The former longtime lead writer and gay-rights crusader has brought the state’s leading gay publication back from the dead.
By Jacob Engels
When I first started my publication East Orlando Post several years ago, I knew I wanted it to be different, but wasn’t sure what that meant. A longtime admirer of gonzo journalism and the style of PJ O’Rourke and Ann Coulter, I knew it needed to grab readers attention in a way that the Orlando Sentinel was not.
Locally I looked to the comprehensive bodies of work from the Sentinel’s lead opinion columnist Scott Maxwell, and more importantly Orlando Weekly’s Billy Manes. His style and willingness to put himself in the middle of controversial issues and situations was daring and refreshing. All for the truth and a great story.
So, when we started competing for readers in both out style and content, for a time I viewed Manes and his Orlando Weekly as the enemy. We regularly found ourselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but I shied away from bringing a fight to his front door… because he deserved my respect.
He wasn’t one of those milk toast “Boy Falls In Well” reporters who regularly swiped my breaking stories and made it their own at the Orlando Sentinel, he actually credited me when credit was due and we built up a rapport that lasts until this very moment. Both of us outsiders, writers who did not fit the norm and challenged the status quo.
Fast forward two years to when I found out Billy was making the move to the states largest gay publication – Watermark as the new editor. This in all senses of the meaning, was the “end of an era” for both publications. It marked a huge vacuum of leadership and stylistic fire at Orlando Weekly, and a much needed face-lift for Watermark.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave Orlando Weekly after 18 years of reporting and rambling, but the challenge of taking on an LGBT focus – something that was always at the core of my work at the Weekly, but not at the core of that paper’s mission – was something I found exciting; believing in your own ability to advance is usually the hardest step. Once you get there, it’s surprising how natural transition can feel,” Manes told me of his move to Watermark.
Watermark Magazine, which was lead by Steve Blanchard prior to Mr. Manes, was in a severe decline. Ad revenues were in the basement, and it was in constant battles for readers against alternative weeklies like Orlando Weekly. That is why the hiring of Billy Manes literally saved Watermark from going out of business and becoming just another casualty of print publications.
With the addition of Manes, Watermark has seen a significant increase in revenue and readership (both online and in print), according to friend I’ve known since high school that is plugged into the heartbeat of the publication. And Billy Manes, is the one to blame, or credit.
A source who has worked both under Blanchard and Manes said that both the community and paper were ready for a change.
“We wanted to expand the papers reach. Billy’s connection to the political landscape and LGBT community made him the perfect choice.”
Manes explained his style as a “difficult dance”.
“Just like I did at the Weekly, I’m bringing all of my chest-puffed indignation to the dinner table and coating it in narratives and storytelling. I’m trying to avoid too much unnecessary conflict over labels and name-calling while keeping a solid editorial opinion where it is due. It’s a difficult dance sometimes.
Something that is very important to me, though, is dispelling the myth that everything in the LGBT world is a superficial shopping trip. I believe in the activists, I listen to the politicians, I try to keep the story and its requisite snowball rolling.”
And he has done so, with his growing portfolio at Watermark retaining his trademark flair, but in a mode of re-branding to fit his new responsibilities as both a figurehead and editor. Thanks to Manes, Watermark has been able to rebound and catch up in the chase for advertising dollars.
Just this past month, the publication featured full page back-to-back ad buys by a major Republican candidate for office – a rare occurrence for a gay publication.
“Billy’s political nature attracts readers and advertisers from all ends of the political spectrum. They may not always agree, but they want to be part of the dialogue because of him,” a Watermark employee told me, asking to remain anonymous.
As a gay Republican, Billy and I rarely see eye to eye. He fights for the minimum wage, liberal social policies, and the progressive left. But again, I respect his style and tenacity. He, at times, even holds Democrats and progressive leaders to account. Not the same can be said of Scott Maxwell, who I’ve come to admire less and less.
“I’ve made it a bit more quippy, a touch more political, and I’m proud of the direction we’re taking. Also, I love the people who I work with, and they don’t seem to mind me, either. We’re in a good place in a good time. I’m just lucky I was invited to be along for the ride.”
Indeed Mr. Manes, as a publisher and writer, I tip my hat. Just promise you will get Duran Duran to come to Dr. Phillips sometime soon and I’ll look the other way when you hit my buddies in the GOP.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post. He is a seasoned political operative who has led numerous statewide political groups and has worked on several high-profile local, statewide, and national races. Jacob has been interviewed on national television & radio programs, with his work having been featured in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications nationwide. He can be reached at email@example.com