Fort Lauderdale attorney Norm Kent made a personal vow in 1999 as he lay in bed receiving chemotherapy treatment. At the time, the gay community was in an uproar. Days earlier, the Sun-Sentinel's coverage of the local pride parade included a photograph of two drag queens. The journalists in the daily's sand-colored skyscraper apparently had been unaware of the stereotype they'd promoted in print.
As a result, the Sun-Sentinel's editorial board organized a meeting with the local gay media, Kent remembers. "The people representing the gay press were from a bunch of bar guides that showed people drinking, getting stoned, and partying with their shorts on," Kent recalls. "I made a resolution to myself in that hospital that, if I get better, I'm going to change the image of the gay community in South Florida."
And that's what the 56-year-old Kent did. In January 2000, with his cancer in remission, he distributed the first issue of his weekly gay-oriented newspaper, the Express. While such gay bar guides as HOTspots! and the now-defunct Scoop focused on entertainment, Kent instilled in the Express a mission that focused on gay journalism rather than gay advocacy. "We reported the warts and the wounds and the wins and the achievements," Kent says. His model was the Washington Blade, the oldest gay newspaper in the country.
Over the past three years, the Express has distinguished itself as a consistently feisty, if often poorly written, newspaper. It was the first news outlet to report on Patric Henn, a Fort Lauderdale gay man who allegedly collected more than $70,000 from charities after lying about his domestic partner dying in the 2001 terrorist attacks. That type of aggressive journalism became a staple for the Express. In fact, the newspaper's coverage of alleged harassment of gays by the Broward Sheriff's Office at John U. Lloyd State Park in Dania Beach led to the recent opening of a state investigation.
Kent demonstrated to the gay media nationwide that Fort Lauderdale was more than a party town; it was a community. "They believed that South Florida was beaches, bars, and boys," Kent says. "To their surprise and delight, I showed them that we were more than that."
In fact, Kent proved his early critics so wrong that last month, the nation's largest gay-media conglomerate purchased the Express for an undisclosed amount, bringing the weekly into a fold of gay newspapers that includes Atlanta's Southern Voice and the Blade weeklies in Washington, D.C., and New York City. "I'm turning it over to a group of people who are dedicated to expanding gay media," Kent explains, "and I'm really confident that the stature and content of the newspaper will be enhanced."
The Express' new owner is Unite Media, a sister company to Window Media. The two corporations, which in many ways act as a single company, are backed by Avalon Equity Partners, a media-focused venture capital firm that has also invested in small cable companies and the alternative weekly New York Press.
What Kent won't acknowledge in his flowery and sentimental statements about the sale of his newspaper is that Window Media is a union-buster with alleged financial woes. The original owners of the Blade newspapers have a pending lawsuit against the company that alleges they have not been paid in full. What's more, a group of minority investors in Window Media also entered into litigation with the company to force Window to release financial statements. The lawsuit failed. Those disgruntled investors have since alleged greed and mismanagement on the part of Window's top brass.
The story of this gay-media conglomerate starts in Atlanta in August 1997, when a group of investors led by journalists William Waybourn and Chris Crain purchased the 10-year-old Southern Voice. Four months later, Window Media bought the Houston Voice and announced intentions to form a chain of gay newspapers. But expansion required money, and the boys at Window Media found a sugar daddy in David W. Unger, a successful entrepreneur who made his fortunes in cable and Muzak. After Unger's Avalon Equity Partners invested in Window, the company in 2001 purchased the Washington Blade and its sister paper in New York for roughly $3.6 million.
Yet the nation's first gay-media conglomerate had early growing pains. Just days after Window bought the Washington Blade, the newspaper's staff, concerned about job security under the ownership of a corporation based in another city, tried to join the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. From the beginning, Window executives worked to bust the union, recalls Newspaper Guild organizer Calvin Zon. "They waged a concerted antiunion campaign," Zon says.
The Blade staff's battle for collective-bargaining rights appeared to have the backing of the district's homosexual community. About 1,000 participants in the 2001 Capitol Pride Festival signed petitions supporting the unionization effort. Yet it ultimately failed by a 10-8 vote. (The only immediate fallout: One union-organizing employee was fired, according to Zon.) Although Window is one of dozens of media companies that have fought unionization efforts, it was the first example of union-busting in the gay press. That same year, employees of Lavender voted unanimously to make the Minneapolis publication the first union shop in gay media.
