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D.C.’s landmark gay and lesbian weekly lands on the cutting edge of media conglomeration.

Until the past few years, gay and lesbian publications largely remained outside the swirling carousel of acquisitions and mergers that has altered the media landscape for mainstream outlets ranging from the loftiest broadcast network to the smallest weekly.

Since gay- and lesbian-media outlets have hopped aboard, however, that carousel has been spinning fast enough to induce whiplash. In February 2000, Liberation Publications Inc.—owners of the Advocate magazine—purchased the softer and more lifestyle-oriented competitor Out. The very next month, leading gay and lesbian Web site PlanetOut announced its plans to acquire Liberation Publications before it could burp from its previous acquisition. By November 2000, PlanetOut had merged with its rival company, Online Partners, which runs Gay.com. (The deal between PlanetOut and Liberation Publications, which hadn’t been finalized months after its announcement, was called off earlier this year.)

Two weeks ago, the conglomeration merry-go-round swept up one of America’s leading gay and lesbian publications, the Washington Blade, and its smaller sister paper, the New York Blade News. The sale of the two papers for an undisclosed sum to Window Media—a nascent chain of gay and lesbian publications that includes the Southern Voice (which serves the Atlanta and New Orleans markets) and the Houston Voice—was announced in the pages of the Blade’s March 23 issue.

The Blade, with its large news hole and its steady focus on political and cultural issues, has remained a beacon of sorts in a world of gay weeklies (about 200 nationwide) that is increasingly leaning toward smaller “club rags” with more limited news coverage. Blade publisher Don Michaels says that though he had been “itching to move on” for some time, he waited until he found the right buyer for the paper he’s been associated with since 1977.

“These folks have the same editorial and corporate values that we have,” says Michaels. “They have a proven track record. That made it a little easier [to sell].”

What Window Media gets, of course, is a buy-in into two of America’s four largest media markets. “This is a chance to grow the company and expand our horizons,” says Window Media President William Waybourn, who’s had a long and varied career in print media, activism, and public relations. “We’re effectively doubling the size of our company.”

As happy as the two principals are with the deal, it has raised not only the predictable outcry over the loss of independent voices in a highly influential media niche, but also more specific complaints about the track record of Window Media. Until recently, Waybourn simultaneously ran a public relations firm—dubbed Window Communications—which included corporations such as United Airlines, America Online, and Aetna among its clients.

Waybourn says that the PR firm has been closed since May 2000 and that he has shifted his entire focus to publications. But critics of the deal insist that the connection is still too close for journalistic comfort.

New York-based attorney and gay activist Bill Dobbs, who has weighed in vociferously on the recent swirl of gay-media conglomeration, puts it bluntly. “[Window Media’s] stewardship of the Southern Voice,” says Dobbs, “while simultaneously running a PR firm, raises questions.”

Varying interpretations of the Blade sale are now battling it out in gay- and lesbian-media circles. Will a deal cut between editorially substantial gay papers preserve and protect their sizable content? Will the PR past of Window Media be felt in the pages of its publications? For gay and lesbian media, these are turning out to be very mainstream questions indeed.

Founded in 1969, the Washington Blade has mirrored the rising fortunes and influence of D.C.’s gay and lesbian community. Over the past 32 years, the Blade has grown into a flagship of sorts for gay and lesbian media outlets. It is also a healthy and thriving concern. Last week’s final issue under Michaels’ ownership, for instance, was a hefty 80 pages, stocked with significant editorial content and many advertisements.

The Blade’s main rival on the local gay-media scene, Metro Weekly, is taking a “wait-and-see” attitude about the sale’s impact on its publication. “We tend to approach things from very different philosophies,” says Metro Weekly Editor-in-Chief Sean Bugg. “They’re pretty hard-core J-school. That’s part of what made [the Blade] attractive to [Window Media].”

Michaels says that the Blade has built its journalistic reputation by “reporting not just about issues but about the gay community—warts and all. [Readers] like to know if the organization that they are working for is falling apart because it’s not run properly.” As the paper grew, he says, he looked for “people who shared my philosophy.”

One of the biggest changes that Michaels has seen during his 24 years as the Blade’s guiding voice is that more talented journalists are attracted to working in the gay and lesbian press and are proud to have their names associated with it. “In 1977,” he observes, “I was one of the few people [writing for the Blade] who used their name. Now, it’s been years since we’ve had to address that issue.”

The Blade has also grown in influence because it publishes in a city that boasts not only a large gay and lesbian community but also proximity to the political issues and institutions that have energized America’s gays and lesbians over the past 30 years.

“I think it’s been a good community for a paper to cover,” says Michaels. “In some cities, there’s a monolithic approach [to gay and lesbian politics]. Politics are determined by one group. Here, there are individual groups being set up for everything. There are a whole lot of niche groups and a whole lot of diversity….It’s a great climate in which to do news coverage. You can create your own political profile as a newspaper.”

