The Washington Blade


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The Washington Blade
Baltimore magazine
Image by dbking
Gay weekly Washington Blade closes
Storied 40-year-old paper among sister publications abruptly shuttered

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Washington Blade, the weekly newspaper that chronicled the coming-out of the capital’s gay community, was born amid the idealism of 1960s street protests. Monday, the paper died, victim of the unforgiving realities of the nation’s sagging newspaper industry.

Last month, the Blade celebrated its 40th anniversary at a swanky downtown Washington party. The paper’s nearly two-dozen employees arrived at their downtown offices Monday to start a new workweek, only to be ordered to clear out their desks by midafternoon.

Steven Myers, co-president of the paper’s owner, Atlanta-based Window Media, said the company also ceased operations at its other gay-oriented publications, which include the Southern Voice newspaper and David magazine in Atlanta, and the South Florida Blade and 411 magazine in Florida.

As employees in the District newsroom packed up and removed photographs from the walls of the Blade’s offices at the National Press Building, Myers declined to explain the shutdown, saying the company would release "a formal statement later this week." Staffers planned to meet at a coffee shop Tuesday to plot a revival of the paper.

"It’s a shock. I’m almost speechless, really," said Lou Chibbaro Jr., a Blade reporter who has written for the newspaper since 1976, covering the full arc of the country’s gay-rights movement, from early marches through the rise of AIDS and on to the latest battles over legalizing same-sex marriage.

The Blade, born in an era when most gays lived in the closet, grew in size and stature as Washington’s gay population blossomed and became more politically active and influential. Chibbaro, who wrote his first front-page story for the Blade under a pseudonym at a time when publicly stating one’s sexual orientation could be dangerous, felt the change in dramatic fashion this year, when, while covering a presidential news conference on health-care policy, he was directed to a seat in the front row.

The Blade’s closing comes at a moment of extraordinary optimism for many gays in Washington. The big story Chibbaro and the paper’s other writers have been covering is the bill supported by nearly all of the D.C. Council’s members that would legalize same-sex marriage in the city.

"Here we are, on the verge of having marriage equality, and it would be real shame if the Blade wasn’t there to cover the victory," said Deacon Maccubbin, owner of Lambda Rising, the gay-oriented Dupont Circle bookstore, which had been advertising in the paper since the shop’s 1974 opening.

Kevin Naff, the Blade’s editor, said Window Media officials told him the company "was forced into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which means liquidation." Window Media’s majority stockholder, Avalon Equity Partners, was placed in receivership by the U.S. Small Business Administration last year. Naff and other staffers immediately began an effort to revive the paper as an employee-owned operation.

This week’s edition of the free weekly, which had a circulation of 23,000, won’t be published. The Blade’s Web site, which reported about 250,000 visitors a month, went dark Monday morning.

A small troupe of activists founded the Blade in 1969, a few months after New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, igniting riots and launching the gay rights movement. In its infancy, the paper was known as the Gay Blade and consisted of a single, letter-size sheet of paper that its editor, Nancy Tucker, mimeographed and distributed herself, scooting around town in a Volkswagen to drop off stacks at gay-friendly bars. The paper’s mission was to unite an eclectic array of gay groups, including drag queens and government workers, literary buffs and motorcycle enthusiasts; inform readers of gay-related services; and warn them about blackmailers and other scammers.

In the ensuing decades, the Blade’s editors became more ambitious, switching to newsprint and dispatching reporters to write about discrimination against gays in the federal government, hate crimes such as the killing of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, and political and health issues generated by the AIDS epidemic.

Yet, equally important, the newspaper devoted itself to more routine stories, casting light on murders and legislation that received little or no attention from mainstream news outlets such as The Washington Post. The Blade was also the place to find advertisements for everything from doctors to lawyers to real estate agents who cater to gays.

"They have become the voice of record for the gay community," said Franklin Kameny, widely recognized as a pioneer of the gay rights movement. At 84 years old, Kameny still made it a weekly part of his ritual to drive to Dupont Circle and pick up the paper each Friday.

"I knew there were financial problems in the background, but I’m in a dumbfounded state of shock by this," Kameny said.

Window Media bought the Blade and other publications in 2001. Like many news organizations, the Blade suffered financially in recent years, although it still managed to turn a profit, said Lynn Brown, the paper’s publisher, in an interview on the occasion of the paper’s 40th anniversary.

Naff said Monday that he hopes to keep the staff together and relaunch the paper under a new name. He would not provide more details about potential investors or logistics.

"It will be employee-owned," Naff said. "We’re not going away."

Asked the name of the new publication, he smiled and said, "Got any suggestions?"
This is an image of first of the one page newsletters which evolved into the "Washington Blade" newspaper. This issue is from October 5,1969.
The Washington Blade is a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) newspaper in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The Blade is the oldest LGBT newspaper in the United States and second largest by circulation, behind Gay City News of New York City. The Blade has been referred to as America’s gay newspaper of record because it chronicles LGBT news locally, nationally, and internationally. The paper was originally launched by a group of volunteers as an independent publication in October 1969 with a focus on bringing the community together. The Blade has since been bought by Window Media, a group of gay-oriented newspapers circulated throughout the United States with a staff now comprised of professional journalists, becoming a leading source of news for the readers both in Washington and around the nation. The paper is published weekly on Fridays and celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in October 2004.
The Washington Blade, originally called The Gay Blade, published its first issue on October 5, 1969. Taking its roots from the Mattachine Society of Washington’s newsletter in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Blade was conceived as a way to fill in a perceived gap in the organization of social communications within the gay community of Washington, D.C. The Blade was originally published as a single page and distributed hand-to-hand in a variety of gay bars throughout the city. Afraid of a backlash over the publication, many of the initial authors of writings in the Blade used pen names during the early years of publishing. The initial publications were entirely created by volunteers from the community with two editors, Nancy Tucker and Bart Wenger, leading the helm. Wenger stated the initial goals of the publication were to "…engender a sense of community" and that it was "very important for gays to become acquainted with one another. Published monthly from 1969 to 1973, the newspaper evolved from its original size and shape of a single letter sized paper sheet. In June 1972, the Gay Blade published its first multi-page edition which consisted of four pages and in April 1973, the paper expanded to eight pages and was printed on legal sized paper sheets, stapled in the middle and folded. As the looks of the paper evolved, so did the news coverage. The Gay Blade began to focus less on being a newsletter used to organize the community and more of a newspaper for the community.

In July 1974, the first newsprint edition was published and signaled an evolution in the history of the Gay Blade. A fifth anniversary edition of the paper was not published in October 1974 because of a lack of revenue and interest, marking the only time the paper failed to publish an edition in its history. The new focus on being a newspaper allowed the publication’s circulation to grow in 1974 and 1975 from five hundred copies distributed at less than a dozen sites to over 4,000 copies available at thirty-five locations throughout the city. The June 1975 edition of the Blade dropped the word ‘Gay’ from the title of the publication after it was discovered that a newspaper in New York held the rights to the name Gay Blade. The new name of the publication was now The Blade. It continued to be published on newsprint paper and had no additional format changes until near the end of the decade. Incorporating as a non-profit corporation under the title of "Blade Communications, Inc." in November 1975, the paper continued its growth. Don Michaels, an important voice on the pages of the publication, was named the editor of the paper in January 1978. Michaels begins strict enforcement of a policy that prohibits pen names from being used in bylines. By November 1978, the Blade is now regularly featuring color printing on its pages and beginning in 1979, the Blade changed into a bi-weekly publication. Starting in October 1980, the name of the publication changes to The Washington Blade and the corporation re-incorporates as a for-profit, employee-owned business. In July 1981, the Blade runs a front-page story entitled "Rare, Fatal Pneumonia Hits Gay Men," making the paper one of the first gay newspapers in the country to write about the disease that has come to be known as AIDS. In November of 1981, Don Michaels got promoted to the position of publisher, a position he would hold for over two decades.

The Blade started publishing weekly in January 1983 and coverage shifted to the AIDS crisis and news about this newly emerging disease. The ever-breaking news caused the paper to remain in a heightened state of coverage and nearly exhausted the papers resources with members of the community having to step in to support the work of the Blade. The reporting of the AIDS crisis from this timeframe allowed the newspaper to come of age to the mature and professionally driven publication we see today. In June 1988, the editors of the paper use a computer to layout the paper for the first time. The 1990s saw increases in readership and circulation of the Washington Blade. In April 1993, during the 1993 Gay March on Washington, the paper published its largest edition to date consisting of 216 pages. The paper expanded into new markets and mediums with the 1995 launch of the online version of the Blade, followed two years later with the launching of a sister publication in New York, called the New York Blade. In the later part of the century, coverage was expanded to include local and national news, as well as international news of interest to the LGBT community.

On May 25, 2001, the print edition announced the sale of the Washington Blade to Window Media, LLC, a group of gay publications. With the new ownership came several changes to standardize the paper with other Window Media publications, such as the return of editorials to the publication after being missing for several decades. Shortly after the sale of the paper, staff at the Blade sought a vote to unionize with the help of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. The Guild and the staff of the Blade brought a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board and deliberated for a few weeks over this issue resulting in a ten to eight vote against unionization on July 20, 2001. In October 2004, the Washington Blade celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary.

Derek Jeter
Baltimore magazine
Image by Keith Allison
New York Yankees Derek Jeter returns to the dugout during a game against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday July 29, 2007 at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

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