I happen to have had a good seat on the sidelines of some media plays that culminated last week in the latest acquisition of old media by new. Herewith is my report on the winners and losers, lessons and ironies.
Michael Goff, the founder of Out, which was among the publications acquired by the Internet start-up PlanetOut in its sweeping roll-up of almost the entirety of gay media, had an office next to mine in a loft on 14th Street where we traded media gossip. He was my first introduction -- this was in the early nineties -- to that new breed of business-plan-writing young people capable of reducing almost everything to a compelling marketing formulation. In the instance of Out (I suggested Out; Goff wanted to call it Rogue), he insisted, and kept insisting with irresistible forcefulness, that gays represented an easy-to-target high-disposable-income demographic group and hence a perfect category for an affluent-lifestyle magazine. (It was either Goff's consummate business persona or my perpetual cluelessness that kept me from realizing for quite a while that Goff himself was gay.)
His point was that gay people lead an economic life as well as a sexual life, and that buying power is a much sexier attribute than sexuality. (He believed, on this basis, that you could combine gay men with lesbians and no one would be the wiser.) Goff disparaged The Advocate, also acquired last week by PlanetOut, as ghetto media without access to broad national consumer advertising. (The conventional wisdom was that The Advocate was old media to Out's new version of gay media, and that it would shortly fold -- in fact, it thrived.)
Goff's Out, which launched in 1992 to enormous publicity and with numerous big-brand advertisers making their first direct pitches to the gay market, was meant to take gayness totally mainstream. David Geffen, Calvin Klein, Ross Bleckner were Goff's model readers (the biker dykes and gay accountants weren't whom he had in mind). Out was a variation on Details, or Esquire, or GQ. It consciously, even militantly, banned anything tawdry or downmarket -- including advertising of a sexual, or even suggestive, nature (you couldn't say "shit" in Out).
"There is nothing slick about PlanetOut. It feels efficient, local, unassuming. And authentic: Real gay people probably want to know real gay people."
It wasn't that long after the launch of Out that, in the new Internet world just beginning, I met Tom Rielly, who was running a group called Digital Queers that helped gay organizations get wired (or even just get computers). I doubt if either Rielly or Goff was yet thinking in terms of yin of new and yang of old media, but they were certainly complementary, contrary figures. Goff would have been an ideal executive in any media enterprise -- he was a remarkable schmoozer -- whereas Rielly might not have been employable in any other media world outside the early Web. Where Goff is tall, Armani-resplendent, controlled, Rielly is sort of a roly-poly mess, somewhere between dishevelment and flamboyance. Conversationally, Goff is precise, competitive, litigator-like, while Rielly is always in the middle of indiscriminate utterances, or on the verge of tears or mawkish intensity. They were a remarkably vivid head-and-heart dichotomy.
Goff's perfectly logical idea, in mid-1995, was that Rielly -- "nerd boy" -- should come and work for Goff and run an adjunct Website for the magazine. But Rielly procrastinated and failed to return Goff's phone calls and screwed up the opportunity (Rielly's idea of negotiating is to drop out of sight). "A flake," Goff pronounced, and launched out.com, largely a promotional affair for the magazine, without Rielly.
Goff was openly scornful of online stuff anyway -- "I've been on AOL," he would say with mighty contempt -- and his intention, like that of most serious magazine publishers, was to make only a minimal Web investment. After all, the online world was exactly what he was against in gay media -- the sexuality, the backroom quality, the secrecy. The online gay world embarrassed him.
On the other hand, anonymity, eroticism, safe sex, and the easy ability to chat with like-minded souls was available for $3.50 an hour on AOL, and by 1995, the gay-and-lesbian forum was one of its most trafficked areas. The Internet was some risk-free Bloom-in-Nighttown place -- sex was defining interactivity.
Ted Leonsis, the key executive in AOL's move to become a new sort of media company, made Rielly's plan to create a gay-focused online company one of the first of AOL's Greenhouse investments. Not long afterward, Sequoia Capital, the venture-capital firm that funded Yahoo!, agreed to invest, too, and Rielly launched PlanetOut.
Goff had his lawyers shoot off a cease-and-desist letter -- which Rielly ignored ("Just so Michael," he said and shrugged).
But Goff was hardly worried. Goff envisioned a different kind of expansion of gay media -- gay catalogues, gay resorts, gay casinos. Indeed, he saw Out's franchise as a play much more for affluent dollars than for gay ones. Such ambitions, however, shortly led him into a conflict with his primary investor, Bob Hardman, whose initial $500,000 investment was on its way to ballooning to $8 million and who saw no end in sight for Out's losses. Goff, who'd lined up a direct-marketing company to buy out Hardman, threatened to quit if Hardman wouldn't sell. "You don't have a magazine without me," Goff pronounced (in the immortal words of all magazine founders). Unexpectedly, Hardman accepted Goff's resignation (though, in a double reversal, Goff negotiated the terms of his resignation in such a way that he held substantial rights over the direction of the company).
Goff's decision, in the fall of 1996, to take a job at Microsoft running its city-site project, Sidewalk (while Goff is someone who would never be too early to a trend, he'd never be too late, either), was one of those portentous signals and much-discussed career moves suggesting big changes in the way people thought about their media careers.