Pulp Fiction: Shulman (left) and Bugg will keep publishing Metro Weekly. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Wednesday morning is deadline time at Metro Weekly, a newsmagazine targeted at D.C.’s LGBT crowd. The paper ships to the printer around midday, an event preceded by the standard print hustle—the tiny staff is proofing pages, positioning ads, and occasionally editing the late-breaking story.

On Wednesday, April 22, though, the weekly grind was hardly the preoccupation of Metro Weekly’s management. They had a PR offensive to manage, or perhaps counteroffensive is a better term. Around 10:30 that morning, FishbowlDC, the local branch of Mediabistro.com, printed this item:

Are Metro Weekly’s Days Numbered?

Sources tell FBDC that local gay magazine Metro Weekly’s publisher Randy Shulman has warned his staff to prepare to go “online only” within the next three weeks.

No formal email or memo has been sent to staffers, but this announcement was made by Shulman on Monday. He put a positive spin on it, saying “this is the way of the future,” but staffer we spoke to isn’t buying that it is good news.

We’re told online ads are just a fraction of the mag’s overall revenue so it is still unclear at this time what this announcement means for Metro Weekly’s future, even online.

Posted by Christine | 10: 28 AM | Magazines

Talk about short-attention-span journalism. FishbowlDC used just 104 words to break the news of the death of a 15-year-old local publication. Even in such a limited space, the item raised as many questions as it answered. For starters, sourcing: What do the magazine’s brass have to say about this? Did FishbowlDC seek their comment?

Apparently not. Co-publishers Sean Bugg and Randy Shulman both say they were never contacted by the reporter, Christine Delargy. And they say the whole thing was news to them, as well. They have no plans to stop printing Metro Weekly, they insist, and certainly never announced any. “This really was just an incredible falsehood being put out there,” says Bugg.

Yet there it was on FishbowlDC, one of the first clicking options for local media types interested in gossip on career moves, launches, and, indeed, closings. Shortly after its posting, the item had been picked up by gay news standby the Washington Blade and was generally behaving like Internet swine flu. Reaction even crossed platforms: “Almost immediately after the Fishbowl post went up, we started getting calls pretty quickly, from advertisers,” says Bugg.

Rebutting any report that appears on FishbowlDC requires some exertion. Toward that end, Metro Weekly’s co-publishers:

• Wrote up a press release that included this line: “It’s unfortunate that Fishbowl DC chose to run a story based on erroneous information from an unnamed source…” The release went out over OutNewsWire at a cost of a “few hundred bucks,” according to Bugg.

• Posted on Facebook and Twitter.

• Blasted an alert to the 11,000-strong Metro Weekly e-mail list.

• Called advertisers.

• Called the Washington Blade.

The inventory above, however, doesn’t include yelling at FishbowlDC’s staff, a task that Metro Weekly took care of right away. In a call with Delargy, Bugg “angrily demanded to know why they published this without calling us at all” and explained “what she was doing to a small business.” Bugg says that Delargy wasn’t registering the “severity of what she had done,” in part because she upbraided him for “harping” on the situation.

After getting Bugg’s on-the-record denial that Metro Weekly is going Web-only, FishbowlDC threw up a new two-sentence post on its site: “Co-publisher Sean Bugg says…that there are ‘no plans to cease publication,’” read the item, in part. It was filed under the FishbowlDC category “Rumors and/or Gossip.”

When contacted by phone, Delargy declined to comment on the record.

The job of defending Delargy’s reporting thus fell to Chris Ariens, Mediabistro.com’s executive producer. “Christine made an error and…she’s regretful that she did. She’s assured me that it’s not going to happen again,” says Ariens. As for the blog’s reportorial standards, says Ariens, “our policy is that

if you’ve got a breaking news story—especially if it’s a publication that is closing—you’ve got to double-source it, but that should not preclude you from calling the publisher” of the magazine. “At the same time as being accurate, we want to be fast, but those two points can’t be exclusive of each other,” he continues.

Matt Dornic, who works alongside Delargy as FishbowlDC’s co-editor, vouches for the story’s origins. He saw the e-mail traffic from the person who served as the source of the Metro Weekly “scoop.” “The source sent us a pretty detailed outline,” says Dornic, who also says that the source is sticking to the story.

Those comments invite questions as to whether FishbowlDC deployed a false plural in hyping its reporting. The original item attributes the Metro Weekly story to “sources.” In her conversation with Bugg, Delargy reportedly claimed to have a source who leaked the information and another who confirmed it. Yet throughout our conversation about the story, Dornic repeatedly cites one source. FishbowlDC also claims that the source is a staffer at the publication. All Metro Weekly staffers—all seven of them, that is—issued on-the-record denials to Washington City Paper that they’d communicated with Delargy prior to the item’s publication. Another point of unanimity is that on the Monday in question, there was no staff meeting in which Shulman would have made his “announcement” about shutting the print operation.

“It never even crossed our minds that we weren’t going to be printing anymore,” says Todd Franson, Metro Weekly’s art director. “So as far as I know, it’s a total fabrication.”

One other thing: The original item quoted Shulman as saying this about online-only publishing: “This is the way of the future.” Shulman says he feels “violated” by that bit of reporting: “Being quoted when you’ve never said anything is just a horrible feeling.…I never said those words.”

Metro Weekly, meanwhile, is preparing to publish its third magazine since Shulman issued his alleged announcement. Further ahead, Shulman has already planned out Metro Weekly editions extending into mid-June. So the FishbowlDC post, whatever its sourcing, appears dead wrong. Yet there’s nothing filed on the site under “correction” or “retraction” or “apology”—just an item labeled “Update,” giving Metro Weekly’s denial of the story.