Finding the Balance

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The Scope editor talks frankly about competing interests

Toward the end of the summer, a discussion erupted at The Scope’s web site that prompted a startlingly frank and eye-opening message from the paper’s editor, Elling Lien.

Earlier this year, the paper dropped its most controversial standing feature, the syndicated ‘Savage love’ sexual advice column by Dan Savage. The column is graphic in detail and brutally frank in its opinions. Some people think it too explicit, while others savour every word. (It was Savage who, in 2010, initiated the powerful and ground-breaking ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, which promised young people that LGBT life gets better if they get through those difficult teen years.)

Lien dropped the column for business reasons – apparently, it was constraining the paper’s growth.

In an online exchange, one reader criticized The Scope for canceling Savage Love, while continuing to accept sexually provocative ads from American Apparel.

Lien took issue with that remark, and offered a thorough response, in which he talks, with an honesty that is rare and highly commendable, about the delicate balance that must be maintained between the interests of readers, advertisers and distributors (The Scope is a free publication, circulated at local businesses). You can read the full exchange, at this link:

http://tinyurl.com/3pqhn8h

Following is a rather lengthy excerpt from that discussion, in which Elling Lien demonstrates how difficult – at times, painful – it can be to find that balance.

I was at a friend’s birthday party recently when someone I respect said they were upset Savage Love wasn’t printed but American Apparel ads were — inferring that we were selling out. Because I was at a friend’s house and I’d had a beer or two, my guard was down. I was hurt. I got angry.

Here’s why:

I miss Dan Savage too, and I’d love to have his column back. Also, while I would prefer to have our back cover sold to a local advertiser, I’m happy that American Apparel have chosen us as a way of promoting themselves.

With Dan’s column printed in The Scope it wouldn’t be possible for the print edition to be distributed as widely as we are now. When we decided to stop publishing Savage Love, about four years had passed since Bryhanna (Greenough) and I started The Scope with money she had inherited when her father passed away. We barely had two part-time employees, one handling ad sales and one helping with production. We were still bi-weekly, and working lots of 12-hour days, pulling all-nighters, working weekends, all while working out of a room in our own apartment. Things were definitely improving, but not as quickly as we had hoped. In the spring of last year we knew were at a point where we had to either grow to pay for help and keep things going or call it quits. That was last year.

Then, in April, my father passed away. I vividly remember thinking I was lucky he was dying in between issues of The Scope, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to be in the home with him when he went, or to be with my mom and family during those handful of days.

You know what? That’s fucked up. We had spent four years building something everyone around us considered successful, but it was still keeping me from being human. I was beginning to hate The Scope. And I’m not one to throw that word around lightly.

The Scope is a small business. We rely on advertising to survive. Without good distribution, we won’t have advertising. Without advertising, we won’t have any money to pay for content. Without paid content, our content isn’t good content. Without good content, a publication is irrelevant and boring and no one reads it. By the time dad died, Bryh and I were almost ready to shut things down. We weren’t disillusioned by the work we were doing, we were just burning out.

So we decided to stop printing Savage Love. We moved from bi-weekly to monthly in print. We started focusing on the website, where things aren’t as time-sensitive and could start experimenting a little more to keep things interesting. We improved our distribution and started asking grocery stores if we could put stands inside their front door so more people could find us.

We got way more readers. We started getting more advertising. And we started being able to afford to hire people to do some more of the things we had been doing ourselves.

Bryh and I are not shooting to become wealthy from The Scope, and I don’t even know if that’s possible. But we do want to keep publishing. We want to keep engaging people. We want to encourage conversation about the city. The Scope is not a vanity project. It’s not just for our friends. It’s not because we have a single vision about how the city should grow. It’s because we love the city, we love the people here, and we want to see things get even more amazing and interesting than they already are, however that may be.

About American Apparel:

I’m not going to defend American Apparel much here, because I know people feel strongly about them and whatever I say here won’t change their minds, but I will say I have no problem with the particular images we’ve printed. And, yeah, the irony that we are able to publish a picture of a pretty girl in jean shorts in a sexy pose on our back cover without complaints, but unable to print a frank sex column because we get too many complaints, is not lost on us. But we’ve come to realize that is the way our city is these days, for some reason. We got tired of fighting to print Savage Love and struggling to grow because of it, especially because it was something people could easily read every week online for free. (http://www.thestranger.com/savage)

Anyway, I’ve gone on for too long here, but the accusation about censorship touched a nerve. I hope this helps people understand where we’re coming from.

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