A conversation with the editors, publishers and founders of both the nation’s oldest LGBTQ newspaper and its successful younger sibling
This month, the Los Angeles Blade celebrates six years of award-winning coverage of the LGBTQ community through daily online articles and weekly print publications. In October, its sister, the Washington Blade, will mark its 54th year since its founding as the oldest LGBTQ newspaper in the country.
GLAAD is honoring both of these legacy partners in journalism with the prestigious Barbara Gittings Award for Excellence in LGBTQ Media at its 34th annual GLAAD Media Awards celebrations in Los Angeles on March 30, as well as in New York on May 13.
Washington Blade editor and co-owner Kevin Naff, Los Angeles Blade publisher and founder Troy Masters and L.A. Blade editor Brody Levesque — all of whom identify as cisgender gay men — spoke with GLAAD about this recognition, their mission in these embattled times, where the Blade has been and where each site and weekly newspaper will be taking readers in the difficult days ahead.
Troy Masters, publisher and founder of the Los Angeles Blade, at the GLAAD Media Awards, photos provided by Masters
Creating A Voice
“It’s a perilous time,” Masters told GLAAD. “And it is perilous in a way that is new to a lot of really young people. That’s where having experienced hands, reporting from a journalistic perspective about things that are happening in the community is so important.” Masters, whose career spans 40 years, started QW magazine, the first glossy magazine for gays and lesbians, then LGNY and Gay City News in New York before moving west to fulfill what he called his “sole purpose, of creating a voice for Los Angeles.”
“My papers have navigated the AIDS crisis, the early LGBT civil rights movement, the movement for gay marriage, trans and LGBT expansion and inclusion of larger communities and diversity and now this assault,” said Masters of the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative measures that have been proposed and enacted nationwide. “This is not the first time at the rodeo for the community. We know what we need to do. But sometimes it takes a newspaper to remind people of who they are and what we have to do.”
The award, named for the woman who is widely regarded as the mother of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, has previously recognized The Advocate Magazine, Windy City Times and Franco Stevens, the founder of Curve Magazine and The Curve Foundation. In 1958, Gittings started the New York chapter of the San Francisco-based Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization in the country. From 1963 to 1966, Gittings was the editor of the group’s publication, The Ladder, the first national lesbian magazine. Working with Frank Kameny, Gittings helped organize the first public demonstrations for gay and lesbian equality in New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, paving the way for the Stonewall Riots in the summer of 1969.
Four months after that momentous clash, a one-sided, single sheet newspaper started circulating in Washington, D.C., called The Gay Blade. The first issue in October 1969 was no more than 10 very brief articles, one announcing a blood drive, another a very brief review of an off-Broadway play — fewer than 20 words — and another a warning to cruisers in Dupont Circle that they risked harassment because someone was writing down license plates. The Blade shared these stories of its origins in 2019 for its 50th anniversary.
Naff called the Gittings Award especially meaningful, given the longevity of the Washington Blade as well as its recent work covering COVID. “I thought I’d seen it all in 20 years of the Blade, and then 2020 happened. So, there were some very scary weeks during the pandemic and the fact that we were able to not only survive it, but to thrive and to be recognized in this way, in the immediate aftermath, is incredibly meaningful. I’m just really grateful to GLAAD for highlighting our work,” Naff said.
“The pandemic, and also some of the events of last spring, specifically around monkeypox, really highlighted why we need an independent queer media,” he said. “When the mainstream media were reporting on monkeypox and its disproportionate effect on our community, we were right there, asking all the tough questions of the most senior health officials in the country. During the pandemic, we did some really tough reporting around the ways in which our community was disproportionately affected in terms of vaccine access and treatment, access and so forth. So, I think both of the Blades rose to the challenge of the last few years. And it’s just really gratifying to be recognized for all that hard work.”
Naff joined the Washington Blade from corporate America in 2002, leaving behind a hostile work environment at Verizon Wireless where the boss was a homophobe. “He blamed ‘the gays’ when 9/11 happened,” he said, and when word got out that Naff was gay, “It got to the point where I even had to check in with the office secretary any time I went to the bathroom.”
What he wasn’t prepared for on his first day as managing editor was the “loosey goosey” world of LGBTQ journalism that was prevalent in 2002. “I show up at 8:30 in a suit and the office is completely deserted. Naff told GLAAD.
“The reporters would show up in the late afternoon, and then they would write until three in the morning and they would write 3,000-word stories with no artwork, and then turn it over to me at three in the morning and expect me to turn it into something publishable,” Naff told GLAAD. “It is, of course, very different now.” Naff instituted a deadline culture that continues to this day.
Obstacles and Struggles
Part of the Washington Blade’s legacy, like many queer media outlets, is surviving financial obstacles and subscriber struggles. Just one month following the paper’s 40th anniversary in November 2009, the publisher went bankrupt and shut down the operation.
