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?"