Ousted at "Out"

What Does Sarah Pettit's Firing Mean for the Nation's Largest Gay Magazine?

Out has seen plenty of upheaval. Goff left in 1996 after a disagreement with the principal owner, and Pettit succeeded him as editor. Scott, who'd once been Out's general manager, was brought back from The New York Times, where he'd been working in new-media development. According to Scott, the magazine lost $3 million in 1995 and was in danger of going under. He says he stabilized the situation by securing a line of credit, renegotiating ad contracts, and installing financial controls. ''There is a natural progression a new business faces when it moves from the entrepreneurial phase--'Hey kids, let's start a magazine!'--to being a professionally managed business with millions of dollars in revenues,'' says Scott. Within the year, he'd dismantled the old regime and installed a publisher of his own. (Five of the 10 people on the January 1997 advertising masthead have left this year.)

Now Scott is preparing to put his stamp on editorial content. He says Out under Pettit had evolved into a general-interest magazine, along the lines of Vanity Fair. But ''what lesbian and gay people need today is some help in figuring how to live our lives,'' he says. Scott wants the magazine to address questions like: How do you shape a nonmarital relationship, plan for your financial future, or fit into a big corporation? ''If Out could offer more of that service journalism, then I think we've got something that's quite compelling to our readers.''

The shift toward service editorial may have broader implications. Goff and Pettit founded Out with a political agenda, one carried over from Outweek and the crucible of the AIDS crisis: to treat gay men and women as a single audience with a common cause. Lesbians and gay men may not always buy the same things, but they do have shared civil rights interests. ''You can't write about culture and not write about lesbians,'' says writer David France. ''Lesbians are the ones coming out left and right.''

For the business side, combining gay men and lesbians into a single sales pitch has never been easy. Out's readership is 70 per cent male, and the women tend to get overlooked. ''It's the disposable-income thing,'' says one advertising executive. ''Women earn less money, hence two women represent a surprisingly disadvantaged group. The playing field is way uphill.'' (As proof of that, one need only look at the two largest lesbian glossies, Curve and Girlfriends, which have almost no national ads.)

Pettit argues that when it comes to Out readers, at least, ''the women tend to be competitive,'' with $68,100 a year in household income, as compared with $81,400 for the men. ''Sarah's contention was we should have had more advertising aimed at women,'' says Scott. But he argues that anyone targeting lesbians in Out wastes 70 cents of each advertising dollar-- and he points out that the percentage of women readers didn't grow when Pettit took over from Goff. There's a catch-22: advertisers don't focus on lesbians because they're a minority, and lesbians tend to glance at Out's pec-heavy ads and decide the magazine isn't really for them.

For Out's business people, who tend to be men, linking gay men and lesbians in one consumer pool has sometimes seemed like a decision motivated by political ideals, regardless of financial consequences--and Out, after all, has a bottom line and an investor who will eventually seek a return. As a result, Scott concedes, the female factor is under constant discussion. Should Out spin off the lesbian content into its own magazine? Should it eliminate lesbian editorial content entirely and market Out as a GQ or Details openly aimed at gay men?

In this context, it's easy to see why James Collard's flashy Attitude appealed to Scott. The monthly has a circulation of about 50,000, mainly from newsstand sales. ''The intention originally was like a gayer Details,'' Collard says. ''It's a men's style magazine aimed primarily but not exclusively at gay men.'' As Scott and Collard have explained, the magazine embraces a ''postgay'' ideology. It doesn't cover just gay issues or gay movies or gay books, or use exclusively gay writers. ''The end of liberation is not a lesbian and gay only space, is it?'' asks Collard. As he elaborated in an article that circulated through the Out offices, ''Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I want to read all about that ghetto stuff, dull community politics, boring gay clubs, and tedious lesbian novels.''

Throughout its history, Out has been bedeviled by its covers: covers featuring activists rarely sell well, while covers with straight stars like Mick Jagger or Mark Wahlberg may fly off the stands even as they irk many gay readers. Postgay thinking offers a convenient justification for what Out already does, which is to try to boost readership and revenues by tapping into the mainstream. In the long run, the strategy could backfire. In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, critic Daniel Harris, writing about magazines like Out, argues that ''it is also very possible that assimilation will have the exact opposite effect and undermine the very need for such a publication.''

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