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Nation's oldest LGBT paper among shuttered publications

by Jen Colletta and Sarah Blazucki - The Philadelphia Gay News

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nation's oldest LGBT paper among shuttered publications

The nation’s largest LGBT newspaper publisher shut down this week, taking with it the oldest gay paper in the country and several other LGBT publications.

Window/Unite Media LLC announced Monday that it was closing down and immediately ceasing operations of its six subsidiaries, including the Washington Blade, which has served the D.C. community for 40 years.

BLADESIn addition to the Blade, Window also owned the 20-year-old Southern Voice, the South Florida Blade, David Atlanta, 411 Magazine and Houston Voice, which two years ago ceased printing and transitioned to an online publication.

Employees at the publications were notified of the closing when they arrived at work Monday morning.

At the Southern Voice in Atlanta, editor Laura Douglas-Brown told the Associated Press that the locks on the office doors had been changed and a short note posted on the door, signed by Window chief operating officer Michael Kitchens and chief financial officer Steve Myers, notifying employees that Window had closed and instructing them to return later in the week to collect their belongings.

Douglas-Brown told AP that employees had been told the publications would be sold and that the closings were a “complete shock.”

Kevin Naff, editor of the Blade, said the publication’s approximately 20 employees learned of the closing from Kitchens and Myers, who were waiting for them at the office on Monday. Naff said the move wasn’t a “complete surprise,” but “the abruptness of it was what was surprising.”

Naff said the employees have not been able to gain access to the offices and that if they’d had “any inkling” of the closure, they would have taken steps to retrieve the newspaper’s extensive archives, which contain thousands of stories, for preservation.

Window purchased the Blade from former publisher Don Michaels in May 2001.

Window’s majority stakeholder, Avalon Equity Partners, was reported to have filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy this week — which, unlike Chapter 11 bankruptcy, shuts a company down and allows it to liquidate its assets — although no record of the company’s filing has been located.

Jane Limprecht, public information officer for the Executive Office for the United States Trustees, said, “We have not found a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing under the name Window Media in the public record of the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York,” where Avalon is based.

Michael Stamler, director of the U.S. Small Business Association’s press office, said the agency “[has] not heard that [a bankruptcy filing] has occurred.”

Avalon, headed by David Unger, was licensed as a Small Business Investment Company by the SBA in 2000 and, since then, had generated $20.4 million in private investments and garnered $39.4 million in loans that were backed by the SBA.

Stamler said the security agreement Avalon made with the SBA was signed by Ben Brandes, a former partner with Avalon.

David Unger, reached on Wednesday, refused to comment for this story.

According to PGN research, Unger is associated with Knight Libertas LLC, an investment-services organization.

Additionally, an anonymous source told PGN that Unger “was very clear that he was out of the media world.”

The SBA requires SBICs to maintain a certain amount of private assets and had set Avalon’s level at $20 million, which it began dipping below in 2007, creating what the SBA refers to as a “capital impairment.” The SBA sued Avalon last year and the company went into receivership with the SBA in August 2008.

According to the SBA, Avalon invested more than $7 million in Window, which the agency said this week it does not anticipate being able to recover from the company.

According to Stamler, the SBA did not make the decision to shutter the publications.

“SBA has not been a part of any decision to sell, to not sell or to close these newspapers,” he said.

Stamler noted that the agency did support Window’s efforts to sell the publications, soliciting offers and passing on bids for Southern Voice and the Blade to Window.

Naff told PGN that Blade staffers made a bid over the summer to purchase the publication but never received a response.

Nicholas Benton, publisher of the Falls Church News-Press in Virginia, said the SBA notified him in September that a bid made by his company, Benton Communications Inc., to purchase the Blade had been selected.

“I made the bid and it was the winning bid,” he told PGN, noting that he couldn’t disclose how much he offered for the publication because he hasn’t “actually terminated the process yet.”

Benton said the sale had not been finalized and he’d had communication with SBA officials in regard to the purchase as recently as Nov. 6.

“As I understood, the process going forward was for [Window] to file for bankruptcy and my purchase sale agreement — which hadn’t yet been signed, but I had assumed that both sides had essentially been in agreement — would be rolled into that,” he said.

Benton said he was given no notification that Window was going to shut down.

“This came as a surprise. I found out along with everyone else,” he said.

Naff said the full staff at the Blade met Tuesday to plan for a new venture, which is expected to hit the streets Nov. 20. The paper will not be able to use the name “Blade,” but Naff could not disclose the new title.

The publication, which has garnered start-up capital from former Blade employees and outside sources, will be employee-owned. Naff said this week’s meeting even drew interest from non-employees who stopped by to offer resources and office space.

“What’s really promising is the reaction from the community here,” Naff said, noting that people “from all walks of life” who’ve expressed interest in getting involved will help bring in a “diverse pool of new voices.”

Naff noted the paper will launch less than two weeks before the D.C. Council is set to vote on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, an issue he said will be extensively covered, as well as ongoing federal legislation, like the scheduled markup of the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act.

Southern Voice founder and former publisher Chris Cash posted a note on the paper’s Facebook page Monday night expressing an interest in meeting with supporters to discuss “what can be done to fill this gap.”

Michaels noted that in the Blade’s 40 years in operation, its staff was able to establish integral connections between the LGBT community and elected officials, which he said contributed to the paper’s venerable reputation.

“Its impact was substantial,” said Michaels, who began as the publication’s first paid employee in 1977 and eventually progressed to its managing editor and then publisher. “When I joined the paper, I was impressed with the sense of purpose and continuity that had been established, and it made me want to stay on and build that. Its location in the seat of national government enabled the Blade to tap a wealth of social and political resources to establish a first-class reporting effort for both local and national issues.”

Michaels said he had mixed feelings when he sold the paper to Window.

“We talked to people who criticized [Window] and others who praised them. But their stated intentions were good,” he said. “I do regret that they quickly got rid of most of the staff they inherited, which I feel robbed the organization of an institutional memory.”

While he wasn’t privy to the “internal workings” of the publication after the sale, Michaels asserted that he doesn’t “buy into the idea that the Blade was a victim of the current bad economic climate for print media,” adding: “It’s obvious there was some pretty bad management at some level.”

Naff said the Blade, which most recently had a weekly circulation of approximately 23,000 and drew 250,000 visitors per month to its Web site, had been turning a profit.

“There was no need for [the closing],” Naff said, noting that employees at the new publication will be launching their own investigation into Window’s closure. “The Blade was a robust, profitable business. It was making money. It really stings. The Blade and Southern Voice got brought down by forces outside of our control.”

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