Reporters, editors of closed Washington Blade launch D.C. Agenda

Hot off the presses: Staff distributed the first issue of D.C. Agenda in spots that formerly held copies of the Washington Blade.
Hot off the presses: Staff distributed the first issue of D.C. Agenda in spots that formerly held copies of the Washington Blade. (D.c. Agenda)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

A prominent D.C. reverend who campaigns against same-sex marriage sent an e-mail to a former reporter for the Washington Blade, the gay weekly that abruptly closed after its bankrupt owner ceased operations Monday. It was one sentence long, and it was terse:

The shutdown of the Blade is a sign from God.

The Almighty has never been known as a flip-flopper -- carving one's creed in stone will get you that reputation -- so how to interpret Friday's resurrection of the Blade as D.C. Agenda, an eight-page newsletter printed on the cheap and distributed in the Blade's usual spots by a now-volunteer staff?

Like a dozen other former staffers who did not receive severance or back pay, former editor Kevin Naff and reporter Chris Johnson are playing paperboy Friday morning. The front-page headline of D.C. Agenda reads: "Our mission continues."

"It's humbling," says Naff, toting a black bag of copies down 14th Street to the Wilson Building. He looks up at the stately stone of the National Press Building and says, "Look, there's our old ivory tower."

The sun is brilliant. The wind is chilly. The previous night's storm has stripped nearly all the leaves from the trees of Pennsylvania Avenue. The week started off with shell shock, say Naff and Johnson as they walk, but it's ending with this optimistic, nerve-racking, grass-roots push for survival.

Naff and Johnson drop off copies at the offices of the D.C. Council, which will vote next month on legalization of same-sex marriage. Somewhere in the building, veteran Blade reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. is covering a council meeting on hate crimes, as if this week were no different from the one before. Naff and Johnson zigzag through downtown, plopping new issues of D.C. Agenda on top of crinkled, forgotten copies of the Blade. They open a Blade newspaper box at 14th and H streets and inside is a coarse wool blanket, perhaps stored there by a homeless person. One block north, they find an identical blanket stuffed into another box.

"One indignity after another," Naff says, with good (if weary) humor.

The pair cuts up Massachusetts Avenue, heading for Dupont Circle. Naff's BlackBerry vibrates continuously with e-mails offering both emotional and financial support. The anonymous public has given $3,100. Five of the eight pages of the newest issue are full-page ads from longtime supporters. A printer took pity and gave them a deal on this issue.

In front of Lambda Rising bookstore on Connecticut, Johnson and Naff rendezvous with former Blade publisher Lynne J. Brown, who clutches a stack of D.C. Agendas and is mid-handshake with Logan Circle resident Joe Prucnal. Prucnal, who doesn't often use his computer, is urging her to keep printing hard copies. His reaction when he heard the Blade was gone?

"Disappointment and, I suppose, inevitability," Prucnal says. "But also -- what's the term? Optimism, I guess. Which is rare these days."

Brown grabs lunch next door at Chipotle. D.C. Agenda is going up to 16 pages next Friday, she says, and will likely be back to newsprint by Dec. 4. She's working with pro bono lawyers on setting up an employment structure. The hard launch of the new brand should come in January or February. The staff members hope to wrest their archives from bankruptcy court. In an ideal world, after the dust settles, D.C. Agenda will be employee-owned, she says. Till then, they're thankful for the community's support.

Brown's phone rings. It's her classifieds salesman, delivering copies on Capitol Hill. He's with a guy at Mr. Henry's who wants to cut a check to cover the press run of the next issue.

"Be careful," Brown jokes. "They're often drunk at Mr. Henry's by Friday afternoon." After it's clear this may not be a joke, she says, "Have him make it out to D.C. Agenda, and tell him we love him. . . . We'll name our first Xerox machine after him."

It's hard to say at this point if this guy's for real, or how this whole thing will shake out, but this much is true: The staff of D.C. Agenda has a Tuesday deadline, then a holiday that's taken on extra meaning and then another paper to deliver.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company