Michael Aaron

Five Years

Five years ago on April 29, hundreds of Utahns packed two of Hotel Monaco’s combined presidential suites for the introduction of a new newspaper — Salt Lake Metro. To many it was the first they knew of the newest offering to Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, but to those of us behind the scenes, it was the culmination of six months of hard work.

That was 1,826 days ago, 129 issues ago.

It started when I was trying to figure out two things: What would I do with my life after being laid off from a lucrative ad agency position a week after the Twin Towers fell, and what was I going to do in the fight against Utah’s Amendment 3.

I’d had several people tell me they would be interested in a business partnership of some type, and I began looking at the possibility of opening a gay retail store, a Hamburger Mary’s restaurant, or possibly even buying Club Blue. While they all had one thing in common — très gay — I couldn’t see myself maintaining any of them long-term. And none solved my need to contribute to the community in quite the way I wanted.

Having started two newspapers back in the ’80s and ’90s, it made sense to me the help bolster the news offering we had here in order to better inform the community of the issues of the day. I approached Pillar editor Todd Dailey about the possibility of me helping them do a dynamic Web site, making it timely and available to more people. After months of no response, I decided he wasn’t interested in any kind of partnership and I put feelers out on the possibility of creating my own paper. None of the potential business partners were interested in being part of a newspaper since it wasn’t a sure money-maker.

Enter Steven Petersen.

Off to the Races

Petersen published the Little Lavender Book, a directory of gay and gay-friendly businesses. He had the basic ingredients I would have needed a business partner to help gather cash for: an office, a large-format printer, a graphic designer and a salesperson, a phone system. Wow – a ready-made business!

We drew up a partnership and were off to the races. We hired two salespeople who had the task of selling a non-existent publication using printouts of what it would look like. They had two months to raise enough cash to make the first issue happen. They did it in six weeks and had enough contracts signed to keep us going for about six more months. It appears there was a hunger for access to this community.

I approached Brandon Burt to join us as editor. I’d known him since he was 17, though we’d been estranged for a number of years since then, and knew he was going to be the right choice. I considered no others.

We plastered the University of Utah’s Communications Department building with flyers seeking writers. We drew five news writers, including one JoSelle Vanderhooft, who has written for every issue we have published.

I approached a few people to join as columnists and each agreed. Ben Williams came on as historian — something I believe our community desperately needs. Laurie Mecham came on as a sharp-tongued lesbian with a sense of humor. But Brandon and I knew we needed something more light-hearted and gossipy. Something drag queeny, but smart and topical. Brandon said we needed a drag queen with a brain. I immediately pulled my phone out of my pocket and called Don Steward, aka Ruby Ridge. And got his voicemail. I spelled it all out — the vision of the paper, the idea of the column and how he was perfect for it. He called back with a resounding “yes.” I wasn’t even sure he knew how to write, but I knew he was brazen, witty and smart. I just hoped that would translate to words on paper.

Chad Keller approached us to become involved, yet I could not figure where to put him. On his own volition, he started putting together all of our distribution points — 232 places right off the bat. He also started working on events, including our inaugural party and booth at the Utah Pride Festival.

The Big Day

Articles started pouring in and every last one of them was good. Some even great. I was in disbelief. It was coming together. Laurie Mecham sent her column in and I was flabbergasted at how perfect it was. Then the first Ruby Ridge came in. I read it and had to sit down. It was hilarious, bitchy, poignant and topical. I passed it around the office and everyone there knew this newspaper was destined for big things.

And then it was here. The first issue rolled off the press in Preston, Idaho on the night of April 28. It was real — we could touch it and everything!

Chad had gotten the news stations of every major network to announce the paper. I hopped from studio to studio to tape interviews. KUTV asked me to come in the next morning to do a three-minute interview live.

Then off to Hotel Monaco we went to set up the party. We filled the tubs with beer and set up a bar in one of the bedrooms. People began pouring in and we were over capacity in the first half hour. We started a line in the lobby and invited people up as guests left. Then-mayor Rocky Anderson, half of the KUTV News personalities, leaders of most of the gay organizations in town and hundreds of others showed up.

We’d arranged a cleaning crew the next morning at 9:00 a.m. (and needed it – oh … my … gawd was the place a mess), and I got there at 8:30 to find the place almost completely cleaned by two of the hotel’s housekeeping staff. Feeling horrible, I ran down to the ATM across the street and got them $40 each.

Growth Issues

Six months in, Brandon took a position at City Weekly and we brought in Jere Keys, who was the editor of QVegas before deciding to move home to Salt Lake City.

As the first two years progressed, the average issue income never grew beyond what that very first issue made. We could not sustain the staff we’d hired at that rate, and we began cutting back. Jere left to run the Utah Pride Festival and I took over as editor. I then took over all design of the paper, including all ads. I was now doing what amounted to three full-time jobs, and the stress was taking its toll.

Tension between me and Peterson was also building, as I blamed him for the lack of growth. I felt that he was working 10 hours a week on the paper to my 60. It was obvious that he wasn’t interested in us succeeding. I tried on several occasions to talk him into walking, but he refused, even after telling others it was what he wanted. I tried to take over the paper and Peterson brought in a lawyer. I sat in my office through the night and made the decision to walk once the current issue was at the press, to ensure the writers and staff would receive payment for their work.

I called each and every writer and talked with our office manager, Tony Hobday, spelling out my decision, and why I had made it. I asked them to join me. They all did, including Tony, who wanted to stay on a few more issues to help Peterson through the transition.

I packed up all of the computers and other office equipment I had personally purchased and made a midnight move.

I then had to find advertisers to make my new publication feasible. I pulled back to 28 pages and a run of 5,000 and ran the paper out of my house to drastically cut back costs, as I had poured nearly my entire retirement savings and had maxed out all of my credit cards to keep Metro afloat.

Advertisers came on – many of whom had pulled from Metro because of disagreements with Peterson. We published the first issue under the QSaltLake banner two weeks after I left Metro … on the same schedule we would have printed if nothing had happened. People were impressed. Hell, I was impressed. Metro printed three more issues on a sporadic schedule and fizzled out.

Tony rejoined me as we put out our third issue, and he, JoSelle and I crammed into a small room in the back of my house, sharing two desks. We worked that way, through several locations in the house, for two years before finally being in the position to move back out into an office.

Today

And here we sit today, growing in a bad economy, expanding our distribution to over 8,000 copies to a growing number of locations. Brad Di Iorio joined us as sales manager a year ago after leaving Los Angeles’ Frontiers Magazine for the slopes of Park City. Christian Allred now comes in part-time as graphic designer.

We are in a newly-remodeled Sugar House office, each in our own office, complete with a foosball conference table (that we need to play more). We have purchased another huge batch of newspaper racks that you should begin seeing in a growing number of places over the next several weeks. We are printing between 40 and 52 pages per issue, most of which are color.

We just published the third edition of our gay and lesbian yellow pages, TheQPages. While the pages may feel smaller, we actually experienced an 18 percent growth with the issue. To help make the directory profitable we decided to use a slightly thinner paper and printed the entire year’s run once, rather than two 6-month editions.

So, as long as Utah Pride doesn’t name us “Organization of the Year” (no publication so honored has survived to see the following year’s Pride), we are operating full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes, full-throttle and a bunch of other clichés towards a bright future. (As I type this, I’m rapping my knuckles on my head, yelling, “Knock on wood!”)

Many, many thanks to the columnists, writers, advertisers and you — our readers — for helping to make our fifth year milestone.

Just so you know, the gift for a fifth anniversary is wood.

The numbers:
5,344 pages
768,000 copies have been printed
4,275,200 words

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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