CommunityPam's House Blend

LGBT orgs meet to discuss how to work through the tough time$

An appropriate bookend to journalist Karen Ocamb’s piece for the Blend earlier this week (“Is GLASS the first non-profit domino to fall?”), Kerry Eleveld of The Advocate fills in more blanks regarding major LGBT advocacy groups. Leaders representing about 35 LGBT organizations gathered a couple of weeks ago to brainstorm about how to ride out these economic times and continue moving the civil equality ball forward.

The groups ranged from some of the movement’s largest, such and the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, to midsize organizations, like the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Family Equality Council, to smaller shops, such as the National Black Justice Coalition and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

According to participants, a wide variety of alternatives were presented by a facilitator, ranging from sharing the costs of administrative items such as computer services, health insurance, and office rent to teaming up on programming or even joining forces in cases where two organizations might have similar missions.

The impact so far at some of the organizations:

* The Task Force chose not to fill its director of public policy position; it was vacated when Dave Noble joined the Obama campaign.

* In January, the Family Equality Council pared its staff down by 3.5 full-time employees to 13.5.

* The Victory Fund may have to reduce its support to openly LGBT candidates running for office around the country — perhaps a 20% reduction in candidate contributions, according to exec director Chuck Wolfe.

* The National Black Justice Coalition‘s executive director, Alexander Robinson, said that its National Black Church Summit will only run one day because of the financial constraints of participants slated for events. it will also have to delay upgrades of its technology infrastructure it had planned prior to the economic downturn.

None of these organizations are in dire straits yet; the issue is how effective they can be when endowments have shrunk as a result of the market crash, and donations are harder to corral. Among the other topics discussed…

Mergers, though presented as a topic for consideration, were barely discussed according those in attendance. But [Jennifer] Chrisler, whose organization recently merged with a smaller regional nonprofit from Minneapolis, said nothing should be taken off the table.

“I think all boards of any nonprofits in the LGBT movement or elsewhere should always be open to the range of options that would best fulfill their mission,” she said.

Chrisler agreed with the sentiment expressed by many that mergers don’t tend to create immediate savings and sometimes even cost money, but she added that they can make sense if two organizations work better as one. In Family Equality’s case, the merger with Rainbow Families, which had an annual budget of around $350,000, was about a “break-even” in terms of expenses.

Quite frankly, this is an opportunity to streamline organizations and look at the ways that they can collaborate and effectively use lower-cost methods of outreach and activism in this digital age. Those LGBT non-profits that learn to innovate and thrive in lean times will receive attention of donors whose dollars they want to see spent wisely and effectively.

Below the fold, Wayne Besen discusses the future of LGBT news media.Wayne’s column is interesting because he explores the similar plight traditional and digital news orgs are going through in these economic times. Instead of a fall off in donors, LGBT news gathering and publishing entities are experiencing disappearing ad revenue streams that are shuttering outlets left and right.

Earlier this month, Gay City News reported, “the investment fund that owns the Washington Blade, the Southern Voice, Genre magazine, and other gay publications has been forced into receivership by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA), which will sell the fund’s assets and distribute the proceeds to investors.”

When the technology reaches fruition, the GLBT media should embrace Isaacson’s model. The gay community’s top reporters do a superior job covering the news and offer in-depth analysis that can’t be duplicated. I am willing to bet that people will pay for such content.

The question is, will the publications themselves actually survive or will the GLBT media become a collection of enterprising freelance reporters who sell by the story? While most items would not bring a large bounty,  there would likely be a couple of breaking stories that would pay the bills. For example, a blockbuster story with 250,000 downloads at a nickel per purchase would yield $12,500.

So would you be willing pay for content to support LGBT media at a model like this? Wayne also looks at the symbiotic relationship between gay pro journalists, and bloggers/citizen journalists. After all, we benefit from the original reporting journalists provide — and it costs big bucks to support original news gathering — and Wayne proposes a gatekeeping function to ensure that reporting is protected and that the blogosphere can be professionalized.

Of course, new technology would also have to make it more difficult to cut and paste more than one paragraph per story. And, much like cameras that take pictures of those that run red lights, an electronic surveillance system that imposed small penalties – perhaps a dollar per infraction – would have to be developed. There would always be ways to get around the system. But, one would hope that enough people would have the decency to pay for good reporting to make it work.

GLBT bloggers should also welcome changes where they would actually get paid for their labor. It is disgraceful that some of our leading lights are posting during lunch breaks at their day jobs. Given their influence and size of their audiences, it is absurd that they have not reaped enough wealth to blog full-time.

Fans may balk, but they must realize they are also getting shortchanged. Imagine how much better most blogs would be if the writers had another 8-10 hours a day to conduct research? The products would be infinitely superior and be of greater value. Ultimately, the axiom, “you get what you pay for” rings true.

People must also realize that the status quo will soon lead to burnout among the best bloggers. Without a financial incentive commensurate with their work, don’t be surprised when your favorite bloggers choose relationships over readership. If you don’t pay, many will fade away – which would be a great loss to the GLBT community.

I don’t know that blog readers would pay using a subsciption model, give there are so many good blogs out there and people will simply go where the information is free, particularly in tight times. Most of the traditional newspapers that have tried the pay route couldn’t make it work, though perhaps the fact that the industry didn’t move to the same pay model all at the same time might have made a difference.   Wayne suggests this:

In order for this business model to work, the leading bloggers, gossip sites and journalists will have to create a new type of union – where they jump off the cliff all at once.  There would also be an initial loss of readers, but who cares? The writer would still make more money by retaining a subset of paying readers. And, many of the dissenters would come back when they realized the true value of a product they once viewed as their birthright.

One issue not discussed, but I believe is critical for any pay model is a nearly effort-free and uniform way for readers to pay and surf. Since we’re talking about a nickel-per-story, for instance; perhaps users would sign up for an electronic debit account that works like a prepaid phone. The royalties are doled out behind the scenes to each news site — you sign in only once to activate the “meter”, and surf along (of course some method on the back end would need to require a minimum length of time viewing a site before being allowed to debit (so merely clicking through and leaving doesn’t incur a charge). You know, put in $10 bucks and when your account goes down to 50 cents, you’ll get a query from the system keeping track of the debting that it’s time to reload the account. If it’s anything more complicated than that, I can’t imagine it working. Readers simply don’t want to have to remember logins, payment methods or terms of a variety of subscriptions across dozens, if not hundreds, of sites.

So what do you all think? It seems inevitable that the traditional news media as well as LGBT media have some tough business decisions to make in order to evolve. They, as well as the non-profits have to become nimble and ultimately to flourish again. The reporting that professional journalists provide is essential to inform and activate our movement.

The role of bloggers and citizen journalism is less clear. For those of us who do it as a personal outlet, labor of love, or as a contribution to the movement, it simply doesn’t pay the bills. On one hand it would be great to do it full time, but in times like these, it’s good, quite frankly, not to be dependent on advertising or donations to survive, even if it means the day job always comes first. I think readers are more likely accept less frequently published and updated content on blogs rather than pay for it, and that if the Blend or any other frequently visited blog were to go away because its author(s) had to quit writing, eventually they’d find another outlet to read. No one is indispensable.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding