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Greed, Mismanagement and Private Equity: How Iconic LGBTQ Magazine “Out” Almost Died

“Out” magazine couldn't pay freelancers and nearly went bust during Pride Month.

by David Uberti
Jun 11 2019, 3:45pm

With the World Pride celebration in New York looming later this month, a slow-moving disaster at Out magazine, a glossy title that has chronicled queer culture for more than a quarter-century, came to a head last week.

The timing, one senior staffer groused, “is the ultimate fucking irony.”

The immediate crisis that threatened Out — and left people throughout parent company Pride Media worried it could go bust — has apparently been averted for now. Top brass say an eleventh-hour capital infusion will allow them to finally make back payments to contributors, vendors, and partners totaling several hundred thousand dollars.

“This is a story of greed ... Those people always fail queer people and people of color first.”

But the turmoil that led to this point has left a trail of disillusionment in its wake. Out’s reputation has been tarnished among the community of freelancers that produce many aspects of the magazine. Top brass’ unkept promises bred distrust among employees past and present. The situation pushed some staffers still at the iconic LGBTQ publication to polish their resumes. Phillip Picardi, the Conde Nast-bred wunderkind brought on last year to be Out’s editor-in-chief, had even threatened to leave if the payments weren’t made, according to three people at Pride Media.

The unanswered question still hovering above it all, several current and former Pride Media employees told VICE News, is why a private equity firm bought queer media outlets with serious cash-flow problems and limited financial upside in the first place.

“This is a story of greed — of people who want to own media for their own cultural cachet or power or private gain,” the senior staffer said. “Those people always fail queer people and people of color first.”

The uncertainty left Out hanging in the balance at the outset of a Pride Month doubling as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, which sparked the modern gay rights movement. Out’s rise in many ways mirrored the trajectory of LGBTQ issues within politics and culture during the second half of that period, putting major celebrities on its cover and even landing a sitdown interview President Barack Obama.

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The magazine’s current predicament, meanwhile, hews closely to that of many media companies today: weakened by Big Tech’s dominance of digital advertising, scooped up by vulture investors. The financial pressures, coupled with mismanagement, led to a near-death experience.

“People could have quit today if the money didn’t come through, from my understanding,” another Pride Media employee with knowledge of the company’s strategy said Thursday, shortly after the cash landed. “This was our critical juncture.”

Oreva Capital, the Los Angeles-based private equity firm that owns parent company Pride Media, had proven chronically unable or unwilling to pay freelancers and vendors despite numerous promises from owner Adam Levin and his lieutenants over the past several months, current and former staffers said. The money that arrived in Pride Media’s accounts Thursday came from Levin and other existing investors, according to an email to staff obtained by VICE News, raising questions of why it didn’t arrive sooner.

“Was I an active reader of Out prior to my purchase of it? No.”

In interviews with VICE News, Levin apologized for failing to compensate contract workers for so long, adding that he expects payments to begin going out over the course of this week.

“We caused some hardships for people by paying them late,” he said. “I don't minimize that in the least.”

Now the company faces another huge challenge given all the ill will boiling beneath the surface: what comes next.

Levin, who is straight, has left his intentions for Pride Media cryptic to many inside the company. The average number of monthly unique visitors to Out.com from January to April grew 80 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the analytics firm comScore. And Levin told VICE News that sales had reached $10 million in the first half of this year — up more than 40 percent annually. He called for expansions into video and podcasting and described potential “festivals, music, different types of experiences” fueled by Pride Media content.

Outside critics and people within the company have questioned Levin’s interest in its mission. But he said he sees potential for Out and its sister publication, The Advocate, to expand and serve the LGBTQ community in a bigger way.

“I see them much more than just media properties; they're brands and communities,” Levin said. “I've read probably the last 24 copies of the magazine. But was I an active reader of Out prior to my purchase of it? No.”

