In Quest for Profitability, Gay Frontiers Magazine Looks for Straight Readers

Frontiers Magazine Covers

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ramatic changes are underway at financially troubled Frontiers, the oldest and most widely circulated gay magazine in Southern California.

Michael Turner, publisher of Frontiers
Michael Turner, publisher of Frontiers

Michael Turner, a financial executive, bought Frontiers out of bankruptcy in January for $361,000. He essentially paid 10 cents on the dollar to the publication’s largest creditors, including Wells Fargo. He now faces the challenge of returning the magazine, its website and other ancillary products to profitability.

One way Turner proposes to do that is by broadening Frontiers’ audience. While he says he wants the 32-year-old magazine to remain the “LGBT magazine of record for news” for Southern California, he says he also wants it to appeal to heterosexual readers. That’s an unusual strategy in an era where magazines have become more tightly focused on well-defined audiences, moving from the general audience focus of Look and Life of the 1950s and 1960s to fishing magazines like Bassmaster, targeting only those interested in a specific type of fish, and Closer, a magazine aimed only at women 40 and over.

But Turner, in an interview with WEHOville, said he believes LGBT people are becoming less separate and more “blended” with mainstream culture. “We see that the readership will broaden and be inclusive of young straight men and women,” he said.

In an apparent step in that direction, Turner, who is gay, has engaged Owen Phillips, a heterosexual man who worked under Janice Min in her revamp of the Hollywood Reporter. Phillips, a relative of one of Turner’s close friends, is listed on the magazine’s masthead as “contributing editor” and identified by Turner as his business partner. Freelance contributors who formerly worked with Stephen Horbelt, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, say Phillips has been setting the editorial direction of Frontiers and assigning and editing major stories himself.

Under Phillips, Frontiers has revamped its entertainment, pop culture and lifestyle content. Turner said that readers will see more in-depth features and that Frontiers will soon announce some new hires. Turner has said a dramatically new Frontiers will be unveiled in June, when the company publishes its annual Gay Pride issue. One effort to call attention to the new Frontiers was Turner’s decision in February to publish a Russian-language version of the magazine as a statement about homophobia in Russian at the beginning of the Olympic Games in Sochi. It was distributed in West Hollywood’s east side, which has a substantial Russian-speaking population.

In addition to bringing on Phillips, the biggest staffing change at Frontiers was Turner’s decision to sack David Stern. Stern, who purchased Frontiers in 2007 with the late Mark Hundahl, had served as publisher until Turner assumed that title earlier this year. Stern declined to comment on the recent changes at Frontiers. In another major change, Garrett Yoshida, the magazine’s art director since 2002, resigned recently.

The steps Turner and Phillips are taking are aimed at attracting more readers — a key way for Frontiers to lure more advertisers and become profitable. Frontiers’ revenues, almost entirely from advertising sales, have been on a steady decline in recent years, going from a reported $3 million in 2010 to $2.7 million in 2011. Revenue took a bigger hit last year. A report filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Dec. 31 showed Frontiers had brought in only $1.9 million since its bankruptcy filing on March 6, 2013, and it had lost $88,000 in that 10-month period. The losses have continued this year, with Frontiers reporting losses of $51,000 through February.

Under Turner’s leadership Frontiers has cut some costs, including its payments to freelance contributors, many of whom will not receive money owed to them before the company’s bankruptcy filing. One employee, Aaron Drake, the magazine’s former co-editor, has filed a petition in bankruptcy court claiming that he is owed $6,698 in back wages.

Despite the challenges, Turner sees “a tremendous amount of opportunity for media companies to educate and direct advertisers and businesses to the LGBT community.”

One issue Frontiers faces in luring major advertisers is its classified section, which constitutes as much of a third of its ad pages in some issues. Most of the classified ads have sexual content. There are listings, for example, for male prostitutes and for websites such as Men4Rent.com and RentBoy.com. That sort of sexually explicit advertising is a challenge that gay magazines such as The Advocate have had to deal with over the years. (The Advocate removed them). On the one hand they generate revenue. But on the other, major advertisers interested in reaching an LGBT audience don’t want to appear in a magazine with ads bearing headlines like “Slave Needed” (a classified ad in the most recent issue of Frontiers). Turner said that his plan over the long term is to eliminate the Frontiers’ classified ads.

Turner also intends to continue the events business arm of Frontiers, which prior to his acquisition held a successful wedding expo last year. The publication’s website also is being revamped, with a rollout of a new site planned for this summer. While Frontiers routinely cites traffic of 200,000 monthly visitors, Alexa, a website analytics service that ranks websites by popularity, as of April 26 ranked FrontiersLA.com at 42,949 among all sites in the United States, well behind WEHOville.com, which has 102,000 monthly visitors and a much higher Alexa rank of 14,523. Frontiers’ national rank is substantially below that of other gay media sites such as Gay.com (1,215) and Queerty.com (3,019).

Turner faces several other challenges to his effort to turn around and grow Frontiers. First and foremost is raising money to make that happen. He has said he’ll need $1 million to $1.5 million from outside investors. Having spent 25 years providing private equity, financial advisory, transaction and valuation services for companies, Turner has considerable expertise in that.

Another challenge is the magazine’s publication frequency. Frontiers is published every two weeks, something unusual and costly for a magazine in the digital age. That frequency was necessary when Frontiers launched 32 years ago and readers depended on it for news about gay issues and events they couldn’t find elsewhere. Today such news is posted instantaneously on the Internet, a fact that has given rise to popular sites such as Queerty.com. Turner said that Frontiers will continue to be published every other week and that he wants it to be the major news source for Southern California LGBT people. News Editor Karen Ocamb continues to report in the magazine on a range of news topics, many unrelated to local gay life, including the California Democratic Party convention, the race to replace L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and the death of Nelson Mandela.

The challenges print news media face in the digital era are not unique to Frontiers. That’s what brought Newsweek in print to an end in 2012 (although a new owner has announced plans to print a modest number of copies this year). Time magazine, still alive in print, has experienced a steady decline in newsstand sales and subscriptions. The Advocate, a national gay news magazine once published every two weeks, now comes out only every two months.

Distribution is another potential issue for Frontiers, given that its Los Angeles County-based advertisers now are paying to reach readers in cities as far away as San Diego who are unlikely to drive to Los Angeles to visit salons or to purchase cars. Nevertheless Turner said he intends to continue that broad distribution.

The challenges are many, and Turner has thrown himself into tackling them and learning the media business, where he had no previous experience. Meanwhile former owner and publisher David Stern says he’s relaxing after more than two decades of bi-weekly deadlines. “I’m going to take a breath, get centered and decide what I want to create next,” he said.

In the spirit of full disclosure, WEHOville wants its readers to know that Frontiers publisher Michael Turner offered last month to buy WEHOville.com and bring owner Henry (Hank) Scott on board as chief revenue officer. Scott declined the offer. WEHOville contributing editor Stevie St. John previously worked on initiatives with members of the Frontiers staff in her former role at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.