Death of a Newspaper: The New England Blade

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 21, 2008

The offices of the New England Blade at 450 Harrison Avenue in Boston's South end are now vacant, while bundles of the October 3rd issue of the newspaper remain stacked up outside the door.

A message on the Blade's web site says that the print edition of the publication is "on hiatus". That message first appeared nearly seven weeks ago.

The troubled publication's last several months were plagued by a series of staff defections, a lawsuit, declining ad revenues, and an increasingly alienated GLBT readership.

In the aftermath of the Blade's demise, former staffers are still waiting for paychecks and a community is wondering what happened to one of the region's most successful publications.

The whole saga began in 1991, when publisher Christopher Robinson and a few friends pooled their resources to create a newspaper which would serve the GLBT community. The upstart publication was known as IN Boston.

Not long after, a sister publication, IN Provincetown, was spawned.

In 1993, the publications merged and became known as IN newsweekly. While competitor Bay Windows focused mainly on Boston, IN newsweekly had coverage of all six New England states.

In late 2006, Robinson sold IN newsweekly to HX Media, which owned gay papers in New York and Philadelphia, in addition to HX magazine.

The editor of IN newsweekly at that time was Jim Lopata, who had supervised a successful redesign of the paper the year before. IN's format and content were given a glossier sheen, and it was split into a news section and a nightlife section.

Life at IN newsweekly deteriorated when Lopata left in May 2007. Lopata, now the editor of Boston Spirit magazine, declined to speak for this story.

Staffers at the paper went weeks, even months, without a paycheck. Even more disturbing was the paper's change in tone and content.

The paper reduced its news coverage and replaced it with lighter, fluffier stories.

Fred Kuhr, IN newsweekly's editor from 2003-2005, remained with the paper in a reduced capacity.

Kuhr remembers feeling "very optimistic" when HX bought the paper, but soon became disenchanted with the direction the paper was going in.

At the end of the year, Kuhr and two other writers requested a meeting with HX's CEO, Matthew Bank, to discuss their concerns regarding the paper's deteriorating quality.

When Bank ignored the request, the three longtime writers terminated their involvement with IN newsweekly.

There was more drama when HX fired associate publisher Bill Berggren last January for taking a list of IN newsweekly's advertisers to use for his own paper, N'Touch. HX later sued Berggren to halt the publication of N'Touch. The suit was settled and Berggren was hired to sell advertising for Bay Windows.

In February, IN newsweekly was rechristened The New England Blade. Berggren doesn't mince words when it comes to HX: "I was sorry to see that the agenda of the new owners was business first, people second. They changed the name of a New England institution with a 15-year history, and then bullied their advertisers, community activists, and staff."

Zachary Violette, a staff reporter for the Blade, told EDGE about the turmoil which had engulfed the paper. Following Berggren's termination, HX went through a revolving door of managers during the next several months.

HX hired Jake Spencer, former publisher of the Washington Blade, to serve as the paper's new publisher.

According to Violette, Spencer "completely botched the 'rebranding' of In newsweekly as the New England Blade. Both he and Matthew Bank thought that the Blade brand would be recognizable enough that very little effort was put into publicizing the changes. The paper took a big, big hit in visibility after the rebranding."

Bank declined numerous requests from EDGE to comment for this story.

After three months, Spencer abruptly left the Blade and was replaced by Marty Basroon, former CFO of the New York Press, and a close friend of David Unger, of Avalon Equity partners, HX media's primary funding source.

Basroon was also a convicted felon, having served time in a federal prison for fraud. Basroon had been the president of a company called Plaza Mortgage Inc., which was charged with scamming around 200 investors out of more than $12 million. Many of those 200 investors were his friends and relatives, according to reports at the time.

"The paper took a big, big hit in visibility after the rebranding" - Blade writer Zachary Violette

Basroon, whom Violette called "abrasive and difficult to work with", ran up a big bill with the printer, the landlord (leading the Blade to be served with an eviction notice), and the freelancers.

In addition, distributors stopped getting regular checks, which resulted in fewer copies being circulated outside the city.

Last June, the Blade enraged the staff of Bay Windows when they put out their own Pride Guide, which they dubbed the "official" guide to Boston Pride. Bay Windows had already been authorized by the Boston Pride committee to produce the Official Pride Guide with the understanding that they would share revenues from advertising sales for the guide with the committee.

"We got a notice to quit from the Pride committee, asking for us to stop distributing the guide, and a lot of bad press, because the word from HX was don't talk to anybody about it, while Bay Windows' side of the story was all over the place," said Violette.

Basroon departed soon after and was replaced as publisher by James Patterson.

Patterson was a former sales representative for IN newsweekly, and had been expected to "reform the paper's image," according to Violette.

Patterson declined to comment for this story.

In the meantime, there were at least two complete turnovers of the junior sales staff. HX also stopped sending money to the Boston office to pay for expenses.

Violette said the Blade was severely understaffed during this period, with only a handful of staffers, such as Editor William Henderson and designer Dean Burchell, working to produce the paper every week.

"I believe both (Will and Dean) felt the sting of the diminishing quality of the paper, because there was a general perception that it was their fault. But the problems had everything to do with New York and the missteps of local management," Violette said.

The Blade's rivals were as puzzled by the paper's changes as everyone else.

"They completely threw away a 15 year-old asset," said Sue O'Connell, co-publisher of Bay Windows.

O'Connell noted that the Blade's lack of coverage of the city's nightclub scene was a mistake. Meanwhile, Bay Windows benefited tremendously by launching a new publication, Out at Night, featuring coverage of local hotspots.

Jeff Coakley, co-publisher of Bay Windows, called HX's decision to rebrand IN newsweekly as The New England Blade a "fatal mistake."

Coakley said the Blade's management also did themselves a disservice by terminating Berggren and Robinson, who had developed close relationships with the GLBT community over the years.

"By jettisoning both of them, that was the beginning of the end for (the Blade)", Coakley noted.

Meanwhile, the Blade's readers were also less than impressed.

"Watered down Bay Windows" is what Violette recalled hearing more than once.

"We got occasional compliments of people saying the Blade looked more professional," Violette said. "But the biggest problem is that people really didn't connect it to the legacy of In newsweekly. Nobody, even our own sales staff, really understood that we were putting out two publications printed as one - the Blade news product, and the HX New England nightlife product."

Kuhr credits Robinson for making IN Newsweekly the success that it was.

"(Robinson) lived in the community. He knew the community. He had friends in the community. He understood the community and the market he was serving."

At the end of September, the demoralized Blade staff held onto a glimmer of hope when Bank claimed to have found an investor to save the ailing paper. But that hope turned out to be short-lived.

"We got a big, quick infusion of cash that allowed our last issue to be printed, and covered October rent and payroll," Violette said. "We thought things were going to keep going on with this new investor - that's what Bank had told us - until he called suddenly in the middle of production on October 2nd saying there was to be no further money. (Bank) came to Boston the next day to say he was closing the paper, pending a buyer. That of course, never happened."

(Note: Siegel was a writer for IN newsweekly.)

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.