Patrick Farabaugh should have been flying high five years ago.
Just 29 at the time, he was getting lots of local attention, and even some national acclaim, for starting the Madison Gay Hockey Association. Yet he’d sunk into a deep depression after the collapse of a romance.
For support, he searched for mentors in the gay community. But he was “too young and too new to the community to know where to look,” he says now. His answer was to start Our Lives, a bi-monthly magazine for Madison’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community.
The idea probably should not have worked. The magazine industry had just been hit by sweeping job cuts. Print publications were dying, and Farabaugh had no money to pay a staff or even himself.
Yet five years later, the free-distribution magazine thrives. What began as a black-and-white, digest-sized publication is now a full-sized, all-color glossy magazine.
The first issue had 36 pages and 22 advertisers. The fifth-anniversary issue, on newsstands now, boasts 52 pages and 75 advertisers. Farabaugh, a former senior designer for magazine publisher Condé Nast, prints about 7,000 copies of each edition, with nearly 3,000 of them mailed at no cost to subscribers.
After years as an all-volunteer publication, the magazine began paying small stipends this year to Editor Virginia Harrison and Business Manager Matt Jelinek. Farabaugh, who moved to Madison in 2005, began drawing a modest salary 18 months ago and has since dropped his side jobs. As publisher and editor-in-chief, he handles distribution and ad sales and helps shape editorial content.
Early on, Farabaugh chose personal essays instead of reported features for the magazine’s focus. “I was seeing a lot of internalized homophobia in the community and thought the way to combat it was to tell our own stories.”
Recent cover subjects have included Dr. Craig Samitt, CEO of Dean Health System, who wrote about how he embraced his differences to become a stronger leader, and Ken Monteleone, founder of the Madison specialty cheese shop Fromagination, who described losing his partner to leukemia soon after he opened the popular store.
James Danky, a faculty associate in journalism at UW-Madison and an expert on minority communities and the press, said Our Lives has several things going for it despite the sour publishing climate. It is a free-distribution, niche publication at a time when subscription-based, general-interest magazines such as Newsweek are foundering. Its target audience has considerable discretionary income, a draw for advertisers. And in Farabaugh, it has a leader with strong editorial and design skills.
“I remain impressed by it,” Danky said. “I get the sense its reach goes far beyond the LGBT community.”
Fans say they like spotting the magazine all over town, from grocery stores and health clubs to churches.
“Visibility is so important for gay people,” said subscriber Josh Feyen of Madison. “The more people see our lives — no pun intended — the more difficult it is for them to hate or judge us.”
He and his partner, Jay Edgar, wrote about their marriage for the magazine last year. The cover photo showed the tuxedo-clad pair kissing. Feedback was all positive, Feyen said.
That hasn’t always been the case. During the first year, detractors would sometimes take entire stacks of the magazine and throw them away or turn them over so the front covers didn’t show, Farabaugh said.
“I was spending a considerable amount of time going around and turning the magazines back over,” he said. “Then I got smart and started putting a really gay ad on the back cover.”
From the start, Our Lives has taken an unusual and gutsy approach to advertising, refusing ads that are overly sexual or that sell alcohol or tobacco. “It’s not because Patrick is a prude,” said Tara Ayres, artistic director for Madison’s StageQ theater company and a friend of Farabaugh’s. “It’s because part of his vision is to help create a healthy community.”
Farabaugh, now 34, said he’s turned down a few ads over the years but more often gets the advertiser to “refocus” the pitch. The goal is to design a magazine “that can be displayed on the coffee table of two lesbian moms with elementary-aged children,” said Harrison, 46, a lesbian with a partner and a 9-year-old daughter.
While Our Lives has a companion website, Farabaugh and Harrison said they’re committed to the print version. There’s an intimacy that comes from reading someone’s story while holding it in your hands, Harrison said.
Also, “I like that we’re not hiding on a computer,” she said. “We’re literally out there.”