Monday, October 20, 2014

The Washington Blade turns 45

by Chuck Colbert

The Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest LGBT newspaper, recently marked its 45th anniversary, a considerable feat in gay media. To celebrate the milestone, the venerable newspaper published a 72-page special issue and threw a party, a benefit on behalf of its newly launched Washington Blade Foundation, a 501c(3) non-profit.

The foundation has two purposes. One purpose is raising money to digitize the Blade’s entire 45-year archives, which are a front-line record of the LGBT community in the nation’s capital and beyond. The archives will be made available for public research and reference.

The foundation’s other purpose is to fund academic and journalism research for LGBT topics and to support the work of young gay journalists.

“We’re excited to continue the Blade’s 45-year mission through the work of the Foundation,” said Blade publisher Lynne Brown, quoted in the newspaper by senior reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. “This is a tremendous new vehicle for supporters to contribute directly to our work and for journalists and researchers to benefit.”

The Blade also announced a donation of historic editions of the publication to the Newseum. One of the donated editions first mentioned the HIV epidemic, Chibbaro noted.

A Newseum representative attended the fundraising benefit and received eight editions, including the first issue of the Blade, which was published on Oct. 6, 1969. The fundraiser, held at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Logan Circle showroom on October 9, also featured a short program honoring the Blade’s history.

The special anniversary issue included on the front page a reproduction of the first published edition of the newspaper, which was a mimeographed one-page, single-sheet of paper known then as The Gay Blade.

As part of the anniversary celebration, the Blade’s editorial staff selected the top 45 headlines from the publication’s archives. “These headlines often represent single events, but sometimes are used thematically to encompass a series of related events. Each one survived several rounds of voting to make the cut and determine its order in the final list,” according to staff reports. “The stories are a mix of local and national events that helped shape the LGBT movement.”

The anniversary issue included a four-page, color photo essay of the last five years, compiled by Michael Key, Blade photo editor.

It also featured an opinion piece by editor Naff that voiced optimism for the years ahead in LGBT media. “Many pundits and Chicken Littles seem to relish in declaring journalism and the print media dead. But a closer look at the reality of publishing for a niche audience reveals a much more promising future,” he wrote. “Rather than mope about the impact of digital media on print’s fortunes or live in fear of a paperless future, I’ve always thought it much more rewarding to revel in these new opportunities and be grateful at having a chance to participate in — and even influence — the myriad changes happening across the media landscape.”

Naff also noted the publication’s expansive reporting. “The scope of our coverage has changed,” he wrote, “from local and political stories to a much broader focus on international issues and stories of interest to readers in other parts of the country. This summer, we dispatched a reporter and photographer for a week in the Deep South to report on the plight of LGBT residents there. A month later, we sent a reporter to Peru to cover U.S. efforts at boosting LGBT equality there. And this month, we travel to Mexico City.”

During a telephone interview, Naff said, “The focus of my op-ed was deliberately forward looking. When we did the 40th, we spent a lot of time looking backward, talking about early editors and founders. This time I wanted to focus on looking forward.”

He also said that about 250 people attended the fundraising benefit, “a solid kickoff for the foundation.”

The 45th anniversary comes five years after the publication’s inspiring resurrection. To recap, the Blade had celebrated its 40th anniversary a month earlier. But on the morning of November 16, 2009, staffers learned, without any warning, that Window Media LLC, the parent company, had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Immediately, a dozen employees volunteered — without pay — to continue publishing the paper under the name D.C. Agenda.

Like its predecessor, the D.C. Agenda covered local Beltway and national news until April 2010 when the newsweekly resumed using the name Washington Blade and returned to local ownership.

The change occurred when a new corporate entity, Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia, acquired from bankruptcy court all Blade assets, including the name, all trademarks and copyrights, and the entire 40-year archive. 

The purchase price was $15,000.

Brown, Naff, and Blade senior sales executive Brian Pitts wrote in a column in the newspaper at the one-year mark in 2010, “In the immediate aftermath of the bankruptcy, the Blade staff stuck together. ... We are proud to report that we never missed a week of publishing LGBT news.”

By May 2011, the Blade had new logo, new print and layout design, a media-enhanced website, a mobile application, and expanded distribution beyond metropolitan Washington, D.C., which includes suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, to Baltimore, Philadelphia and Rehoboth, Del.

Longtime Blade reader Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, offered his perspective on the Blade’s 45th anniversary.

“I’ve been reading the Blade from the start, when I was in high school. In the 1960s I remember it as a lifeline, and also as the voice of early gay activism,” he said. “Today I see it as professional journalism, which is what it has grown up to be. It has been among the most important LGBT journals in America, not simply because Washington D.C. is so self-important, but because of our national government. The Blade has often been the journal of record in covering public policy and politics in every way. It has earned trust and access and context in covering the most important news stories that matter to us.

“I remember being a Senate press secretary on Capitol Hill in 1979, and taking a press call from Lou Chibbaro on the Blade staff. Here it is 35 years later, and I’m still talking with Lou at the Blade.” This anniversary, he said, “is evidence that a newspaper that understands and is deeply tied to its local community can thrive, not just survive.”

Based in Washington, D.C., Witeck Communications specializes in strategic public relations and marketing communications for corporate and non-profit clients.

Over the years, the Blade grew to become a respected and award-winning news source.

Blade reporters, for example, were the first in LGBT media to acquire credentials on Capitol Hill and the White House.

This year, the White House Correspondents Association invited Blade political reporter Chris Johnson to join the in-town White House press pool rotation. His invitation marks a first for an LGBT media outlet.

In May, Blade staffers, including Johnson, editor Naff, and senior reporter Chibbaro attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

In June, the Washington Blade won three first-place awards in the Dateline Awards competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists’ D.C. chapter.

In addition to its weekly print issue, the Blade has a robust website, which features daily and, from time to time, hourly updates on breaking news and politics. There are 150,000 unique monthly web site readers. The publication also has a social media presence with more than 32,000 Facebook followers and more than 22,000 followers on Twitter.

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