Like Angela Eagle, the MP who came out last year, the news that The Independent is mooting a gay section has merited barely a whisper, which is progress indeed. It’s also no surprise: for years The Independent has integrated gay-themed material into its news, arts and features pages.
Should it go ahead, the unexplored potential is not only in the new section’s editorial, but in its advertising – and The Independent’s ability to capture advertisers still too nervous to target lesbian and gay consumers through the gay press.
We know those consumers are there: in the Pink Paper’s latest survey over a quarter of our readers said they also were Independent readers (second only to The Guardian, which 47 per cent of Pink readers bought). Over half of our readers earn more than 20,000 a year. Multiply that with the most generously estimated number of lesbians and gay men in the UK (4 million) and there’s a captive 8bn market; 84 per cent of our readers are ABC1.
But this isn’t about whether lesbians and gays earn more, it’s about the proportion of their disposable income. Because (on the whole) they do not have children, gays have an average 3,500 more to spend a year than heterosexuals. What do they do with that cash? Over 70 per cent of our readers – more than twice the national average – take a foreign holiday every year. They also buy good quality branded consumer durables and clothes.
Nervousness has prevented advertisers from taking advantage of this malleable market before. So far it’s been a game of checks and balances. Mainstream advertising in the gay press has come mainly through drinks and cigarette brands like Absolut, Smirnoff and Silk Cut which recognise that gay life is predicated on the club and bar scene.
The Indy’s gay section could provide a safe haven for querulous, but market-aware companies, as well as initiating contact with a market which is famously brand-loyal.
There is also a more subtle alignment: the Indy has long been seen as the paper of choice for the “metro-sexual”, that visible band of young 18- to 35-year-old heterosexuals who would be likely to embrace the gay section as a funky innovation – and by extension the “cool” brands which choose to advertise in it. These are the straight men and women who lead an urban gay lifestyle.
But there are concerns, the most glaring being that the section may not go ahead with the acquisition of the paper by Tony O’Reilly. If this is the case, it would have disastrous consequences for the Indy’s standing with its gay and liberal readerships.
Should it go ahead the greatest danger facing the new section is that it becomes a ghetto. The great strength of The Independent has been its insistence on moving the content and tone of its gay coverage on from “gay is OK”, and reposition it as part of its mainstream format.
It was the first national newspaper to have a weekly “gay” column by John Lyttle, who doesn’t skimp on relaying the contrivances and contradictions of gay culture to gay and straight readers alike (Lyttle is also deputy editor of the new section). In many ways, it is way ahead of The Guardian in terms of genuinely diverse coverage.
The new section should act as a complement to the paper’s main section. Like the advertisers, readers will want innovation and a sense that this is not just a “gay thing” but a set of pages open to all.