“The morning after the news of the bankruptcy broke, I awoke to 400 emails from all over the world,” recalled Naff. “Blade readers sent money from as far away as Turkey and France. Locally, the outpouring of support was overwhelming; developers offered us free office space and creative types offered to work for free to help us launch something new. We couldn’t let all those people down, so we quickly regrouped and never missed a week of publishing.”
For a few months, the Washington Blade rebranded as DC Agenda, owned and operated by Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia, a new locally owned business created by publisher Lynne Brown, sales executive Brian Pitts and Naff. The Agenda was published weekly until April 23, 2010. That’s when the company acquired the assets of the Washington Blade in bankruptcy court and brought back the Washington Blade brand, effective April 30, 2010.
Naff and Masters agreed that their target audience is not just L.A. or D.C., but the nation and the world, an even greater challenge than before in an industry where ad dollars are shrinking.
“All media is confronting a change in both media consumption and how it’s supported by revenues,” said Masters. “Print has a drought of advertiser interest, but the web is not something that you can just turn to and say, ‘Oh, we’ll just put ads here.’ It doesn’t quite work that way. There’s not enough revenue stream to support it that way.”
“What we’ve tried to do at the Blade is to always diversify our revenue streams,” added Naff. “We have digital products. We have an events business that’s very robust. We have a nonprofit entity. We apply for a lot of grants. We work very hard, and have for a long time, to diversify.”
“You have to turn to philanthropy, not only philanthropy through nonprofits, but sometimes corporations just supporting you, through a sponsored-content arrangement, events and other ways to monetize,” Masters said. “It’s definitely my focus, and I’ve been very, very successful at it. The Los Angeles Blade since its inception has been ahead of the expenses. We’ve been profitable from the get-go.”
“The Los Angeles Blade was another one of our efforts to grow the business,” confirmed Naff. “And it’s been very successful.”
Secret to Their Success
“Ten years ago,” Naff recalled, “I ran into Karen at a conference and I said to her, ‘Karen, one day, we’re going to work together. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but you’re a Blade person. You should be at the Blade.’ She came on board as our news editor, did an amazing job and has won all sorts of awards out there for her work.”
GLAAD honored Ocamb with a special recognition award in 2020, noting the journalist
joined the LGBTQ press from CBS News in the 1980s, after more than 100 friends died from AIDS. Over the next decades, she became a leading force and champion for LGBTQ media. Known for her smart, fair, and professional writing style, as well as her staunch dedication to shining the spotlight on underreported LGBTQ people and issues, Ocamb still writes for the Blade on occasion, while shifting her focus since 2021 to working as the senior storytelling strategist for a national nonprofit progressive legal advocacy organization, Public Justice.
“Karen has been there since day one,” Masters said. “She connected me to so many, many, many people in the community who are now friends, all the way from Howard Bragman, who just recently died, down to Jewel Thais-Williams to Jeffrey King, and just so many people who are treasures of the Los Angeles community.”
“I’m just in awe,” said Naff, and Masters agreed: “Karen is the brain trust of this local community, and on a national level, she has a great deal of bandwidth as well,” he said. “We’re incredibly close and she’s my biggest champion. I adore her and she’s like a walking encyclopedia of everything that has happened for the past 40 years. I wouldn’t have been able to report with credibility without Karen. This paper would have no credibility without Karen.”
Since August of 2020, Brody Levesque has been editor of the Los Angeles Blade. “Brody is a more than 40-year veteran of journalism and a former Washington press corps journalist,” Masters said, describing Levesque as “always on fire.”
“He is a prodigious writer and his body of work is incredible output, always right, spot-on, he has excellent judgment with news, and I trust him implicitly.”
Lynne Brown, Kevin Naff, Brian Pitts, co-owners of the Washington Blade, photo provided by Naff.
“I am a journalist first,” Levesque told GLAAD. “The mission, directly handed off to me by Karen and Troy, is that we have to serve our community and our community’s got to be served by keeping it well informed. That’s the responsibility of a journalist. I have never felt that activism needs to play a role in that. Now, given the history of queer media, I get that activism has been a longtime component of it. But I think that I do better in a journalistic advocacy role than as an activist. You start acting in an activist capacity, and you’re going to start coloring-in and editorializing, and that’s not where you want to be.”
“We definitely have a point of view,” added Masters. “LGBTQ rights deserve elevation and all the positive forward movement possible. But we don’t have an ax to grind and we don’t have any mystery about what it is that we do. We are definitely much more introspective and there’s a big difference between an advocate and an activist, and I think the difference is that we are able to penetrate a lot of clouds and mystery around LGBTQ rights —- and about the struggles against hatred many allied communities face.”