The Blade, Michaels argues, “fits well with D.C. It’s a town of news junkies.”

Though the gay and lesbian press is a niche market, it is a highly influential one, even in a mainstream-media environment that is increasingly gay-friendly. The past decade saw a rise in the recognition of the economic power of gays and lesbians, and papers such as the Blade offer an easily identifiable vehicle to reach them.

Michaels says that gay and lesbian papers “are often the first to break a story” concerning their readership and that their coverage shapes mainstream coverage of those same stories. “There is only so far that [mainstream media] will go,” argues Michaels. “The market they cover is so broad. There’s always going to be room for the gay press. They can report things in more depth, with the angles that their readership is looking for [in coverage].”

Chris Crain, editorial director and chief operating officer of Window Media, says that he comes in with a “healthy respect” for what the Blade has accomplished. “It’s not broken,” he says. “I don’t see any fundamental changes.” Crain does promise that the Blade will beef up its opinion sections and include staff editorials on various issues.

It is precisely the gay and lesbian media’s concentrated power that critics point to as a potential threat in the conglomeration wave. It’s led one gay-media notable—former Out publisher Henry Scott—to call for an antitrust investigation into the web of mergers in gay and lesbian media.

“The chief reason for alarm,” Scott wrote in a January e-mail to gay activists, “is that this combination threatens to further diminish the opportunity for vigorous debate over policy that is our community’s greatest strength.”

Waybourn takes pains to distinguish his purchase of the Blade papers from the other mergers and acquisitions. “This [sale] provides us with a chance to consolidate in areas that don’t affect coverage,” he says. “In the case of the Advocate and Out, those were two competitors. The Southern Voice and the [Blade newspapers] don’t compete. It’s not the elimination but the enhancement of a brand.”

Some critics, however, see even that “enhancement” as a potentially anxious trend. Boston-based author and cultural critic Michael Bronski observes, “We are now missing what we had 15 years ago—a number of smallish to moderate-sized papers with different political bents.” As the number of outlets shrinks, he says, writers who differ from the party line can be frozen out.

Critics point to a highly public bust-up between gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan and the Advocate last November as a good example of that possibility. When Sullivan criticized an interview that the Advocate had conducted with President Bill Clinton as a “tongue bath,” the Advocate canceled a piece that Sullivan was scheduled to write for the publication. (Dan Savage, whose weekly sex-advice column appears in these pages, resigned from the Advocate in the wake of the Sullivan incident.)

Ironically, in the pages of the Southern Voice, Crain has been one of the most vocal critics of the previous gay- and lesbian-media mergers and their fallout. “Anytime that there’s a media conglomeration,” Crain says, “there’s a reasonable question about its impact on diversity. It’s too early in the dot-com mergers to tell about its impact on content, but it’s not too early to tell that Out has lost its editorial independence. I know all the positives about creating a chain, but I also know that there’s an extra responsibility to increase diversity in the pages of our papers.”

Critics argue, however, that a chain of newspapers in the hands of a company with a history of public relations work is a potential land mine. Before Window Communications’ shuttering last year, Window Media and the now-defunct PR firm shared a president (Waybourn) and a look-alike Web site. The PR firm’s site, although not accessible at present from the Window Media page, still exists in the ether of cyberspace. First among the “services” previously offered by Window Communications was “strategic message development and delivery” and “development and placement of op-eds and news articles.”

If a PR company wants to “place” op-eds and articles, it’s handy to have a close relationship with newspapers, but Waybourn argues strenuously that Window Communications is not a continuing concern and that it was always kept separate from the similarly monikered news operation.

“They were never directly related except for me,” says Waybourn, who adds that it was “unfortunate” that the two companies had similar names. “We’ve written negatively about clients that I’ve represented. We’ve always disclosed our clients.”

Crain concurs that the PR work was always a “nonissue,” and he seconds Waybourn’s description of how conflicts were handled. Is he happy, however, as an editor, that there’s no more Window Communications? “Absolutely,” he says. “Just because of the appearance. Obviously, it creates an appearance issue.”

Bronski argues that the consolidation of opinion-shaping power in fewer and more-skilled hands raises concerns past mere appearance, particularly when many potential advertisers are groups that will also be covered by the gay and lesbian press, including political organizations and drug companies.

“What will the relationship be?” asks Bronski. “Will those papers be able to take stances against [them]?”

What’s worrisome, concludes Bronski, is that there’s a strong possibility that a “singularity of voice” will emerge in the gay and lesbian press. What’s lost, he argues, is “local gay press, with different sites in different cities. Conglomeration begins to erase that. I worry about a USA Today trend.” CP