By Lisa Keen
Keen News Service
The recorded message on the Washington Blade's phone this week gives no hint at what happened. It still says "thank you for calling the nation's most trusted gay newspaper, serving the community since 1969." But as of Monday, the paper is no more. Its website is down and its employees are without jobs.
Employees at both the Blade and a sister paper in Atlanta, the Southern Voice, found out when they arrived for work Monday morning that their papers were shut down over the weekend and that their parent companies, Window Media and United Media, were filing for bankruptcy.
The Blade staff had just last month celebrated the paper's 40th anniversary. The Southern Voice had been in publication for 21 years.
Many gay news media observers knew the papers were in trouble. The Gay City News broke the news last February that the U.S. Small Business Administration had put the papers into receivership. The problem, according to the SBA, was that Window Media's major stockholder, the Avalon Equity Fund, had failed to maintain a necessary level of private assets to secure a $39 million loan it had taken from the agency.
But many believed someone would step in and buy the Washington Blade —a paper which had been on the cutting edge of reporting the gay civil rights movement in the nation's capital and beyond.
So when word broke Monday morning that the Blade, Southern Voice, and a few smaller publications owned by the companies, were closed for business —permanently and immediately the news was a shock to most people —including its employees.
Laura Douglas-Brown, longtime editor of the 21-year-old Southern Voice, told reporters she didn't learn the news until she arrived for work Monday and found the locks to the offices had been changed and a note posted on the door saying the paper had been shut down.
The note stated: "It is with GREAT regret that we must inform you that effective immediately, the operations of Window Media, LLC and United Media, LLC have closed down. Please return to this office on WEDNESDAY, November 18th, 2009 at 11:00 AM to collect personal belongs and to receive information on your separation stipulations. Please bring boxes and/or containers that will allow you to collect all your personal belongings at one time. Regretfully, Steve Myers and Mike Kitchens."
Myers and Kitchens were co-presidents of Window Media and could not be reached for comment.
In Washington, D.C., Blade Editor Kevin Naff said two corporate officers greeted staff members at the Blade offices Monday morning, advising them the paper was shutting down immediately and filing for bankruptcy.
The Washington Blade and Southern Voice were the primary papers of Window Media, LLC, a company founded in 1997 by gay activist William Waybourn and Southern Voice editor Chris Crain. In 2001, the company teamed up with Avalon Equity, a capital venture firm run by New Yorker David Unger. Together, they purchased The Washington Blade and its younger sister, The New York Blade." Over the years, Window Media acquired more properties —including the Houston Voice-- and formed an "alliance" with another gay publishing group, Unite Media, and Genre magazine. Together, they billed themselves as the largest LGBT publishing company in the world.
But by August 2008, Avalon and its assets, including Window/Unite Media, was in receivership. Insiders insisted the papers would continue publishing, but soon after news broke —in February 2009-- that the SBA was putting the papers into receivership, the publications began to skid. Genre magazine was the first to suspend operation. That happened in March, with Unger, then chief executive officer of Window Media, saying the magazine was a casualty of the struggling economy. In July, the New York Blade suspended operation.
Small Business Administration spokesperson Mike Kamler said it was not the SBA's decision to shut down the newspapers. In fact, he said, the SBA solicited offers for some potential new owners to take over the Blade and forwarded those offers to Window/Unite.
Nicholas Benton, publisher of a local weekly newspaper in northern Virginia, revealed Tuesday that he had made a bid to take over the Blade and was led to believe in September that he had won that bid. He said he was essentially blind-sided by Monday's news that the paper had closed down for good.
"Everything was in place, although moving slowly, to make the seamless transition we hoped for," said Benton in a press release. "But I remain unaware of what happened, and as a result of Monday's events, the Blade is gone after 40 years of publication, its employees are out of work, and the nation's and region's LGBT community has been stripped of an invaluable institution."
Naff told Los Angeles Frontiers reporter Karen Ocamb that he and others on the staff will meet Tuesday to discuss starting their own "new entity." But Blade publisher Lynn Brown would neither confirm nor deny that plan.
Said Brown: "It's the end of an era."
The Washington Blade had just last month celebrated its 40th anniversary of publishing.
© 2009 Keen News Service
The author was the chief executive editor of The Washington Blade from 1983 to 2001 and its sister paper, the New York Blade News from 1997 to 2001. She was also one of several major stockholders at the time the papers were sold to Window Media in May 2001.