Gay media, it’s time to change the record.

No, gay men don’t need clickbait and innuendo to survive.

As a gay man I pay an interest in gay culture magazines, and have often found articles that seem to understand who I am, and provide interesting and informative articles on gay culture topics that I care about. In the UK, two magazines that I have followed for a while are Attitude and Gay Times. They are two of the most well-known with over 480,000 social media followers combined, and both claim to be either the “world’s best” or “UK’s best” gay magazine in their Twitter bios. They were the first two magazines I became aware of when struggling with my own sexuality and are probably at the forefront for those currently struggling to understand theirs. With time moving on, is there a new wave of magazines on the horizon?

It feels like the main players are following a similar pattern to the ‘Lad mags’ that became popular during the late-90’s and 2000’s. After a while the readership became bored of a one-size-fits-all approach, and just sticking a celebrity naked on the cover and publishing risqué quotes just wasn’t sustainable in the long run. Nuts Magazine had over 300,000 sales weekly at its height, however this dwindled down to just over 50,000 by 2013. Their breakthrough into online marketing didn’t pay off, and the magazine was finally put out of its misery by April of 2014. Similarly with the NME. The NME slowly parodied itself by focussing on a small core group of bands and self-congratualting articles. They focussed on style over content until the readership looked elsewhere online to find something new, and the magazine disappeared from newsagents and ended up next to the escalators of Topman. Will this be the pattern for the leading gay magazines also?

Attitude and Gay Times both focus heavily on the ‘celebrity sells’ approach, with stars such as Tom Daley frequently appearing on their covers. At the time of writing, ‘Hollyoaks Hunk’ (subjective of course) is on the cover of Gay Times, “stripped, ripped and fully quipped” — pass me the bucket. Social Media no doubt plays a major part in the promotion of magazines and articles, with their stories ‘tweeted’ and ‘instagrammed’ every day in order to entice potential readers to land on their site, and therefore it can grate that Gay Times and Attitude rely so heavily on shirtless men and clickbait headlines in a desperate bid to further expand their readership and click throughs. So is the social media approach a desperate attempt to keep themselves at the forefront? Don’t get me wrong, both magazines do post articles relating to gay culture on their social media, but celebrations of gay culture in their print versions, but is this strikingly obvious when seen on the shelf in your newsagents or when you come across a tweet?

These days it feels as though gay men are being treated with contempt, and unless we see a picture of a shirtless toned man we are ‘unable to get through the week’.

(I’ll admit now that I have no idea who this man is)

Trawling through the social media channels, it feels less of a celebration of gay culture, instead focussing on the bizarre notion that gay men will only read articles containing a picture of some a diver ot unheard-of Instagram ‘star’ doing something mundane. If Tom Daley put his bins out they would probably write an article titled “Tom Daley shows you how dirty he really is <winky emoji etc>” accompanied by a picture of Daley with his top off, in the hope that someone clicks through if feeling in that particular mood.

It’s always said that you shouldn’t judge a book by a cover, but for magazines this really is the case the majority of the time. The question is, do all gay men only buy a magazine because it has a toned celebrity on the cover? The answer is obviously no, yet month after month the same technique is rolled out and has been for years, and the bubble may eventually have to burst. They even do a body issue celebrating the diversity of the male body, and even then they couldn’t face not putting Go-to-gay Tom on the front. When so many people who identify as LGBT face issues concerning body confidence and body dysmorphia, this issue was an opportunity to offer support from the get go. be big and bold on the cover. A cover with a range of body types. It was literally an open goal and they blew it.

With the Gay Times in particular, the twitter links also often play on ‘scandals’ involving gay celebrities to highlight their own non-related stories of the same stars. Not only does this approach for clicks seem a bit cheap, it also contradicts and undermines potential important viewpoints from the same magazine. Take for example the recent story involving Chris Mears. Back in January leaked videos of the Olympic Gold Medallist were leaked and shared widely across social media. This of course would be a difficult time for Mears, and sympathy was apparent from many parts of the LGBT media, with Gay Times sharing an article highlighting the ‘support from fans’ that he was getting.