Another Oreva Capital–owned company may hold clues to Levin’s plans. In 2017, just before the firm bought Out and The Advocate to form Pride Media, it also purchased High Times. Levin publicly touted the weed magazine’s potential as an event-focused “lifestyle brand,” and it’s currently attempting to go public in a so-called “mini-IPO.” These government-regulated crowdfunding campaigns allow smaller companies to raise capital from mom-and-pop investors. In the case of High Times, the idea is to tap into a dedicated audience cultivated over the course of decades.

But documents filed with the SEC to prepare for the offering last year suggest that the funds raised will go largely to servicing High Times’ debt as opposed to reinvesting in the company. Oreva Capital saddled HighTimes Holding Corp. with at least $11.5 million in debt it used to help finance the acquisition, the filings show. They add that “there can be no assurance” the offering will raise enough cash to pay it all off.

Levin claimed that there has been huge demand for the offering, which needs to raise at least $17.2 million to be listed by Nasdaq, according to SEC filings. But it’s unclear how much investors have actually pumped into HighTimes Holding Corp. so far.

What’s more, investors are buying stock at a price based on an “arbitrarily determined” valuation of the company at $225 million, according to SEC filings. That’s extremely high relative to many other media companies with larger revenues and better growth prospects.

Like HighTimes Holding Corp., Pride Media has millions in debt related to Oreva Capital’s acquisition, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s finances. “The company has a long-term loan,” Levin told VICE News, declining to specify its size. “Many companies have debt financing.”

While Levin told VICE News that the idea of a mini-IPO for Pride Media is just “speculation,” several current and former employees from different departments within the company said that Levin has conveyed to them that it’s a long-term strategic goal. “I can’t comment on someone’s misperception,” Levin said, adding that recent rumors of a sale “couldn't have been further from the truth.”

Tyler Gellasch, executive director at the nonprofit Healthy Markets Association, said mini-IPOs have had mostly lackluster returns since they were first sanctioned in 2015. Community banks, which are highly regulated, have had some success using the vehicle to raise capital. But many other companies — such as financial technology firms or startups without venture capital backing — fail to even meet benchmarks to be traded on public markets. For those that do, Gellasch added, values often plummet.

“These things have a tendency to trade very, very low very quickly,” Gellasch said. “One of the things I’d be worried about as an investor is: Is this a last gasp of a print media company trying to raise some money? Or are the executives and owners trying to make money on the way to letting this thing die as they’re on their way out the door?”

“You do this work to be in one of the only print magazines for queer people.”

As part of High Times’ offering, Levin and other executives have stock options potentially worth millions, according to SEC filings. But Levin will profit regardless of how it turns out. HighTimes Holding Corp. entered into a $35,000-a-month “management services agreement” with Oreva Capital as it pays off its loans, according to SEC filings, and Levin initially drew a $500,000 annual salary and potential yearly bonuses of the same amount as the company’s CEO. His contract also stipulated “severance payments upon termination without cause, and permits Mr. Levin to work from his office in Puerto Rico,” the filings said.

Levin told VICE News that he spends some time on the island for “business reasons and personal reasons.” He added that he no longer receives a salary from HighTimes Holding Corp. — he stepped down as CEO in April — and that neither he nor Oreva Capital draw payment from Pride Media.

Still, for freelancers owed money by Out, like Ricardo Horatio Nelson, Levin fits within a long line of rich white guys taking advantage of people with less power. Nelson and dozens of other contract workers went public with their fight for back pay in February. The National Writers Union has since pressured the company into agreeing to pay a small group of freelance journalists in installments.

The efforts put Out’s recent woke rebranding — from a magazine criticized for focusing on gay white men to one that was intersectional, with trans issues front and center — in the crosshairs.

“I’m going to call bullshit on that,” said Nelson, a photographer who finally received about $1,400 after lobbying Pride Media for a year. “If I were still waiting for that $1,400, I would have been homeless by now.”

And yet, even though Nelson said he’s still owed about $800 for other jobs, he might work with Out again under the right circumstances. A cover shoot would mean more in exposure than all the issues with missed payments.

