. Our success would have taken a lot longer had it not been for our weekly Blade advertisements, which gained us a strong following in the gay and lesbian community. To their credit, some recent staff members are not giving up without a fight. I would love to see them succeed with their newly launched venture The DC Agenda. But I fret that they will quickly abandon a print edition (because it is so costly) and become just another web-based news service.
That’s what is happening to The Advocate, the original national gay news magazine, founded in 1967. Without fanfare, current publisher Here Media began informing prospective subscribers this past fall that “we no longer offer The Advocate as a stand-alone print publication.” Instead, a “compact version” was to be published with Out magazine. However, despite a note mailed with my latest copy of Out stating “Welcome to Out magazine’s new Advocate edition,” there was no supplement and none of The Advocate’s typical news and features within. The loss of a print Advocate especially dismays me because its 1,000-plus editions served as a compendium of the modern-day gay movement. When I worked on its staff in California in the mid 1970s, my co-news editor Randy Shilts was focusing on the venom of “the new right” while I covered anti-discrimination laws and the rise of a remarkable young populist named Harvey Milk. With every issue we knew we were chronicling history in the making.
I was still reeling from the loss of The Blade and The Advocate in December when a visit to the website of Lambda Rising to search for holiday gifts greeted me with a notice that it was shutting down completely, including both its Washington and Rehoboth Beach shops. Now the world was certainly crumbling.
Having operated retail businesses for more than 25 years, I am aware of how difficult the current economic environment is for any kind of store. But Lambda, founded in 1974, was an Institution with a capital I. It had a strong web presence as well as handsome brick-and-mortar locations. Lambda not only sold books and gay-themed products; it bolstered its writers, its readers and especially young people coming out of their closets. Still, founder Deacon MacCubbin and partner/spouse Jim Bennett, whose wedding (or “union”) John and I attended nearly three decades ago— when it was a bold statement —decided that the heyday for their business had passed. A few giant booksellers now command the lion’s share of the gay market, and those companies dove into it because businesses like Lambda had demonstrated the potential of stocking LGBT titles.
Deacon’s posted farewell was a “mission accomplished” message, and he and Jim surely should be proud of everything they did to build community and advance LGBT literature for so long. When my first book, All for the Cause, came out in 1997, they hosted a terrific author-signing event to help me promote it, complete with blow-up posters in their Connecticut Avenue window. I’ll be ever grateful to them for their support, though it saddens me that Lambda Rising will not be around to host a similar gathering when my queer comedy-mystery novel Sawdust Confessions is published this spring.
In fact, very few independent bookstores (gay or otherwise) remain in most cities, and the big-box booksellers typically limit their selection of LGBT titles to best sellers. They also offer signings only to “name authors” or political hacks like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. As bookstores like Lambda vanish, gay writers are losing their home bases—places where they could meet and mingle with readers who appreciate their unique perspectives.
As was the conflict between family magazines and television circa 1970, we can blame our recent losses on technology. It’s easier for consumers to search for and buy books online—or simply download them to an electronic reading device such as a Kindle. And, as media companies contend with the skyrocketing cost of printing and mailing publications (as well as a drop of ad revenues), the internet has become a much cheaper way to dispense information.
My biggest concerns are that accuracy of reporting and quality of writing are being lost in the changeover. There’s something about committing information to print that keeps a writer honest—not to mention that few internet reporters are paid adequately to do time-consuming research and investigative work. The Web is a blob of blogs, where we all have an opportunity to say pretty much anything we want to say—however poorly, however incorrectly. The content we read is frequently shorthand and the information shared is often secondhand.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as hooked on the ’net as anyone. I enjoy catching up with old friends and building a network of new contacts via Facebook (where I invite you to befriend me). And I’m happy that the good old-fashioned print publication you hold in your hands posts my columns to the CAMP Rehoboth webpage, where readers from around the globe may find them. But please, dear CAMP leaders and readers, let’s try to keep the physical magazine rolling off the presses, too.
One of the most annoying things about Facebook is a limitation on the number of characters you initially may post on a subject. As a long-winded writer, I hate being told to stop typing after 420 strokes on the keyboard. Heck, I hate having to stop after 1,200 words. But print has its space limitations, too, and I’ve just reached mine for this iss—
Bill Sievert can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook as William Sievert.