‘We were able to survive because the staff cared and had passion’

March 14, 2018

Philadelphia Gay News is still going strong at 42

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Publisher Mark Segal can’t recall the exact date the National Newspaper Association approved membership for his Philadelphia Gay News weekly, but as a new member he does remember being so grateful he wrote the association a thank-you letter.
After decades of being shunned by society for covering Philadelphia’s gay community, acceptance into NNA and other mainstream newspaper associations meant redemption and signaled that the Philadelphia Gay News was a legitimate newspaper.
“We are a mainstream weekly newspaper that serves a specific market—the gay community,” Segal said. “In the early days, no professional journalism organization would give us a member card. We had to fight.”
Last year, the newspaper won seven journalism awards in NNA’s Better Newspaper’s Contest and first place in the Pennsylvania News Media Association’s Newspaper of the Year contest in the weekly newspaper division. Segal sits on the PNA board of directors and credits the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News for supporting his journey as a publisher and standing up for his newspaper when the going got tough.
Over the years, the Philadelphia Gay News has emerged as a survivor. From the gay bashing decades of the late 20th Century, the big recession of 2008, the emerging age of digital publishing and today’s fake news phenomenon, the newspaper has found a way to stay profitable. Segal credits his paper’s success to its ability to remain vital to the community it covers and its loyal readers.
On Feb. 8, Segal was on the phone, jubilant and excited as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory celebration raved right outside his office window. He was multitasking that day, watching the parade and parties on TV while directing coverage for his newspaper and telling his newspaper’s story. His reporters were combing Philadelphia bars and other venues seeking out fans decked out in Eagles regalia to interview them about their team’s historic victory.
“It’s a great day to be in Philadelphia,” he said.
As a young adult, Segal’s earliest brush with journalism cast him as a newsmaker rather than a news breaker. He recalls his early activism in his 2015 memoir, “And Then I Danced.”
In the 1970s, the environment for LGBT rights was not so great. Segal, who never set out to publish a newspaper, was a 23-year-old gay activist, fighting censorship from broadcast outlets as he advocated for equal rights for the LGBT community.
He had joined an organization called the Gay Raiders, and he made a name for himself on Dec. 11, 1973, when he and a fellow activist ran onto the CBS News set during Walter Cronkite’s broadcast carrying a sign that read “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” Journalist David Brinkley, who later wrote about the incident, estimated 30 million people were watching the broadcast that night.
Segal recalls being tackled, tied up and hauled off to jail. But he had made an impact. Cronkite later became a gay rights advocate and hosted a huge AIDS benefit in Philadelphia, hosted by Segal and featuring Elton John as the headliner. Segal went on to national prominence, appeared on the “Phil Donahue Show” and met with politicians and national leaders.
He went on a speaking tour with Jim Austin, publisher of the Pittsburgh Gay News.
“I was working on a campaign to change attitudes,” he said. “I had holes in my shoes. I was a gay activist, and I wasn’t getting paid by anybody.”
Austin suggested Segal start a sister paper to the Pittsburgh Gay News and call it the Philadelphia Gay News. He offered to help.
“I knew nothing about how to start a newspaper,” Segal said. “I was only 23 years old. How could I become a journalist and business man?”
Austin simply replied. “Well, you’ve got to find a job.”
And with that, Segal made the leap and started his lifelong quest to not only find success in newspaper publishing but to practice serious journalism. It quickly became a labor of love.
He launched the paper in January 1976. Dr. Walter Lear, Pennsylvania’s deputy health commissioner, had become the nation’s highest ranking public official to come out as gay and was featured in the newspaper’s premier issue. The following February, Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp participated in a historic interview.
Like many start-ups, the Philadelphia Gay News was birthed in the publisher’s apartment on a typewriter and a copier. Later, Segal and his fledgling staff operated out of an old, rundown building, and he recalls when the weather was nasty, it rained “both inside and outside.”
Neighboring businesses resented the newspaper for covering the LGBT community and vandalized the building, ripping out wiring, tossing cans and bottles into the basement. Other haters blew up the newspaper’s vending boxes and glued them shut, damaged the staff’s cars, and made death threats. Segal remembers a death threat he received in the mail. The perpetrator had put a return address on the envelope, making it easy for the police to track him down. At one point, the American Nazi Party put Segal on a hit list.
“We were able to survive because the staff cared and had passion,” he said. “In those days, you didn’t risk everything unless you had passion.”
Early on, Segal realized he would need support from the mainstream community if his newspaper had any chance of surviving. He also believed few of those potential mainstream advertisers were likely to have little knowledge of or relationship with the LGBT community. But he reasoned that he had something to sell to advertisers—LGBT customers, and to this day, a majority of the newspaper’s advertisers are mainstream businesses.
Just like any community newspaper, the Philadelphia Gay News is hyperlocal, and Segal takes pride in providing his readers news they can’t get anywhere else.
“We cover local politics, schools, sports, health issues and any other topic most weekly newspapers cover,” he said. “We pay attention and report on what the LGBT community is doing. No mainstream media are doing stories from that angle. We give our readers what they can’t get anywhere else, and our LGBT news is local, local, local.”
The Philadelphia Gay News is a free distribution newspaper; its 15,000-20,000 copies are distributed through 120 news boxes spread across eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey. The tabloid-sized product average 40 to 48 pages weekly.
“We have a high interest in politics and how they affect our community,” he said. “We enjoy high readership among politicians, public officials and nonprofit organizations.”
He estimates about 20 percent of the newspaper’s readers are not among the LGBT community. Issues that most interest readers are race and racism, plus any issues that are hotly debated and controversial. Segal writes a regular column and publishes editorials and op-eds.
He characterizes the Philadelphia Gay News as a diverse and inclusive newspaper with 11 full-time reporters, both gay and straight, assisted by freelancers who also cover news and events. The Philadelphia Inquirer handles the printing.
Some people believe the golden age of journalism is in the past, but not Segal. Now is the time to shine, he says. He views the newspaper as a two-way conversation and uses social media to communicate with readers. The website is open and lively. He even likes it when people disagree with his views because “that means the newspaper is relevant,” he said.
“I love online publishing. With just one click, you can instantly publish to hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. He is also passionate about the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment keeps us strong,” he said. “It’s more than a Constitutional Amendment. It is personal to me. I experienced censorship and I fought for equality. I love the newspaper I work for, and I am proud of it.”
At 67, Segal cannot envision retirement, although he might consider slowing down and taking more vacations. Although he has a succession plan, he doesn’t plan on enacting it in the foreseeable future.
“I have a clean bill of health from my doctor, and good genes,” he said. “I’m a little overweight and my bones ache sometimes, but I feel great, and my goal is to die at my desk. I may slow down, but I will never stop.”