As Nelson put it, “You do this work to be in one of the only print magazines for queer people.”

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At the beginning of Out, merely publishing was a radical idea. Then 26-year-old Michael Goff launched the magazine in 1992 with a shoestring budget from outside investors. That first run was an immediate hit for an LGBTQ community that had few national outlets that catered to it outside of The Advocate.

“The timing was right as Clinton was taking office,” Goff told VICE News. “People were talking about gays in the military. There was an energy around coming out that hadn’t been around before. We needed to have our own media.”

Out ran a stark black-and-white skull on a cover dedicated to the AIDS crisis (“It didn’t sell,” Goff said.); “outed” Keanu Reeves as straight; and nominated Roseanne Barr for president (“She was great then.”). The trick, Goff said, was balancing the needs of openly gay or lesbian readers in New York or other liberal enclaves with an untapped audience in more conservative parts of the country.

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“We had to send [issues] in a wrapped envelope,” Goff said of the magazine. “People would freak out if their postman or an asshole downstairs knew they were gay. It was a safety thing.”

By 2006, when Aaron Hicklin arrived as editor, marriage equality had become a key wedge issue in national politics. Fat with ads from big-ticket fashion brands, Hicklin said, Out rented a two-floor office in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood and conducted photo shoots that ran as high as $30,000 each. Mainstream acceptance, however, remained elusive.

“I was always moving it from the porn shelves in newsstands next to GQ and Details,” Hicklin said. “That was important: being accepted and being on that stand, comfortably, with other men's magazines.”

As Out’s profile rose, its finances took a turn for the worse. Then-parent company PlanetOut, which owned a Grindr-predecessor called Gay.com, commissioned the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner in the hope of launching an LGBTQ-focused travel business in 2007. The ultimately failed venture also led up to the financial crisis that devastated media.

“Whether symbolic or real, it was the thing that sunk the company,” Hicklin said. “It was like our Titanic.”

Hicklin admits that Out’s reputation for late payments to freelancers and vendors became an open secret in the years afterward. So he proposed an unorthodox response intended to reduce overhead costs for Here Media, its then-owner, and give him more control over dwindling budgets.

In 2012, Here Media carried out Hicklin’s plan. It laid off Out’s staff and converted the publication to an all-freelance model, outsourcing production to an outside company, Grand Editorial, created by Hicklin to publish the magazine. Here Media paid Grand a fee for each issue, Hicklin said, and he spent it as he saw fit.

Hicklin’s small group of contractors worked long hours for meager pay in a two-room office above a pet supply store in Brooklyn. But the magazine also interviewed and photographed Obama for a cover story in late 2015 — a high-water mark in Hicklin’s eyes. Still, Hicklin said, no amount of cost-cutting could keep up with plummeting revenue from print advertising.

“So you end up in a place where the very thing you wanted to preserve, which is the editorial integrity, is the thing you're actually diminishing, because you just don't have the money,” Hicklin said.

“A few months ago, I was still routinely tearing up thinking about it.”

When Oreva Capital bought Out and The Advocate to form Pride Media in 2017, Hicklin had only met Levin once in passing and sensed it was time for him to move on. He sold his production company to a separate investor, Evanly Schindler, to help pay down credit card debt he’d incurred during the lean years at Out.

Some of the money paid by Pride Media to Schindler, who was then charged to cover the costs of producing Out, never made it to workers, according to several current and former employees. Former CEO Nathan Coyle publicly accused Schindler of mishandling more than $120,0000 meant for freelancers and vendors. Pride Media even sued Schindler and his company, McCarthy Media, earlier this year.

“This is just a tactic,” Schindler previously told Women’s Wear Daily of the allegations. “It’s a tactic to not accept responsibility, a diversionary tactic to not pay people and place blame elsewhere. Everybody knows it’s false and ridiculous.”

The back invoices snowballed into yet more back invoices after Hicklin left Out last summer and Pride Media moved payments in-house. The lawsuit, which also named Hicklin, is still pending, according to Pride Media leadership. Schindler did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment by press time. Hicklin did not comment on the record about the lawsuit.

