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Washington Blade Closes


As news unfolded Monday that Window Media had filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy and publications including the flagship Washington Blade would be liquidated, former staff members vowed to reemerge in independent form, while they expressed concern for the fate of the venerable newspaper's historical archives.

"I'm worried," said Kevin Naff, the former editor of the Blade, on Monday afternoon, hours after he retrieved his belongings from the office in the National Press Club building. "There are 40 years of people's work in there. It's one-of-a kind stuff, images of protests, in filing cabinet after filing cabinet."

Naff served as editor from 2006 until Monday morning around 8 a.m., when Window Media executives Mike Kitchens and Steve Myers appeared at the office to notify him of the bankruptcy. Staff members, who numbered around 21, were directed to collect their personal items by 3:30 p.m. that afternoon.

The future of the archives, mostly old newspaper issues and photos documenting 40 years of the LGBT movement since Stonewall, remained unclear, and potentially perilous.

"I asked that question of Steve and Mike and was told the archive is now owned by the bankruptcy court and the trustee of the court will decide what to do with it," said Naff. "Will they decide to put it in a landfill? Or maybe make their best effort to find a buyer?"

Naff said he believed the items were still in the National Press Club building as of late Monday afternoon. Neither Kitchens nor Myers responded to requests for comment.

Window Media and sibling entity Unite Media published several gay and lesbian newspapers including the Blade, the Houston Voice, South Florida Blade, David Atlanta, The 411 Magazine, and Atlanta's Southern Voice. All were shuttered on Monday morning, the result of escalating financial distress first disclosed publicly in February.

Back then, Gay City News reported that the U.S. Small Business Administration had placed Avalon Equity Fund, the owner of Window Media and Unite Media, in receivership. A court filing from August 2008 showed that Avalon failed to maintain the level of capital required by its contract with SBA, the agency from which Avalon had borrowed $39 million for investments in LGBT media properties and other ventures since 2000.

"The fuse on Avalon was there," said Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a D.C.-based firm specializing in the LGBT market, on Monday afternoon. "They never had any illusions that they had to solve that. The money still had to be found."

While the closure of the Blade did not surprise most insiders, many, including Naff, were startled by how abruptly it unfolded on Monday.

"I guess I assumed there would be a chapter 11 and through that process we would find a way to restructure and merge," said Naff. Instead, there was no reprieve.

"They let us know that everyone had been terminated," said Chris Johnson, a former news reporter for the Blade, speaking from his home Monday afternoon. "I was told the company had filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy."

Speculation about the Blade's demise intensified throughout Monday morning. The publication finally confirmed the worst on its Twitter account around 11 a.m.

"Washington Blade, like all Window Media publications, is closing today," said the Tweet. "Thank you for your support. (Keep following us for developments.)"

Around that same time, the Associated Press reported that Laura Douglas-Brown, editor of the Southern Voice in Atlanta, had arrived at work to find the locks changed and a note saying that parent company Window Media had closed down.

The news shocked Lisa Keen, who stepped down as executive editor of the Blade in 2001 after Window Media bought the newspaper from publisher Don Michaels. A 20-year employee, Keen called the latest development "devastating."

"The Blade has made a significant contribution to Washington, D.C. and to the community nationally with the reporting it has done over many years and the reporting it has been doing lately," said Keen, now a journalist based in Massachusetts. "It's devastating to us as journalists to lose such an entity, and as a community, I think we should be absolutely alarmed at what it means to lose our media."

Her colleague Michaels, publisher of the Blade from 1980 to 2001, said he was "sad" to learn about the closing. He recalled items from the archive, including a multiple-part series by Keen that followed a dying man in the early days of the AIDS crisis, and reporting by veteran Lou Chibbaro, Jr. on the 1977 fire that killed nine patrons at the Cinema Follies, a gay adult movie theater.

"The Blade is an institution in this town and across the country it had a good reputation," said Michaels, now retired in D.C. "I'm hoping that someone can revive it or at least step in to fill the void."

For the time being, hopes for a revival may rest with the Blade's newest former staff members. Naff said they all planned to meet Tuesday morning to discuss a new project, by a different name, which he called a "print venture with a strong online element."

"The staff is united and we are all coming together in our first meeting to lay the groundwork for our first venture," he said. "I think freed from corporate overlords we can achieve great things. We really need this voice right now."

Lynne Brown, the longtime publisher of the Blade until Monday, seconded the plan.

"I invited people out for coffee on Tuesday morning," she said. "I'm incredibly bullish. Kevin is a brilliant editor and Lou is an award-winning reporter. We are the people who've brought you the Washington Blade for the last 20 years. We are alive and well," she said.

Accordingly, a happy-hour Tweetup previously announced by the Blade will proceed as planned on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 pm. at the Hard Rock Cafe in Washington, D.C. Except now, memories, as well as suggestions, are welcome.

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