CHICAGO, IL — Gay media in Chicago has struggled in its search for identity. In recent years, two of the city’s most prominent LGBT publications, Gay Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Free Press, shut down after transitioning from the traditional “bar rag” format, with content centered on entertainment and sex culture, to a more issue-related news and features focus. Some observers speculated that revenue problems and infighting caused both papers’ closings, but others guessed that neither readers nor advertisers had taken to the more sober format.
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The latter theory has done little to dissuade the founders of the Chicago Phoenix, an online-only LBGT news site serving the Windy City. The Phoenix delivers daily reports and commentary on LBGT-related news and happenings, complemented by regular coverage of local and national gay rights legislation. Though the Phoenix also offers articles on culture and lifestyle topics (a recent food post listed the “Five things to eat for a better face“), the nascent media outlet steers decidedly clear of reporting on the weekend’s local drink specials.
The site was conceived in mid-2010, just days after the Free Press folded, when a former reporter for the paper, Tony Merevick, and the managing publisher at Gay Chicago, Dane Tidwell, began discussing their visions for gay media in the city. A beta version of the site soft-launched in late 2011 as a way to “measure the need for a new publication such as ours,” says Merevick. The Phoenix began regular operations in January 2012.
“Since then we’ve been positioning ourselves in the market as an alternative, high-quality news website for Chicago,” says Merevick, who serves as the site’s editor-in-chief. Part of the Phoenix’s mission, he says, is to look for leads outside of the city’s traditional gay centers–namely the North Side neighborhood known as Boystown, the entrances of which are marked with rainbow-adorned pillars. “There are stories everywhere, not just in the traditional gay enclave places,” he says.
In the six months since going live, the Phoenix has gotten the jump on a number of high-profile stories, including the recently announced hiatus of the city’s lesbian & gay international film festival. The site has been a valuable source on the local gay beat, finding stories that might otherwise go overlooked: take, for example, this February article on a local health center’s Testing Together program, which allows male gay and bisexual couples to test for HIV and learn their status in the company of their significant other.
Perhaps the young site’s most significant scoop came when the Phoenix broke the news of a marriage equality bill that was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly.
“To get that first and then see it picked up by national media markets, it was really a proud moment,” says Merevick.
The Phoenix currently runs on a freelance staff of between five and seven reporters. Three columnists also contribute on a freelance basis, including the salacious sex writer “Lady-A”. The site pays between $25-50 for column posts and upwards of $50 for news reports. Though the outlet has no physical office space, Merevick says that he meets with his reporters at least once a week in coffee shops and other public places to get a bearing on stories. “To have a team sit down every week is really valuable to us,” he says.
While content development has come easy, the site has yet to find a firm revenue footing. Most expenses are currently covered out of pocket, Merevick says. Merevick and Tidwell handle most of the ad business for the site, though they hope to cultivate a sales staff in the future. The Phoenix’s chances of sustainability, he says, are bolstered by the site’s relationship with LGBT organizations and former Gay Chicago and Free Press ad clients throughout town. “They know who we are,” he says.
The Phoenix recently instated a subscription-based paywall, allowing readers to peruse up to 15 articles a month for free before being prompted to choose between a monthly, half-year, or annual plan ($4, $21.60, and $38.40, respectively). “Because we’re offering high quality journalism for a niche audience, we’re going to charge for it,” says Merevick.
But Merevick says that he has no aspirations of ever sending the Phoenix to press. “By the time our print publication came out, it would just be garbage on the street,” he says, sounding more than ready to move beyond the Phoenix’s bar rag forebearers. “That’s not what we want to do.”
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