Details

Name of Newspaper: Philadelphia Gay News.
Publisher & Owner: Mark Segal.
How long have you been owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News? Since 1976.
What is its circulation/readership? 15,000 to 20,000 per week depending on season and special issues. Our largest of the year is our LGBT Pride issue every June. And recently our wedding issues have been proven to be a success.
What is its publication schedule? Weekly.
Does the newspaper have a mission statement or a motto? Yes. Honesty, Integrity, Professionalism.
How many people are employed at the Philadelphia Gay News? Eleven.
What is the most rewarding aspect of publishing and editing a weekly newspaper? Giving the community a voice and a place for discussion of the issues.
What are your biggest challenges? Keeping relevant in a changing world, finding our voice in social and new media, and being diverse and inclusive of our community.
You’ve been publishing since 1976, and I would be surprised if you have not had offers to sell the paper or to move on to larger publications or even broadcast. What has kept you there? I still love chasing a story, unveiling a problem, getting a lead, and sharing new ideas like those in our youth supplement done by high school and college students, and those in our senior supplement. The supplements are new additions to the paper, each with their own set of challenges. I love good feature articles that speak to the reader. A freelancer spending a night on a park bench with a homeless youth; the attempts to solve the mysterious death of a trans woman, they speak to me. Print speaks to me, and offers the time to dig deep into issues. I couldn’t think of a more rewarding way to spend one’s life.
To what do you attribute your newspaper’s success, despite past discrimination against the LGBT communities (and to a certain extent even today), and the difficulties maintaining local journalism in the 21st century? We’re an honest broker of news and information. A newspaper that people can turn to in a crisis, a place where information on local health, legal or social information can be found, and the place you’ll read about a hate crime, murder, organizational shake up, or the fight for equality from the halls of City Hall to the street side demonstrations. We publish opinion pieces that at times are controversial and add to the community’s wide debate. While we cover national and international stories, most of what we do is local, local, local, so we own that product and the only place on the net to find it is our website or newspaper.
What are your top goals for 2018? To be better at what we do, and have the resources to do more.
What are the newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristics? Our staff. Our willingness to work with other community newspapers. It might surprise many in mainstream media how much we look like their newspapers. Police blog, community calendar, death notices, letters to the editor, op-ed, resources listings, and arts features all about the local LGBT community.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in the community it serves? Newspaper of record.


Teri Saylor can be reached at terisaylor@hotmail.com.

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