Blade_UB_Coble_review_4blogWhile attending University of Florida’s journalism school in 1992, I told my parents that I was going to give up the profession to become a gay activist. They looked at me like I was crazy and said, “What are you thinking going into such an unstable career!”

It is astounding that in slightly more than twenty years and an Internet later, gay activism appears to be a more sustainable job market than newspaper reporting. While there is no shortage of people who subscribe to a discriminatory creed, there is a drought of subscriptions for newspapers to read.

The recent plunge of readership has led to a depressing twist on an old joke: “What’s black and white and dead all over — newspapers.”

The tragedy of modern journalism was underscored this week by the closing of the venerable Washington Blade, shortly after the publication’s 40th anniversary. Laid off staff are already planning to revive the newspaper in a new format.

However, I fail to see how any publication can make money in the current media environment. As long as news is free online, it will be impossible to build a critical mass of readership necessary to pay reporters.

Those who believe that advertising revenue can make up for the drop in subscriptions are kidding themselves. Advertising dollars are susceptible to economic downturns. It also cheapens journalism, as all but the most ethical publishers are beholden to the advertisers, not the readers they are supposed to be serving.

If journalism wants to save itself, individual companies should stop acting like petty fiefdoms guarding what remains of their shrinking slice of pie and “unionize”. In this scenario, large media corporations must think of themselves as employees who are exploited by the boss, which is a readership grown accustomed to a free product. The “boss” must be confronted by angry “union” members who no longer will tolerate paltry wages, the insecurity of mass layoffs and countless hours of unpaid overtime.

If one company alone “unionized” and began charging readers per story online, they would fail. However, if suddenly the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, The Associated Press, USA Today – and 200 leading newspapers and magazines all began charging five cents per story viewed online the same day – the “boss” would have no choice but to go along with the new business model, and journalism would survive.

While people might give up a single publication if it stood alone to charge for content, very few individuals, Sarah Palin notwithstanding, would give up news altogether.

Gay publications will have to operate in a similar manner and “unionize” if they expect to survive. It should be obvious by now that the free ride is over and paying for content is the wave of the future.

There are those who say that such a plan will not work because of bloggers, who will still provide free content. However, most bloggers do not have the resources to provide consistent original reporting. They must rely on the news reports from agencies that can afford to pay reporters. Additionally, bloggers get sick, have relationships and find new hobbies. Without the incentive of a paycheck, many of our leading bloggers, which are now respected brands, will quit to pursue real lives instead of enhancing the lives of readers for peanuts.

I believe that within five years top blogs will “unionize” and make readers pay a small monthly fee for content. Again, while readers may be willing to give up a favorite blogger, will they be willing to give up all of the top GLBT blogs at once?

I imagine that in the future, the GLBT news will operate much like cable companies. At the core would be a respected news services, bundled with several opinion blogs. For $15 per month, one could purchase Option A, which would center around Rex Wockner’s news service, packaged with leading blogs such as Dan Savage’s Slog, Pam’s House Blend and Good As You. Option B, might be Lisa Keen’s news service packaged with Towleroad, Michelangelo Signorile and Americablog. Option 3 would be 365 and its media properties. Or, for $35, one could recieve premium access to all three options.

Good journalism is crucial to the health of our democracy and enriches our lives. Americans will have to decide how much they value the virtues of solid reporting and if they will finance the fact finding that is crucial to our freedom and liberty.