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Blade to start alt weekly; popular news sites shutter

by Sari Staver

On the heels of the well publicized closure of a network of local news websites - including San Francisco's lively SFist, as well as sites in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles - an LGBT media company has announced it will launch a new alternative weekly, the Baltimore Beat.

Veteran gay journalist and publishing executive Kevin Naff, 47, co-owner of Washington, D.C.-based BNP Omnimedia, which publishes the Washington Blade, said the decision to launch a new newspaper "is definitely unorthodox in 2017."

The Beat website says it will be a comprehensive guide to Baltimore, covering local news and the arts "with its ears and eyes open to the community and a focus on long-form storytelling." It will not be an LGBT-specific paper, but will include coverage of LGBT issues from the Washington Blade, said Naff.

The Beat replaces Baltimore City Paper, which, after 40 years, recently closed. City Paper had been acquired by the Baltimore Sun, said Neff.

"I think they closed it because they didn't want the competition" for advertising, said Naff, who had worked at the Sun as a reporter years ago before joining BNP.

The free paper will be distributed in bars, restaurants, gyms, and other locations.

It's the second time this year that BNP will launch a new newspaper. In March, the company launched the Los Angeles Blade, an LGBT paper. Naff said the publication is "already break-even-plus."

The first issue of the Beat will hit the streets November 15, said Naff. As far as its size, "We won't know" until a few days before publication, he said.

Naff explained his philosophy about newspaper publishing, including the gay niche.

"Big cities need independent journalism," said Naff. "There is still a lot of money in print journalism," he added, noting that it has been difficult, if not impossible, for online publications to sell enough advertising to make a profit.

"Maybe that will change some day but right now, that's the case," he said, noting that the popular political website, Politico, did not turn a profit until it began to publish a print edition.

Naff said the launch of the new Baltimore newspaper has similarities to the debut of the Los Angeles Blade, which filled a void by the now-defunct Frontiers.

In Los Angeles, said Naff, Frontiers, "a reputable source of news," had ceased publication, "creating a void in the market."

When former staffers approached Naff about starting an LGBT newspaper, "we researched it and thought it might be a good move for us."

After six months, "the city has really embraced us" and the paper is "clearly a success" based on both readership loyalty and advertising, he said.

Thanks to staffer Karen Ocamb and editor Troy Masters, "we have broken some really important stories" and during a recent visit Naff said he was "thrilled" to find the community was so enthusiastic about the new publication.

There is another publication that covers the LGBT community, The Pride LA, which Masters started in 2015 but left earlier this year.

Naff hopes the Baltimore Beat launch will go smoothly. Several members of the former paper's editorial and publishing staff have joined the new BNP publication, he said.

"A great staff fell into my lap," he said.

"Every market is different," he noted. "To be successful, a newspaper has to diversify sources of income to make a go of it in this industry."

At the Washington Blade, the staff has successfully "pursued grants" for projects and has launched a marketing business that provides new revenue streams, he said.

Naff believes the Trump administration "has reminded people how important good journalism is" and has been one of the factors contributing to the Blades' increasing readership and advertising.

Naff believes the presence of a Blade reporter, Chris Johnson, in daily White House press briefings, "had brought attention to LGBT issues" that would not have surfaced without his presence, although Johnson wrote recently that he has not been called on by administration officials.

While the LGBT community has in many ways assimilated into the community at large, Naff feels a niche for LGBT publications still exists. As many of the "hard fought gains of the LGBT community" are stripped away by the new administration, "our presence is more important than ever."

"We need to tell our stories through our own lens," he said.

Popular news sites silenced
In the meantime, the closure of New York-based online sites Gothamist and DNAinfo has left 115 reporters and editors looking for new jobs and dozens of freelancers looking for new assignments.

DNAinfo, owned by New York billionaire Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, closed abruptly November 2, less than a week after the staff voted to unionize. Ricketts had purchased the Gothamist network in March, and closed it too.

In a written statement, a spokesperson said, "The decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful."

In San Francisco, Joe Kukura had been freelancing for SFist for several years. On November 2, when it abruptly ceased publication, Kukura said that 90 minutes earlier, an editor had just confirmed a new assignment. The closure "came as a total surprise" to the staff and freelancers in San Francisco, he said.

Kukura said the San Francisco staff had not been involved with the drive to unionize.

Kukura, 46, who also writes for SF Weekly, said he was "very disappointed" in the closure.

"I thought we were doing excellent work, posting new stories every hour," he said.


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