Window soon faced financial troubles. In February 2002, the company defaulted on a $1 million bank loan. That fall, the former owners of the Blade newspapers sued in District of Columbia Superior Court, alleging that Window is delinquent in making payments. Former Blade owner Don Michaels declined to comment when reached by New Times, citing his ongoing legal battle with Window. Additionally, according to reporting by Gay City News writer Duncan Osborne, Window is delinquent in payments to Leigh VanderEls and Christina Cash, the original owners of Southern Voice.
The company's alleged financial misdealing doesn't surprise Gary Little, a minority investor in Window Media. Not long after contributing $80,000, Little and three other minority investors grew skeptical of Window's fiscal health. "When we began to ask plain, simple, ordinary questions about the financial situation, we were lied to and deceived," he says. Concerned that the company was sinking under bad management, Little and the other minority investors filed a lawsuit in an effort to view the financial statements. They eventually dropped the suit due to mounting legal bills. "If one of us had been wealthy," he says, "we would have kept it up."
Kent swivels gently in a leather chair in his Fort Lauderdale office. Behind him is a drawing of a cannabis leaf and a sticker for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, of which Kent is a board member. He pauses upon being asked about Window's alleged problems. "That's of no concern to me," he responds. "I'm very satisfied with the financial and legal arrangements."
The former publisher, who will not discuss the terms of the sale, says the Express will become one of the nation's preeminent gay newspapers under Unite Media. But others aren't so sure. Zon of the Newspaper Guild says Window has reduced the number of hometown stories in the Washington Blade. "They're losing local coverage and local content to generic national coverage," he says.
Gay City News publisher Troy Masters, who competes against Window's New York Blade, says a similar editorial shift occurred in Manhattan and elsewhere. "Prior to being acquired by Avalon's Window Media, all of their properties were far spunkier, better-written, livelier, and more relevant," he says.
"There's concern over how much of this newspaper would be published here and how much out of Washington, D.C.," adds Brad Casey, former publisher of Scoop and now a columnist at bar guide 411 Magazine. "Will it become a template like the rest of [Window's newspapers]? What made the Express a success was that it was dominated by local coverage. If it goes to national coverage, it will lose much of its flair."
But Steven Guerrini, president of Unite Media, asserts that the Express' local edge will grow sharper. In fact, Guerrini predicts ambitious plans for the Express and the Window/Unite chain. "We hope to be the New Times of gay media," he says, referring to the company that owns this and ten other newspapers across the country.
Indeed, gay media is growing rapidly. According to a study by advertising agency Prime Access, ad revenue in the gay press increased from $53 million in 1994 to $208 million in 2001. "Gay is in," Guerrini says. "All you have to do is look around. It's on your television, in your newspaper. Everywhere you look, gay media is there, and we're growing stronger."
But growing stronger under curious circumstances. The gay-media chain used Unite Media, a legal entity separate from Window Media, to buy the Express and an Atlanta bar guide called David. Because Unger's Avalon Equity receives government-backed loans as an SBIC (small business investment company), the federal government places limits on the amount of money Avalon can invest in a single company.
Did Avalon create Unite because government-backed loans available for Window reached the limit? Unger did not respond to an interview request. According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), which administers SBIC loans, Avalon has raised $20.4 million in private capital and $26.4 million through SBIC guarantees. However, the SBA cannot say how the $46.8 million total was divided.
Even if they are separate entities, there's little question that Window and Unite act as a single operation. The two companies share stories and cross-sell advertising. That symbiotic relationship was confirmed in November when Window Media Photographic Editor Michael Wise sent an e-mail request for photographs to various organizations. "I am currently updating our Master Image Collection," he wrote. "This collection is for our various publications, which include Washington Blade, New York Blade, Southern Voice, Houston Voice, Eclipse and David Magazine."
And now the Express as well. Guerrini, whose Washington office is in the Window Media building, declined to explain what advantages, if any, existed in purchasing the Express under a corporate entity separate from Window Media. He also declined to comment on the sister company's lawsuits and alleged financial problems.
For his part, Kent appears resigned to the peculiar circumstances of the purchase. The time has come, he says, to take a bow. His job is done, having fulfilled his cancer-bed goal to build a newspaper and change local media. "The entire perception of the gay community has done an incredible about-face in five years," he says. "No journalist worth his salt at the Sun-Sentinel and Herald would call the publisher of a bar guide to get a quote. It's a different world now."
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