What the Blade does in both editions is offer editor’s letters and opinion pages, clearly marked and kept separate from the news.
“We are not here to be advocates for any organization or particular cause,” said Naff. “The news pages and the news reporting that we do has to be journalistically sound, always. All you have as a journalist is your integrity and your credibility, and once you’ve compromised that, there’s nothing left. So that has always been my number one job.”
Mainstream Media vs. Queer Press
Naff noted that straight journalists still look down upon the Blade and other LGBTQ news media outlets as “less than legitimate.”
“It smacks of homophobia, first of all. Somehow the work of queer journalists is not as valid and legitimate as the work of straight people. I’ve been fighting against that for the last 20 years,” he said. “The way the mainstream media treats the queer press, I think it has improved, but we’re still somehow viewed as less than legitimate. ‘Are they really professional journalists? Are they masquerading as activists?’ There’s a lot of that that we come up against, but we’re used to it.”
Last month, Masters wrote an editor’s letter about the ban on drag performances that has since become law in Tennessee, his home state, citing the blowback against Cracker Barrell when it tried to block the hiring of LGBTQ employees. “Is it activist to report on the model of what could be done to tackle the ban? Or are we here just to report on the fact that the ban against drag could go nationwide, could actually affect a lot of people? We know it’s unconstitutional, but we don’t know that the Supreme Court would uphold that as an unconstitutional thing. So, what can we do in advance? We can look back at other actions that have happened and see if it works in this instance. Tennessee is home to some of the largest corporations in America. It’s got the fastest growing economy in the nation at the moment. And if they’re going to threaten us, we should figure out what the rebuttal is. I don’t consider that activist.”
Saluting the Stars
The Blade is the only LGBTQ media outlet with a designated seat in the White House briefing room, to serve in the president’s news media pool rotation and as a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association. That privilege dates back 15 years, when the Obama White House restored credentials revoked by the George W. Bush administration.
Naff describes the Blade’s White House Correspondent Christopher Kane as “smart and tenacious.” But what impresses Naff most is Kane’s agility. “He has this knack for shifting gears between a hard news political story, a feature story, a health care story. And he can just kind of juggle them all at once.”
Michael K. Lavers is the Blade’s international news editor, someone Naff says “has an incredibly strong sense of social justice. I think that’s really what informs his work and I think that’s what he’s most passionate about.” Lavers has traveled extensively to cover LGBTQ news in Central America, Latin America, the Caribbean and overseas. “He’s started doing some reporting out of Europe and Ukraine,” said Naff, adding that Lavers has developed a network of media partners all over the world. “So, when something breaks in the Middle East or in Africa, we have local journalists on the ground in these places that we’ve never had access to before, that we can go to, and even publish a lot of those stories in other languages. He’s tireless and an all around great guy.”
In February, the Blade reported on a Gallup poll that found that bisexual was the most common identification among LGBTQ Americans, with more than half, 57%, indicating they are bisexual. Naff and Masters agreed that in addition to continuing to cover the fight for transgender rights, bans on gender-affirming care and drag performances, that they need to do more to better cover the experiences of bisexual Americans.
“No one ever believes bisexual people in a similar way that people who are trans often say that they struggle with being believed, having authentic voices and representation,” said Masters. “I think it’s a struggle and I think it’s something the community is maybe coming to understand. But it has something to do with the nonbinary movement and finally, finally understanding that there are no restrictions on your attraction to other human beings. It should be an easy pivot and I welcome it.”
Naff urged readers to support their own LGBTQ community’s local sources of news.
“Whenever I go anywhere, I always pick up a copy of the local LGBTQ publication wherever I am,” noted Naff. “Unfortunately, the list of cities is shrinking, but there are still some really good, robust publications serving our community. So my message is, wherever you are, wherever you go, seek out these publications, because they’re doing work that you’re not going to find in the mainstream. They are writing the first draft of our community’s own history, and they need the support. They need you to read them. They need you to support their advertisers. They need you to subscribe and donate and whatever you’re in the position to do to help, you should do, because we should support our own community. And if we don’t, these institutions won’t survive.”
Masters concluded our conversation with thoughts about the next generation.
“One of the biggest struggles that I have — and I think both papers have journalistically — is the urgent need to pass the torch to the next generation, and I’m struggling to know what that looks like. I’m hoping that young people get involved and take a leadership interest in the business of what we do, bring new ideas, listen to history and the people who fought so hard before them. Certainly, if we have learned anything over the past half century, it’s that our political health and social progress is very fragile and always in flux; our work simply won’t be done in our lifetimes,” said Masters. “We must transition this work into the ambitious good hands of the next generation. It’s critical because the backlash is just getting started.”
Dawn Ennis is a freelance contributor to the Los Angeles Blade and Washington Blade.