Media Interview with Tris Reid-Smith, editor-in-chief of GayStarNews.com
GayStarNews.com, launched just over two years ago by FeaturesExec Media Bulletin All-Stars Tris Reid-Smith and Scott Nunn, is pulling in over two million people a month with its mix of international LGBT news and entertainment. And it's been a particularly busy month for the team, reporting on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the passing of anti-gay bills in Uganda and Nigeria, and the recriminalisation of homosexuality in India, as well as positive stories of people speaking out and lending their support for LGBT causes across the world.
With even the stockpiles of 'straight' media you can find stacked on shop shelves across the UK increasing their coverage of gay issues, Tris discusses the huge opportunities available to PRs and advertisers who team with the equally huge LGBT audience, and also urges them to join the jump from print to digital to get the word out.
Tris, you’ve moved from working on print titles (including GT (Gay Times) and Pink Paper) earlier in your career to online – how does digital compare to your time working in print?
There’s loads of great stuff about online, but the main thing is that you can get far more people reading far more quickly – our audience has grown massively in just two years, going from zero to two million people a month. It’s not something you’ll achieve on print circulation titles. I’ve been told since I’ve left the print world that it’s got even worse – print titles are losing up to 30% of their circulation a year.
Digitally, you also get immediate feedback from your readers, so you can see what they’re into, what they are recommending on Facebook and Twitter – we get a hell of a lot of recommends on Facebook and a lot of retweets, as well as people commenting on our stories, talking about the issues, particularly – so you get that direct engagement. On print titles, you’d get letters through in the postbag, but you don’t really get to know your readers in the same way.
However, I’ve found that sometimes PRs are slightly more resistant to do stuff digitally. We do far more of an audience than any print title in the LGBT market out there, but still, sometimes you have to use a lot of persuasion to get something in from a PR – or even an advertiser, occasionally – and to get them to make that jump from print to digital.
Those PRs willing to make the jump to digital – how do you work with them?
Either by email or phone is good – I always try to answer straight away because I hate the mucking about and dithering backwards and forwards, it’s much better to just be honest with people. What is obviously helpful, is if it’s something which is well-pitched and based on the kinds of things we cover on the site. We get a lot of general stuff sent to us which we would never cover, so it’s important for them to know what we want.
Being a mix of news and entertainment, you don’t do things like product reviews. What kind of things would you want to hear about – interviews with spokespeople, celebrities, politicians?
Yes, and particularly anything that’s going to work with a global audience. Obviously, anything for local audiences are important, as London is our biggest city, but we have readers in 204 counties in total. While the UK, and the US, is a massive part of our audience, we try to find things which are going to resonate beyond just one city or one country.
And to get that 24 hours a day coverage, globally, how does your team work? And how did you originally find contacts all across the world to write for the website?
We have people in different time zones doing shifts, and one of them will lead on one particular shift. So yeah, that’s how it works – really simple!
To be honest, there was a lot of headhunting and contacting people. When we first started, we didn’t have a brand, so it was contacting people who knew people and getting the word out; asking for good journalists who might be interested in doing something different.
Do you use freelance contributors who get in touch, or do you tend to just work with those people who’ve you’ve tracked down and heard about through others?
We tend to get better value for money by working with regulars – we occasionally take something from a freelancer if it’s something we wouldn’t otherwise have got, or from an agency, but for the most part we work with our regulars. Though I don’t want to sound like we’re freezing others out, because we’re always up for hearing from people if they’ve got something interesting to say.
The big news over the last month was the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and GayStarNews.com covered news from the games as well as stories from Russia as controversy grows around the treatment of LGBT people. Did you watch any of the coverage of the Sochi games, do you think people should have boycotted (as some commentators suggested)?