However, within hours of their support story being shared, Gay Times also used clickbait tweets to share a previous article about Mears that had been published on their website. After a while, these two tweets were being shared side by side. Clearly cashing in on the trending subject, they produced a headline in order to direct traffic from Twitter to their site, and at the same time, contradicting their own previous “always supportive” approach.

Looking into this more, it seems that the first story is not all as it seems either. Whilst disguised as an “LGBT community support Mears” article, it is in fact just a collection of tweets making light of the situation. I should point out here that this is not a criticism of the users highlighted in the article. Twitter is a place where you can make pokes at almost anything, often for the benefit of your follower network, and for them to (normally) be taken with a pinch of salt. The problem I have is that the article does not cover the subject of the headline, does not highlight the support from the ‘community’, and ends with a “Hey, remember when we got other naked pictures of Chris Mears too? Here’s the article, look look!” style link.

This is not the only time that clickbait has been used by Gay Times. Here is a snapshot of tweets from a 12hr period in February..

These were all tweeted four or five times in a week when news broke that Donald Trump rescinded a piece of federal guidance which allowed transgender students right to use the bathroom of their choice. So was that mentioned? Briefly. One short article was linked three times, and one “Protect Trans Kids” jpeg posted on Twitter. As the ‘worlds leading’ gay magazine, surely this could have been extended past one sub-300 work article? More words were written on the site about the speculation that Tom Daley had had an affair.

A further pin in the Gay Times and Attitude balloon may be the rise of a new wave of gay culture magazines. Sites like HISKIND and Vada Magazine are just two of the newcomers, and their approach seem to buck the trend.

Unlike others, this new wave rely on the quality of articles, and a diverse range of topics, to encourage readership. So what makes them different? The teams behind these two ventures seem to know first-hand that gay men actually do think with their brain and not with their penis. They seem to know that they don’t have to treat potential readers like naughty schoolchildren giggling at innuendos behind bike sheds. We don’t need a constant conveyor belt of shirtless celebrities to encourage us that we should invest in their journalism. The newer magazines seem to have been born from social media to print, rather than the previous unavoidable reversed approach. I think one thing that stands out is that they have a clear focus, producing insightful articles covering defined elements of modern gay culture. They do not exist to solely share soft porn, short news articles or to try and get clicks on their site in underhand ways. Obviously, clicks on the site is good for them due to increased revenue from advertising, however the clicks will snowball via word of mouth and online sharing of focussed, yet varied, articles.

Of course, HISKIND and Vada are not the first gay culture magazines to approach this way. Polari magazine relaunched in 2008, however this was shortlived.

On the 3rd of December 2014, to mark its 6th birthday, Polari Magazine enters a new stage of its history. No longer will the website be updated with new articles purely because the way that we use the internet has changed, and the way that people obtain information from it has evolved. The idea of a magazine website is not the same as it was even 3 years ago, when Polari relaunched with a new look and build. In-depth articles and lengthy reviews are, more and more, suited to different mediums.

Sales figures for print verions gay magazines are not easy to find, with accurate online figures also scarce, so it is difficult to say if, or how much, their circulation is in decline. It will be interesting to see where this form of media sits in five years time. At present it is a world where many young gay men are active on social media. It is a world where many young gay men are still struggling with their sexuality. Hopefully they will be able to find inspiration in between the covers of gay culture magazines, whatever path this particular side of journalism takes them down. Both will no doubt coexist to a certain extent, but if potential readers favour quality articles at the forefront rather than having articles sandwiched between clickbait, innuendo and shirtless celebrities, when will it become too late for Gay Times and Attitude to turn their ships around?

Links: Gay Times / Attitude / HISKIND / Vada Magazine / Polari / Andrew Smith on Twitter