Special Extended Post: Exploring The Bilerico Project's impact on LGBT-specific news, commentary and analysis

In December of 2008, The Advocate, the granddaddy of U.S. publications focusing specifically on news pertaining to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, was in crisis mode. After 41 years of bi-weekly publication, readership had fallen drastically, advertisers were fleeing and its ownership had changed hands countless times. Print media, of course, was failing across the board, but in the case of The Advocate, the crisis caused the editors to refocus the entire magazine, booking more celebrity covers, scaling back its investigative journalism efforts and amping up the fluff content generally seen in less hard-hitting queer publications. The Advocate used to be the LGBT version of The New York Times, breaking new and interesting stories about the gay community, nabbing the most ground-breaking interviews and fully exploring every angle to gay rights issues that plagued the time.

At that point, however, it seemed to be trading in its esteemed legacy for a shot at staying afloat in an increasingly challenging market. In a cost-cutting move by corporate owners Regent and Here Media, publication went monthly instead of bi-weekly, and by November of 2009, the staff admitted its defeat; the magazine ceased publication as a stand-alone, newsstand and subscription-based entity. It would now be whittled down to 32 pages each month and packaged with Out magazine, which, to continue with the mainstream media parallels, could be the LGBT version of PeopleAdvocate.com, the press releases raved, would still be delivering all of the news and commentary fit to print about the LGBT community.

But readers dedicated to understanding gay-related issues were unimpressed with the bare-bones, inverted pyramid news updates of The Advocate online, so they scoured for other media offerings to satisfy their cravings.  That’s where queer-focused online blogs stepped in to claim the newly-available market as their own.

One of the most important of these LGBT blogs is The Bilerico Project, an independent, citizen journalism-focused blog still owned by its original founder, Bil Browning. The site closely follows The Huffington Post’s successful “group blog” model, publishing news reports, editorials and analyses, primarily those pertaining to LGBT communities, written by experts in a wide array of fields and disciplines.
Twelve years ago, starting in 1998, Browning’s journalistic scope was much more narrow, with bilerico.com serving as little more than his own personal website. Over the next nine years, it evolved into a blog and then a group blog centering on politics in Indiana, where Browning lived, paying particular attention to LGBT politics. In the summer of 2007, bilerico.com became The Bilerico Project, its current incarnation, and as part of its rebranding strategy, expanded its LGBT focus to a national level. In the past two years, readership for Bilerico has skyrocketed, and just two weeks ago, Browning and his partner relocated to Washington, D.C., bringing the editor even closer to the action.

Now, Bilerico is the largest LGBT group blog on the Internet, featuring content by over 100 contributors. It is famous for aggregating opinion and analysis from some of the most important “thought leaders” in the American gay, bisexual and trans community.

The contributor database for Bilerico is vast, encompassing a variety of professions, ages and areas of expertise. Included are board members of significant LGBT advocacy organizations, gay military veterans, mainstream reporters, photographers, theatre buffs, public relations professionals, attorneys, authors, politicians, cartoonists, straight married mothers, other LGBT press figures and even a 63-year-old, newly-“out” man with no journalism experience whatsoever. The spectrum of personal histories ensures that viewpoints of LGBT people are not boiled down to one angle: “the gay perspective.”

Since its popularity exploded in 2008, Browning’s project has attracted high-profile names, including Cleve Jones of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force director of capacity building Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, and Michael Buckley, host of the online video series What the Buck. Bilerico personally invites most contributors to come aboard the web platform, although every month, two or three contributors are added based on a competitive application process managed by Browning and his 12-person editorial advisory board.

Some of the contributors, including Browning himself, a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, are trained journalists or professional writers, but the rest simply write for Bilerico on the side, lending their expertise to the site when they finish their day job. Browning considers Bilerico a citizen journalism website because none of the writers ever receive payment for their content. The site does bring in money, all of which compensates the four-person editorial department – people who have left preexisting careers in order to wholly participate in Bilerico. The website has two revenue streams: advertisements, which pay the Bilerico editorial staff, and a significant grant from the Arcus Foundation, which pays Browning’s editor-in-chief salary.

Despite staking claim to the “citizen journalism” label, Bilerico has eluded many of the poor journalistic practices generally associated with citizen-led news outlets. That’s because Browning and the editorial team have a reliable vetting and editing system, an important quality control step that’s usually skipped in today’s “publish, then filter” society.

Bilerico does not allow people to post with pseudonyms or anonymously, a policy that inherently encourages greater journalistic transparency and accountability. Browning says, “We require that all of our contributors post under their own name. They need to be able to stand by what they’re reporting…if you’re going to say it and you’re going to report it, you’re going to need to stand behind it.”

The editorial staff proofreads, copy edits and fact-checks every piece that is published on the site to ensure that Bilerico can present the most accurate information and consistently work toward covering stories fully to achieve truth. Their vetting system has been in place for over two years, which is one more way it is helping to prove that blogs are legitimate news sources and analysis centers.

Browning says Bilerico is not concerned with being the first source to publish content and break stories. He says, “We’re not just trying to get it up as fast as possible, which a lot of blogs do; they’ll quote a couple of paragraphs from the Associated Press and be like, ‘Hey, this happened!’ But that’s not what we’re looking for from our contributors. We want it to be more in-depth. We want them to actually bring something to the story other than just repeating what somebody else has already reported.” This commitment to furthering news conversations demonstrates Browning’s desire to stretch and expand the traditional journalistic function of blogs. He continues, “The quality of Bilerico is what’s important to us. We’re not so interested in being the first one to break news. If you’re doing citizen journalism, then you need to be doing journalism. You need to get your butt out of the apartment, you have to go chase down a story, and you have to bring something to it.”

That’s not to say, of course, that Bilerico doesn’t break news first. Earlier this month, Browning published a three-part series on Stan Soloman, the campaign manager for Dr. Marvin Scott, a Tea Party Republican candidate for Indiana’s 7th Congressional District, who had been tweeting and self-publishing xenophobic, racist and homophobic statements, including “Gay stands for Got AIDS Yet?.” The Associated Press linked to Browning’s post, and from there, Soloman’s intolerance was thrust into the national spotlight, hitting the major news hubs, especially in Indiana.

Despite these successes, Bilerico has developing to do before it can have the impact of, say, Talking Points Memo. Bilerico has all of the foundations in place to be the kind of blog that provides a constant stream of updates on an under-covered subject. It has the potential to urge its readers to keep refreshing the page and be updated throughout the week or the day or even the hour, utilizing its dedicated, intelligent, well-informed, largely-LGBT readership to fully explore every aspect of a story.

After all, Bilerico already has a built-in niche, which is crucial in ensuring that LGBT issues are discussed on a more-pervasive scale. Browning trumpets the importance of LGBT reporting, explaining, “Every minority group needs to have its own niche reporting. I think that we can easily see that if we left it up to the mainstream media, some of our issues just wouldn’t be covered. We have to be there to talk about ourselves, because we’re not only presenting the news to the community. We’re also presenting the LGBT community’s face to the national media and the national audience.”

That “face” that Browning heralds isn’t one obsessed with celebrity culture or musical theatre; gay readers looking for entertainment or fluff pieces shouldn’t look here — that’s what Queerty and AfterEltonare for. But with its thoughtful, appropriately provocative analysis and political coverage, Browning and his staff of contributors are blazing their own trail. The Bilerico Project is consistently proving that it can fill the void left by the slowl death of The Advocate by holding itself to high journalistic standards and devoting itself to delivering real journalism that matters. 

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