“A few months ago, I was still routinely tearing up thinking about it,” Hicklin said of his departure. “Part of that was because of fallout. You leave something and you want to think you have some kind of legacy or reputation.”

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The year since then has been a whirlwind of recriminations among Pride Media leadership, all of whom claim they were individually unaware of the depth of the company’s financial problems.

“For a company of our size, to be burdened by $120,000, it wasn't an issue,” Levin said. “It started a larger issue.”

R. Kurt Osenlund, who took over as interim editor after Hicklin and his senior staff departed, told VICE News that he had to cut corners on production costs and call in favors to get the publication’s annual Out100 issue out the door last fall. Emails and phone calls about back payments continued piling up. Three sources at Pride Media say the back payments eventually snowballed to as high as $500,000.

“It's just insane,” added Osenlund, who said he’s still owed money for his work for Out. “But I was promised, over and over, that that situation would not continue.”

Through it all, Osenlund said, he never spoke with Levin, who blamed the miscommunication on his subordinates. “I may have hired a wrong person or two and trusted them to lead the business,” Levin told VICE News. “We had numbers change quite drastically from the plan that was presented to us from management.” Pride Media’s top executive at the time, Coyle, did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the small group of contractors who published Out suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives.

“I was promised, over and over, that that situation would not continue.”

“Do I walk?” said Osenlund, who was told he wouldn’t be part of a new editorial team just days before a launch party for the Out100 in LA last November. “Or do I just focus on the work, focus on what it means for an entire community of people, focus on what it means for the world of publishing and the people we're profiling?”

He added that he felt loyal to his colleagues. “At any moment [they] could have just been like, 'Fuck this.' And they didn't.”

The new team brought in during Levin’s highly touted rebrand of Out late last year was likewise left in the dark about the money troubles, according to current and former staffers who spoke to VICE News. Coyle, who colleagues say spent freely during his short tenure, abruptly quit in April in a move employees throughout the company learned of in a Hollywood Reporter story.

The turmoil has hurt Out’s reputation in the LGBTQ and journalism communities. Employees grappled with an 8% pay cut, according to two people at the magazine. An Out staff writer just brought on in January has already departed. And as back payments continued piling up, some employees have even found themselves questioning the mission of what has always been a mission-driven magazine.

“It’s depressing. It’s psychologically difficult. It feels ethically compromising some days,” one current employee said before Thursday’s last-minute cash infusion. “I’m profiting off a corporation’s exploitation of the idea of an LGBTQ community.”

The staffer expressed relief to VICE News after the company announced money had come in, saying of the payments promised to freelancers in the coming days, “I, again, will believe it when I see it.”

Out staff were barely able to overcome the financial uncertainty and cratering morale to publish the publication’s crucial Pride issue, which included an interview with South Bend Mayor and 2020 hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Yet Levin said he’s nonplussed by the prospect of more turnover among his beleaguered staff.

“You know what? We need the right people here,” Levin told VICE News. “And if this isn't the right situation and they're frustrated by the current situation, I understand it. I'm not trying to shy away from it.”

The job of cleaning up the company has been thrust largely upon Orlando Reece, the chief revenue officer who assumed CEO duties when his predecessor jumped ship in April. Reece told VICE News that the new investment should position Pride Media to expand further in digital.

Out’s print circulation hovers around 190,000, according to estimates by the Alliance for Audited Media, and, like at other magazines, it’s slowly declining. Reece said that while the print sales and advertising comprise less than half of Out’s overall revenue, the physical product — still home to much of Out’s most ambitious journalism — will be an important part of the brand for the foreseeable future.

“I want to stop the ship where it is, clean it up, and turn it around,” said Reece, who is gay. “I’ve got to rebuild the culture here. I got to make sure people have faith and trust in the culture.”

Cover: An Out magazine cover from Pride Month on the legacy of Sylvia Rivera, a prominent LGBTQ rights activist who died in 2002.