Should SBS be launching a competitor to existing cash strapped gay press?

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 10.05.14 pmSBS is preparing to launch a new sexuality website focusing on LGBTI issues. Nic Christensen welcomes the initiative but worries the public broadcaster’s entrance might pose a major threat to other struggling gay media.

Let me be clear upfront: I welcome more reporting on issues around the complex issues involving sexuality and LGBTIQ issues.

The more of these stories in mainstream press it helps bring key issues and a fresh perspective to a broader Australian audience and can only be a good thing… right? Well not necessarily. 

Opponents of public broadcasting are always looking for a cheap and easy way to kick both the ABC and SBS and in the case of this new website, multicultural broadcaster SBS is preparing to launch, they may be about to hand them a fresh bucketload of ammunition.

You see, the problem arises when that new LGTBI player in the space is a cash strapped public broadcaster SBS, who is now seeking new audiences in a relatively small niche, and will be competing for ad dollars with a gay press that, to be brutally honest, generally alternates across a financial spectrum somewhere between break even to broke.

But let me take a step back.

This week multicultural broadcaster SBS quietly laid the groundwork for launching a new sexuality website, spearheaded by a former editor of Star Observer Drew Sheldrick, launching a Twitter handle @SBSexuality and rolling out a number of LGTBI stories on the feed.



The initiative is understood to be the idea of new SBS head of editorial, online and emerging platforms Ben Naparstek, who previously edited The Good Weekend and The Monthly.

Launch stories last week included: does your MP support marriage equalityDixie Chicks cover Lana Del Rey’s ‘video games’Meet the man who came out after 20 years of marriage; and an interesting if somewhat offbeat colour piece on the gay “merman of Melbourne.”

MermanThere will also soon also be a dedicated SBS sexuality website and the public broadcaster is actively soliciting paid story pitches.

Now the first thing to observe is that while gay merman in Melbourne are certainly an underrepresented minority… equivalents for most of these stories can be easily found elsewhere.

For example, want to know where MPs stand on gay marriage? That’s here on the ABC, Crikey and lobby group Australians for Marriage Equality website. Likewise many mainstream and gay community focused press regularly tell the stories of those who come out after decades of marriage, as these examples from News.com.au, Mamamia, Huffington Post and Star Observer show. I won’t even get into the number of story about the Dixie Chicks cover…

But that’s not to say there isn’t a place for SBS to be doing multicultural LGTBI stories too, as this profile of gay aboriginal NRL player Casey Conway shows.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 10.17.12 pmEven its critics would struggle to claim a story like this isn’t within SBS’s charter remit, but the problem for the public broadcaster is that many of these topics are already being covered by the mainstream press of by a financially challenged gay press and their expanded intervention in the space may risk crowding out the existing commercial operators.

Last year gay newspaper The Star Observer was forced to make a desperate plea for donations to survive which only at the last minute got over the line with its $75,000 fundraising goal.

Its current editor Elias Jahshan is an Arab-Australian, who has written extensively on the challenges of coming out to a non-English speaking family in Australia for both the mainstream media and the gay press, and who has also commissioned others on issues for a multiethnic perspective on being gay in this country.

To be clear Jahshan said last week on Twitter he welcomes the new entrant into the space and has even penned a heartfelt and honest piece about coming out to his Arabic-speaking family for the new SBS initiative.

But it is also a competitor to other gay publications like samesame.com.au and SX/Gay News Network who are all working to cover issues around the LGBTI community. The latter of which last week only published this piece on the lack of LGBTI and ethnic groups on mainstream TV and film.

Now many will argue the more stories the better. As a gay man myself, I certainly understand that perspective but I fear that, over the long term, SBS could potentially be more foe than friend if the number of people telling stories, from an LGTBI perspective, diminishes.

SBS is currently facing a $28.5m funding short fall over four years and for this reason the decision of SBS managing director Michael Ebeid and his team to continue launching new initiatives such as its new Food Channel is surprising.

SBS-Food-468x140The dedicated food channel is clearly targeting a female demographic and with the explicit aim of generating a commercial return from advertising, in an area that frankly is already over saturated by the commercial networks – just ask Network Seven.

Challenged last week on some of these points, SBS sought to downplay their size and scale of the new venture with Marshall Heald SBS director, TV & online content arguing the new sexuality website was largely aggregating existing content and also helping promote their LGBTI content in the run up to Mardi Gras (which SBS broadcasts).

SBS Mardi GrasHeald firmly downplayed the impact of the new site, noting that Sheldrick’s role was only a contract position and saying: “It’s the Mardi Gras really. We are just trying to take the Mardi Gras content to a broad audience – we are really just amplifying our efforts in the space.”

It is that amplification that will potentially worry the commercial gay press whose financial problems are well documented. Not only has the the Star Observer struggled recently, so too has the likes Evolution Publishing which went liquidation in 2013 and others such as Ox Live/gayradio.com.au, and Archer Magazine who are growing but also had to fight day to day for their share of ad spend in what is a small niche.

While new media success story Junkee Media last month sold the Star Observer’s main competitor Samesame.com.au – that’s something I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t have done if the publication was spinning off lots of cash.

Now I’m not saying SBS shouldn’t have a reporter dedicated to LGTBI issues – indeed Buzzfeed Australia’s appointment of Lane Sainty has added an interesting new voice into the space.

But SBS should also be careful not to repeat the experience of the ABC, who back in 2013 – on the back of a funding boost – chose to take on fledgling fact checking initiatives at The Conversation and Politifact Australia.

While you can definitely contest the viability of the fact checking business models of both the ABC’s rivals the reality is that within a short space of time the public broadcaster was the only one left in the space and the broadcaster played a role in their demise, a point made well by Gay Alcorn – who led The Conversation’s effort.

SBS management should be careful they don’t repeat history – not only will it arm their critics with new ammunition but they could also help bring about a situation where there are less not more LGBTI perspectives in the media.

  • Nic Christensen is the deputy editor of Mumbrella

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