Why PinkNews sees a big future as Vice and BuzzFeed News falter

Why PinkNews sees a big future as Vice and BuzzFeed News falter
PinkNews' CEO Ben Cohen (left) and managing editor Nic Keaney (right) at Adwanted Events' The Future of Brands 2023 event in London.

The past several weeks have seen a transformed digital publishing industry. Amid a confluence of negative factors affecting the digital media market, digital-native publishers BuzzFeed and Vice Media have taken drastic steps to adjust their business strategies: BuzzFeed has closed Pulitzer Prize-winning outlet BuzzFeed News, and Vice Media has filed for bankruptcy and sold itself to a consortium of investors.

Both publishers had a history of publishing progressive and LGBTQ+-friendly perspectives. In their relative absence, Benjamin Cohen, founder of LGBTQ+ news publisher PinkNews, sees an opportunity for his outlet to significantly grow its audience.

“[BuzzFeed News and Vice] were the two main places, other than PinkNews, that were creating LGBTQ+-inclusive and progressive content,” said Cohen at last month’s The Future of Brands event in London. “We believe we have the opportunity to build the media brand of the future.

“We have been going for nearly 20 years, so we are a sort of legacy publisher now, but we’re really agile. We’ve adapted to changes in society and changes on platforms and that’s why we’re continuing to grow while other parties that sort of boomed at the same period we did, have then dwindled away.”

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‘We’re trying to talk to everyone’

As a teenager and dot-com entrepreneur, Cohen made headlines in 2000 over a legal dispute with Apple over his ownership of the domain iTunes.co.uk. He later founded PinkNews in 2005, and a year after joined Channel 4 News as a tech correspondent, becoming the youngest-ever network news correspondent at the age of 23.

PinkNews came into creation soon after the passage of the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, which provided the first legal recognition of same-sex couples in the UK. Cohen described the queer media market at the time as highly sexualised and primarily funded by the adult entertainment and sex toys industries, leaving a gap in the market.

“It wasn’t a place for mainstream brands to advertise or for mainstream celebrities to appear, and where you could legitimately go and interview the prime minister,” he reflected at the Future of Brands.

“David Cameron wouldn’t want to be interviewed in the magazines that would have the interview next to a sex toy advert.”

By providing content on serious news and broad social issues, albeit seen through an authentic “queer lens”, PinkNews was able to carve out a niche, attracting advertisers interested in reaching LGBTQ+ communities and their allies without overly worrying them their brand would be placed in locations considered “unsafe”.

After over a decade of slow but consistent readership growth, PinkNews’ popularity has accelerated over the past five years. Its mission to “inform, inspire change, and empower people to be themselves” has found acclaim especially among millennial and Gen Z consumers.

“Gen Z, something like over 50-60% of them do not identify as straight,” noted managing editor Nic Keaney, who joined PinkNews earlier this year after a stint at Twitter. “They don’t know exactly what they are, but this generation’s coming and they are looking for content from an organisation like ours, and there’s nobody else doing what we’re doing at the moment.”

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The publisher boasts it now reaches more than 100 million individuals across its owned and social platforms, and its recent headcount growth has pushed the team above 80 as it seeks to further expand into foreign markets. Importantly, more than half of its audience is female, and on YouTube that figure rises to more than three-quarters.

“It’s really important for us that we’re not just talking to that kind of ‘clichéd’ gay male audience, we’re trying to talk to everyone,” said Cohen. “But also providing perspective on important topics that aren’t necessarily obviously LGBTQ+.”

Cohen pointed out that millions watched PinkNews’ analysis of last year’s Tory leadership election on TikTok, for example, despite the subject not ostensibly being LGBTQ+ in scope.

‘You can’t just rely on a single platform’

The company’s “agility” to work with whatever social platform is most in vogue has given it a competitive edge. PinkNews has 400,000 followers on TikTok, 280,000 followers on Instagram, and 11 million followers across various accounts on Snapchat, where its partnership with Snapchat Discover has contributed to strong added reach and revenues.

Cohen admits PinkNews wouldn’t be the size it is without social media. But, unlike the likes of BuzzFeed and Vice, PinkNews’ ability to jump onto multiple nascent platforms has served it well. “You can’t just rely on a single platform,” he said. “One of the things that’s been challenging for [companies] like BuzzFeed and Vice is they were very reliant on purely Facebook, and Facebook’s not performing for them [anymore].”

Uncertainty about the future of news on a number of social platforms has made adaptability a practical requirement for digital publishers. Facebook has signalled in recent years it is disinterested in promoting journalism on its platform; meanwhile Twitter is in a state of flux amid changing leadership and mass layoffs (including Keaney’s own departure) and TikTok is under threat of country-wide bans.

Cohen added that, given the changing and ephemeral nature of social media, sometimes the better editorial strategy is to be “smaller” and “more focused”, rather than trying to be “everything to everyone” like BuzzFeed and Vice had attempted. The implication: there’s a stronger, more agile business case in the niches.

‘Brands need to put their money where their mouth is’

Like all publishers without a subscription-led business model, PinkNews is still, however, reliant on advertising revenue. As an LGBTQ+ brand, it can sometimes be a challenge for PinkNews to consistently have the ear of advertisers. Namely, Cohen noted that UK brands do not—but should—spend a proportionate amount of their advertising budgets on minority-owned and operated media.

“It’s quite well-established to be spending a proportionate amount of your advertising spend on minority-owned and operated media [in the US],” he said. “That isn’t the case yet here.”

Keaney spoke more frankly: “Brands need to put their money where their mouth is. Pride comes along and there’s a lot of adspend in that period, and we welcome that, but there’s a whole other bunch of months where we’re still existing, we’re still here.”

Keyword blocklisting is another barrier for PinkNews, and an issue that has plagued a number of premium news outlets for years. Cohen described multiple examples wherein there appeared to be a dissonance of expectations between advertisers and PinkNews as a publisher. In one instance, an advertiser had placed the acronym “LGBTQ” on a blocklist despite also planning to do a site takeover during Pride Month. In another, an op-ed written by former Prime Minister Theresa May was blocked because it discussed “homophobia”—in fact, it was on the subject of tackling and reducing homophobic bullying in schools. Brands must be careful, Cohen warns, of over-blocking and harming publishers in their attempts to avoid controversial ad placements.

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That said, Cohen approaches his request of proportionate adspend with pragmatism in mind. He admitted that, while some brands seek to take strong pro-LGBTQ+ stances as part of their brand identity strategies, others are more neutral. “I think that that’s okay,” he offered. “Because if you are a supermarket or a bank or a car brand, you need to talk to our audience and you need to talk to all the other audiences that exist. It’s just about making sure the spend is spent proportionately.”

But, to Cohen, there is a strong business case for brands to advertise to the queer community. “We as LGBTQ+ consumers and our allies have huge spending power. So talk to us all year round,” he said. “But also remember it’s not just us. It’s our family, it’s our friends; a big proportion of the PinkNews web audience, and in particular on Facebook, are the mums of LGBTQ+ people.

“There’s millions of people like that all around the world.”


The Future of Brands 2023 panel with Benjamin Cohen and Nic Keaney was chaired by Ozone chief strategy officer Dora Michail-Clendinnen on 25 April. For more on our events, including our upcoming The Future of Media conference, check out our events portal.

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