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The Magazine for Magazine Management: Not so straight news

Not so straight news – gay/lesbian publication The Advocate

Cris Beam

After 30 years in publishing’ The Advocate is going back to its roots. What began as a mimeographed newsletter in 1967, “The Advocate” grew into a full-fledged gay and lesbian news-magazine shaping everything from Stonewall to Act Up over the years. But the biweekly has sometimes shifted its focus–at times moving into celebrity and entertainment journalism, at times giving more attention to the arts than to news or politics.

But now, the Los Angeles-based title is re-energizing the editorial with what it does best: News. With a twist.

“My background is in arts and my interest is in a great story, in making things people want to read. That wasn’t happening in hard news,” says Judy Wieder, who began her tenure at The Advocate as an arts and entertainment editor in 1993, before becoming editor in chief last August. “Also, people counted on us for a certain twist, a spark and an unexpected flair. We were sitting on that a bit.”

Wieder says the February redesign ushers in more investigative news pieces, with more analysis, more forecasting and more history. They’re infused with the same creative energy previously reserved for the arts and entertainment sections–distinctions that no longer even exist. From now on, arts and media stories are folded into the well with the news; Buzz, the column of hot entertainment tidbits, moves to the front of the book. Wieder made these integrations because often, for gays and lesbians, art is the news.

“If Ellen [DeGeneres] were to come out, it would be just as big a cultural event as a congressman coming out. It’s a huge political story,” says Wieder. “Why should that have to be at the back of the book?”

Wieder says that, in addition to knocking down section walls, story lenghts are no longer limited by predetermined layout plans. If a book review is of particular significance, it can now get more space. In The Advocate’s Report section (previously called Agenda), each news brief or opinion column can stretch across the whole page, rather than being restricted by the prior three-column grid.

“I said to the editors, `Do you or don’t you have a point of view?’ It’s all too evenly weighted, and after 30 years we should have a point of view,” says publisher Sam Watters. “Our selection of the material and its length helps readers decide what’s important.”

Art director Christopher Harrity adds that an amped-up visual presentation also helps readers sift through the pages. He introduced pullquotes that stand out, brighter colors and photographs more carefully chosen to make an editorial statement. All work together to give readers an immediate sense of how to approach a piece, before they even read it.

“The Report is more `stairstepped.’ You grasp the individual stories right away and you can keep going deeper to the next levels of information,” explains Harrity. He also changed the body fonts from Bodoni Old Face to Serifa.

But a new look still has to sell the book, so the cover underwent a major facelift, too. Aside from the new logo, which switched from Compacta to Egyptian, Harrity added a bar across the top, with coverlines and graphics to lure readers inside. “We wanted to provide more information at the selling point and show readers there’s more in the magazine than just the cover shot,” he says.

And, at least initially, it seems to be working. Watters says the February 18 redesign issue had a 78 percent sell-through on the stands; as compared with the usual 40 percent. Also, he notes, newsstand browsers should no longer expect to see the straight celebrities (like Howard Stern, Whoopi Goldberg and Bruce Springsteen) who used to grace the covers and talk about their first kiss or their relationship to the gay community. Instead, the stars will be featured only when they’ve done something newsworthy, of special significance to gays and lesbians.

“People don’t need the validation that some of that straight celebrity journalism was about,” Watters says. “They want something distinctly gay-driven.”

At the same fume, says Out publisher Louis Fabrizio, many gay people no longer see themselves as isolated, as living on the fringe, and there may be less of a need for such hard news.

“Gay people have evolved into being more mainstream, and we like to read Out because it’s presented in a mainstream way,” he says. “Doing gay news is going to segment their market a bit.”

But again, as The Advocate staff focuses the editorial on news, they’re also expanding the ways it’s covered. Breaking and hard news is now updated daily on The Advocate’s Web site, relaunched in February, making room in the book for analysis, columns and a comprehensive look at the ways news intersects with culture and communities.

“The mainstream didn’t used to cover us [gays and lesbians], but now they put us on the cover. It made us ask how The Advocate is different,” says Wieder. “That’s why we’re doing more in-depth, investigative pieces, asking, what does it all mean?”

And, Fabrizio admits, it’s important to create a marketplace for all kinds of gay magazines. “In order for us all to succeed, it’s better not to blur the lines between what we all do,” he says. “It’s good for magazines to have specific identities, and it’s good for marketing to be able to say The Advocate does this, Out does that.”

Although the magazine’s advertisers traditionally come from lifestyle categories like alcohol or beauty or travel, they will appreciate The Advocate’s news focus. So says Dave Mulryan, a partner at New York-based Mulryan/Nash, an advertising agency specializing in reaching gay consumers.

“Advertisers are interested in who the readers are. They want a distinct franchise that’s recognizable,” Mulryan says. “The Advocate has a good reputation, but it’s known as a newsmagazine. It’s smart to stake out this franchise and then stick to it.”

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Continuing in his role as president and editor in chief of Popular Science and its properties, Fred Abatemarco has now assumed the additional responsibilities of senior vice president of Times Mirror Magazines.

Formerly editor in chief at Personal Computing, which he joined in 1984, and before that, associate editor with Newsweek International for six years, Abatemarco began editing Popular Science in 1989, where he has since overseen the title’s 1995 award-winning redesign.

Abatemarco is a member of the American Society of Magazine Editors, and has served on the screening committees for the organization’s National Magazine Awards.

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