October 22 was a curious day at QueerSighted, the LGBT Web site launched by AOL with much fanfare last February. In addition to the usual fun stuff regular visitors had come to expect -- viral video clips, “Aberzombie” hotness, and gay personals -- there was an unexpected post on the site’s blog by managing editor Kenneth Hill, bidding his readers adieu.
“This will be my final post on QueerSighted, so I want to say farewell,” it read. “I’m not yet sure where you can find me next, but meanwhile you can keep up with me on my MySpace page. Until I have a new gig to tell you about, I’ll use that to talk about the new-new stuff I want friends (you) to know about.”
Several days later, another post, this time from the “AOL community editorial team,” cryptically promised “changes” at the site, and then on November 1 regular blogger Susan Norfleet posted her own goodbye. Five days later all QueerSighted freelancers, including bloggers, had been notified that their services were no longer needed. While all of this was happening, the G-Sides gay music microsite was dropped from AOL’s main site as well.
“They are completely shutting down QueerSighted and all of their live LGBT pages,” says Richard Rothstein, a New York City–based writer and former contributor to the site’s blog, who was let go with everyone else. “There will be some static material remaining -- or so they’ve told us -- but very minor.”
What was happening at QueerSighted, which, according to one insider, had been boasting 3 million page views a month?
QueerSighted was supposed to be the troubled Time Warner’s effort to get up to speed in the online LGBT market, an area it had dominated in the early years of the Internet but which it arguably had ceded to the plethora of queer blogs and Web sites that have cropped up since then. Less than a year later it seemed the company had given up on the site.
Although an AOL spokesperson declined to comment to The Advocate, the changes at QueerSighted may in part be due to a massive companywide restructuring that was announced in mid October when 2,000 employees -- about one fifth of AOL’s total workforce -- received pink slips. But the political commentary on QueerSighted -- some of it about AOL vice president Mary Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter -- may not have helped matters.
“I was asked twice to tone something down because it was felt that my comments about a certain AOL vice president were a little too harsh,” says Rothstein, the only departed QueerSighted contributor to talk to The Advocate on the record. According to another former contributor, Norfleet was also reprimanded for a September post titled “What Would Mary Cheney Do?” that blasted the Republican presidential candidate field.
Nevertheless, to industry observers, QueerSighted’s demise is surely due to financial considerations more than anything else. “This was a strictly business decision,” says Mark Elderkin, the online entrepreneur who cofounded Gay.com and now serves as CEO of the online Gay Ad Network. “If you look at the cost to produce the content” -- staff salaries, payments to freelancers, and the like -- “versus the return on the investment, my hypothesis is that it was not as profitable as other investments.”
Elderkin adds that the changes at QueerSighted may presage a larger trend at AOL. “They call it Platform A,” he says. “As opposed to producing and controlling content, they will focus on [selling] advertising across properties. Going forward, AOL may push for more user-driven content like Facebook or MySpace. It’s almost no cost to produce.”
And there’s no price to pay for bloggers or the company that hires them for sounding off on sensitive political issues. “Entities such as AOL will find themselves in these situations if they don’t take into consideration first whether message control is important to them,” says Terrance Heath, gay author of the Republic of T blog and an online strategist with the progressive Web consultancy EchoDitto. “And bloggers have to keep in mind that when they get involved with corporate entities, politics are inevitably a factor and may conflict with their own politics and those of the LGBT community.