Though we at GayStarNews.com report impartially, the LGBT activists in Russia didn’t want to boycott, and on the basis of that we would always respect their opinion, because they’re the ones there, on the ground. That would be our approach to it. I didn’t really watch it – though we covered all the medal winners. There were a handful of openly gay Olympians there, who performed way above the average in scoring medals. And we covered a lot of the arrests and the attacks – we’re quite often first with those stories.
The other big thing has been what’s happening in Uganda and Nigeria – that is the news that’s really been dominating our month. It’s been a very busy news month for us.
A lot of big brands, media websites and publications use celebrity and sports spokespeople to raise LGBT awareness. Slowly, but surely, more high-profile figures are coming out publicly to lend their support to the global community as out LGBT people. Do you think the gay community need more people supporting gay rights in this way – not just straight celebrity allies – for visibility?
Visibility is obviously a really good thing and it can make a huge difference. Sports people, specifically in the case of the Winter Olympics… openly gay people performed well ahead of expectations and ahead of the average, which I think demonstrates that by coming out, sports people aren’t helping other gay people so much as they’re helping themselves. If you’re carrying around this weight, as a secret, it’s a distraction for you. If you come out, you’ve got that off your shoulders, you are who you are, and that seems very often to improve performance. It’s well known that gay people are more comfortable working in a gay-friendly work place – people tend to say they find it easier to work and they perform better. I’m sure it’s probably the same in sport and in other areas of endeavour as well.
Also on visibility – do you think there should be more media outlets for the gay community? Just looking at print magazines, everything is very segregated – this is for straight people, this is for gay people – and there’s not nearly enough for transgender people. Does this have to change?
More straight media are covering LGBT stuff than before, and that’s a good thing. But I also think there’s a decent sized opportunity here – there’s a huge market for audience, but people and companies are still slow to advertise their market to the LGBT audience, and that can be a barrier for people starting up. Now, we’re doing quite well against that because we’ve become a leading brand very quickly – we can jump over a lot of those problems. But the truth is that marketing people spend a tiny fraction of a percent on marketing directly to the LGBT market, even though there’s usually thought to be a large amount of quite affluent people within it. So I think what’s holding back the development of LGBT media is people’s willingness to invest in it, rather than readers’ willingness to read it, because there are a lot of people reading it.
What have been some of the stories you’ve been most proud of covering on the website?
There’s so many things that we’ve covered in the last few months, because there’s so much happening in this space. Some good things, like Tom Daley coming out, and some bad things, like the terrible news from Nigeria and Uganda about the anti-gay bills, the recriminalisation of homosexuality in India. All of those have been massive stories. And – though I’d very much love for them not to have happened – a lot of the exclusives we’ve picked up where we’ve really tried to help people who’ve been in very difficult positions or who’ve been attacked, those are very dear to my heart.
You originally started GayStarNews.com with Scott Nunn back in December 2011 – what advice would you give people wanting to start their own website?
I know this isn’t very specific advice, but – get ready for a huge amount of planning! That’s what it takes to get investors on board to back you (unless you just want to start a small blog, in which case you can just set up a WordPress site and give it a go). If you’re going to start it as a business and make it a serious contender, you really need to understand your market, your opportunities, and your competitors inside out. Work out where you’re going to get your money from with a proper five-year business plan, a spreadsheet (which goes on forever!), and then take that out to people who’re serious to back you – that’s the way we built our success. It took both of us working full-time on business planning and raising finance – a good seven months. It’s not a task for someone who’s easily daunted, I’d say!
After all that hard work, what media are you into in your spare time?
Well, ‘Lego Movie’ aside! It’s a really great time of year, there’s been some really great movies out there recently, hasn’t there? Obviously, I watch a lot of news on TV, and I read a lot of other news sites online and pick up papers as well.
And you know what, I’ve been loving ‘Modern Family’, because it’s constantly on Sky and there seems to be enough episodes made that I haven’t seen them all three times yet.
Maybe in a couple more years, when they’ve repeated it as much as ‘Friends’ has been repeated…
Yep, then we can get sick of it.