Kevin Naff had already been an editor of the Washington Blade for seven years in 2009 when its owners abruptly announced that they were filing for bankruptcy and shutting down the nation’s oldest LGBT publication. He had been extremely proud of the Blade and its impact on American life, he says, but it wasn’t until the morning after the announcement of its demise that he realized the scope of the paper’s reach.
“I always had a sense that many Blade readers had an emotional connection to the paper, but the outpouring of support we received after the bankruptcy made me realize just how important it is to people not just in D.C. but around the country and the world,” the Baltimore resident said in an interview with The Sun last week.
“Offers of financial help came in from as far away as France, England and Turkey. Locally, college kids offered to deliver the paper for free, real estate developers offered us free office space, and media professionals from all disciplines — writers, designers, photographers, website developers — volunteered to help us get the new venture off the ground. The Blade is truly a community project; it simply wouldn’t exist today without all of those people who stepped up and inspired us to continue.”
This month, the Blade, which was founded in the wake of the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, is celebrating 50 years of telling the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender life in the nation and parts of the world. At the heart of that celebration is a gala scheduled for Oct. 18 at Washington’s Intercontinental Hotel at the Wharf that includes Broadway performer Frenchie Davis, the choral ensemble Potomac Fever, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and the senior openly gay member of the House. One of the honorees will be Lou Chibbaro Jr., who has been a reporter at the Blade for more than 30 years.
For 50 years, the Washington Blade has been telling the stories of the gay community and its push for equal rights. For most of that history reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. has had a front seat at the revolution. NBC Washington's Wendy Rieger sat down with him to see what that history looks like through his eyes. (Published Thursday, Jun 6, 2019 | Credit: Wendy Rieger)
Naff remembered the emotional roller coaster of the 24 hours in 2009 when he and his fellow Blade workers went from losing their publication and paychecks, as their parent company Window Media declared bankruptcy, to re-launching with Naff, publisher Lynne Brown and sales executive Brian Pitts as the new owners.
“Our offices were in the National Press Building, and the walls of the offices were all glass, so when the news of the bankruptcy got out, all the TV cameras, which were already in the building because it was the National Press Building, rushed to our floor," Naff said. "And it was just all these cameras and everybody crying and packing up their boxes. Not the best day.”
But Naff says he woke the next morning to more than 400 emails and Facebook messages from around the world with all those offers of emotional support, free office space and labor.
“When I went to bed the night before, I had been prepared to walk away, but seeing that, I thought, ‘We have to keep this going,’” he said.
“So, we all met at a coffee shop that day, because we had no offices, and the staff decided to stick together and give it a whirl," he added. "That was a Tuesday morning, and the consensus on the staff was that we can’t miss a week. Friday was our publication date, and the staff that wasn’t getting paid got a publication out on that Friday. It was modest, but we got one out.”
Things are going considerably better today for the weekly publication. At a time when almost every established media outlet has come to understand the meaning of the word “existential” in new and scary ways, Naff says the Blade is on solid footing. Three years ago, it launched a sister publication, the Los Angeles Blade, which has gone from being bi-weekly to weekly.
And at a time when it seems like there’s an announcement every other week of another legacy publication cutting back print editions and throwing all its resources into digital, Naff says there are no such plans at the Blade.
“Print still works for readers and advertisers,” Naff said. “So, as long as that’s the case, we’ll keep printing. Obviously, there are more readers online and in social media, but there’s still an audience for our print edition ... We do about 20,000 copies or so every Friday, and its available all over D.C., northern Virginia and in Baltimore.”
Naff said the publication draws about 250,000 unique visitors a month to its website, an audience that he says is growing.
The 48-year-old Naff, who came to Baltimore in 1996 from a reporting job at Reuters in New York to work on one of the early iterations of what is now baltimoresun.com, seems more than ready for the digital world himself. He left The Sun in 2000 to work for Verizon Wireless creating mobile APPs for media companies.
Under his newsroom leadership, the Blade has expanded its coverage into the Caribbean and Latin America with an international editor and a pool of contributors in the region. The paper also has a full time White House correspondent and is part of the pool rotation.
For a publication like the Blade, that kind of White House presence and the coverage is not a given. Much has been made of Donald Trump’s White House pulling press credentials from CNN reporter Jim Acosta this year. But, according to Naff, the Blade had been there and had that done to them in 2004 by the administration of George W. Bush, which didn’t like the kind of coverage it was getting. Upon Bush’s re-election, the Blade’s credentials were rescinded without explanation, Naff said.
As to the Blade’s location in the current culture wars landscape of daily battles over identity, minority rights and control of political narratives, Naff says, “We’re smack in the middle of it.”
“During the campaign of 2016, I can’t tell you how many people said to me, ‘Oh, why do we need the gay press?’ Or, ‘Why do we need gay bars?’ The thinking was, ‘Obama gave us everything, and we have marriage, and Hillary’s going to win, and she’s going to cement everything, and it’s over.’ Well, no one says that anymore," Naff said.
“There have been so many attacks and rolling back of rights under this administration. We’re the only alternative, only LGBT outlet that’s in the White House, in the briefing rooms ― when they used to have briefings ... So, we’re now very much part of the conversation.”
While that conversation ranges from the local ― like reporting the return of The Eagle, a Baltimore leather club ― to such international enterprises as embedding with a group of LGBT migrants as they journeyed from Central America toward the Southern border, the Blade seems especially strong on national politics.
Its Sept. 27 edition was all over the 2020 presidential election with a staff written report with an Iowa dateline on frontrunner Joe Biden being booed at an LGBT event for describing Vice President Mike Pence as a “decent guy” and an interview with Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David saying Trump is responsible for a rise in anti-trans violence. There’s also a counter-intuitive piece about Trump trying to get a gay prosecutor appointed as a federal appeals court judge. There are four pieces on gay Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in connection with his criticism of the LGBT press ― and then his walk back of those remarks.
In a Sirius interview, Buttigieg said he “can’t even read the LGBT media anymore, because it’s all too gay, not gay enough, wrong kind of gay”.
In a subsequent interview he said, “Just to be clear, LGBT media plays an important role especially at a time like this. I was just having a grumpy moment here I was thinking about some of the coverage ... .”
“My head exploded over that ... him saying he can’t even read the LGBT media," Naff said. “Now he wasn’t saying that in January when his campaign was begging me to put him on the cover.”
Naff says he was even angrier after writing a letter to Buttigieg’s campaign demanding the candidate clarify his remarks about the LGBT media only to have Buttigieg do so with “some mainstream outlet rather than giving it to us, the people he criticized."
I liked hearing Naff’s passion and sense of mission. I left the interview inspired by his recollection of that week in 2009 of the announced death and near-instant rebirth of the Blade.
The Blade has served at least two very important function in American life these past 50 years.
It helped show the reality, diversity, dignity and value of LGBT life at a time when TV, the principal storyteller of American life, mainly ignored gay life except for one-dimensional, often reprehensible stereotypes. If you don’t believe me, go back and look at the shameful way the networks covered ― or mostly didn’t cover AIDS ― into the 1980s.
In addition to showing the world a fuller, more accurate picture of LGBT life, it also gave members of the community a chance to see themselves regularly represented positively in the media ― Something that can have an enormous impact on self-image, especially for a minority group. And for most of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the Blade was one of the only media places where that happened.