The sudden demise this week of the storied Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest gay-themed newspaper that only last month hosted a gala party to celebrate its 40th anniversary, is tragic on an array of levels.
It is fairly well known by now that this writer/newspaper owner was intimately involved in an effort to free the legendary publication from a certain death through parental receivership and liquidation. That did not pan out, and as of this writing, there are still many unanswered questions about exactly what went down to suddenly turn a methodical process toward a seamless transfer of assets into an unexpected train wreck.
But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, the drive for the paper’s imminent rebirth under a different name, could signal a way forward for the revival of good newspapers as critical components of society, overall.
It is not solely the bad economy or competing news sources, such as the Internet, that are to blame for the fact that many so-called experts are predicting the complete demise of print journalism as we now know it over the next decade.
Instead, it has been the systematic looting of the core news gathering and readership service function of newspapers by their money-hungry investors which is at the heart of the problem. At some point, Wall Street discovered that aggregating newspapers into chains and conglomerates made for a handsome opportunity for accumulating wealth.
They also discovered that, during good times and before the Internet’s full impact set in, that they could maximize those profits by cutting the costs of operating news rooms, substituting locally-generated stories with wire service copy or syndicated drivel.
This happened across the board, from large urban dailies to thousands of smaller regional, local and suburban papers. The model for large cities was for chains of suburban newspapers to surround the urban center with single owners and a single editorial office. These entities thought they were fooling readers by doing little more than changing the name of these papers on their front pages.
With the combined large circulations and being able to tout a dozen or more different editions, they would grab up large advertising accounts from media buyers who didn’t notice, or care, whether or not anyone in those suburbs actually read those newspapers. That is, until they were called into question by the economy.
With a single small editorial center serving all papers on a given corporate chain, and relying often on unprofessional stringers and volunteers, disdain for the publications within local communities grew as, for example, things like the president of the Garden Club being mistaken for the president of the Chamber of Commerce became commonplace.
But focused on their bottom lines, publishers of such newspaper chains scoffed at the shortcomings of their reporting capabilities, and cared only for the volume of ads.
Worse, these types and their investor group superiors routinely trolled the landscape in search of any existing old-fashioned local newspapers, looking to buy them out and transform them into another one of their clones.
This happened around me and my newspaper for years, including an offer to buy my newspaper by an outfit that went bankrupt only three years after I turned it down, leaving a half-dozen other papers it acquired in Northern Virginia in the lurch.
This is the Washington Blade‘s sad story, taken from being a labor of love by gay rights pioneers in the late 1960s to being turned by an investor group into a clone among a corporate chain of publications.
But in the midst of this, even during the recent period of greatest financial distress, the Blade retained a unique sense of a special mission to serve its community of interest. This has spilled over into the strident resolve by the paper’s once-employees to launch their own, new publication without delay.
It’s that kind of spirit, that kind of commitment to their readers, their cause and their community, that is the best hope for the future of all good newspapers.