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The Long Haul ...Gay Press Changes: Making 20

This article shared 5416 times since Wed Sep 21, 2005
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Just the Stats ... 20 Years: Number of Weekly issues: 1,040. Average 400 photos taken weekly: 416,000. Average 20,000 words a week: 20,800,000. Copies each week 20,000: 20,800,000

PicturedBob Bearden, who helped start Windy City Times with his partner Jeff McCourt, along with Tracy Baim and Drew Badanish, in 1985. Right: In 2000, Tracy Baim purchased the name Windy City Times back from Jeff McCourt, photo from September, 2000. At far right is the first edition of Windy City Times, Sept. 26, 1985. Outlines office party, late 1987. Top: Janet Provo, N. Landers and Cheryl Miller. Below: Angela Schmidt, Michelle Bonnarens and Tracy Baim. Photos by M.J. Murphy. Right: The Nov. 4, 1997 obituary for columnist Jon-Henri Damski in the Chicago Tribune. Photo of Damski by Lisa Ebright

Working in the gay press should probably be measured in dog years. Right-wing threats, too much death and destruction, physical assaults, robberies, property destruction, and that's not to mention the internal struggles within our great rainbow community—it all makes those years seem so much longer.

When I graduated with a journalism degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in May 1984, I had pretty much assumed I would never have a career in journalism. I didn't think I could be an out lesbian and a reporter, so I readied myself for a typesetting career supplemented by activism—just like college. After seeing Meg Christian and Cris Williamson perform at an Iowa peace concert, I packed up my 1966 Mustang and headed back home to Chicago.

Within a few weeks, my mom heard about a part-time job at GayLife newspaper. I worked doing typesetting and some writing while also freelancing for the Tribune and typesetting at night for an ad firm. Given the low wages and lousy hours, attrition was a fact of life in the gay press. I moved up from editorial assistant to managing editor of GayLife in 12 months—for the June 1985 pride edition.

By the late summer of 1985, there were stirrings at GayLife. Sales manager Bob Bearden and his partner, Jeff McCourt, a part-time writer for the paper, were making a move to buy GayLife. They decided to back out of that and start their own paper, Windy City Times. Bob, Jeff and Drew Badanish, the art director, all lobbied me intensely to come with them. I was the managing editor and would keep that post at the new paper. But I was just 22 years old. I didn't have the negative experience yet to lead me to a decision to abandon ship. GayLife Publisher Chuck Renslow had been respectful to me, trusting me at such a young age, and mostly being hands off. He questioned things, but was not overbearing.

But in the community, GayLife did have some troubles. Renslow has always been very politically active and an owner of multiple businesses—the newspaper, bars, a bathhouse. People were concerned that he had unfair influence over the community through the newspaper. I never experienced this, but in our community, perception becomes reality. After some soul searching, and trusting in Bearden, I made the difficult decision to be part of the new company.

To say we started on a shoestring would be an understatement. While Jeff boasted of making a lot of money at the board of trade, the truth is it was a lot of bluster. We worked out of Jeff and Bob's apartment on Melrose and the Lake, a third-floor walk-up. We originally did typesetting at a downtown firm owned by Chris Cothran and Sarah Craig, both now dead. We later moved a massive typesetting machine to the basement of the condo building ( see Jorjet Harper's great column about this time period, in this issue ) .

From day one, it was a struggle psychologically and emotionally, not to mention physically and financially. While GayLife staggered and then folded within a few months, it was still not easy trying to do a gay newspaper in 1985. Bob got sick within a few weeks, eventually learning it was AIDS. He became a hermit, with my girlfriend at the time, Angie, helping him ( she was a nurse's assistant ) , but with a great stress on him coming from Jeff—to sell ads as the backbone of the paper. Bob just could not. He struggled out that Halloween—just four weeks after the paper launched—to take bar photos and work his accounts. But Bob could not deal with his diagnosis. His friends were dying, his partner was pressuring, and a newspaper was being run out of his home.

We eventually moved to a separate office on Sheffield, behind Gay Horizons ( now Center on Halsted ) . But by the time Bob died in early 1987, the office dynamics had deteriorated.

I had so many new friends step up to help me—freezing with the typesetting machines, writing articles, and helping our reputation in the community. But I felt I was letting them down—Jeff and I were having power struggles. He had no journalism background. In fact, he was just writing gossip and entertainment prior to starting the paper ( under the byline Mimi O'Shea ) . He had promised a hands-off approach to the news side, but he soon realized that is where the community power would come. He started writing editorials, including political ones. He and I came to a difficult decision in the aldermanic campaign when openly gay Dr. Ron Sable first took on Ald. Bernie Hansen. He wrote an editorial endorsing Hansen, and I did one for Sable. He started fuming about silly things like photo layouts, while people were not getting paid and didn't have insurance.

When an attacker came into the office with a bat one day, he asked for and went after Jeff directly. No one else was hurt, but it was played as a hate crime. There were so many ugly rumors. The truth never came out, but it also made it difficult for all of us. After most of us left a few months later to start Outlines in May 1987, Jeff and his allies even started rumors that I was behind the attack. I had originally wanted to buy Windy City Times and had lined up investors who trusted me, at age 24, with their money. But when Jeff found out, he blew up and sales manager Jill Burgin had to step between us for fear something might happen. I wanted to walk out right then, because I was ready to start a new paper instead, and more than 95% of the staff were coming with me. But several of the staffers, including reporter Bill Burks, convinced me the right thing to do was stay and put out two more editions of the weekly Windy City Times. I agreed, as long as Jeff stayed away from me ( we were on separate floors ) .

After those two weeks, we moved full force into starting Outlines, at the In These Times office building at 1300 W. Belmont. Let the gay press wars begin. Even though I was the same gender as before, the fact that I was a woman with her name on 'top' of the masthead made it easy for Jeff to really play the gender card. He successfully influenced advertisers away from Outlines, saying it was 'just' a lesbian paper. He said I hated men, even though most of the people who left his employ to start Outlines were men. But just as with GayLife's demise, perception is reality. Outlines always struggled with the gender issue and advertising. If getting ads in a gay paper was hard in the 1980s and 1990s, getting ads in a paper stereotyped as lesbian was even harder. But our reader statistics always showed a balance of around 60% male and 40% female. [ This is unusual in the gay press—most 'gay' papers in major cities are 90% or more male readership. ]

From May 1987 through September 2000, Outlines and Windy City Times went head to head as gay newspapers. Outlines went from weekly to monthly in the years 1988 through 1999. In the meantime, we had also started Nightlines [ now Nightspots some 800 issues later ] , the Out! Guide, Clout!, and BLACKlines and En La Vida [ now Identity ] , and a comprehensive Web site, started in 1998. We were trying to fill different media needs and niches, staying afloat with the generous support of community investors including Nan Schaffer and Scott McCausland. They were our angels in those early years, and Nan and so many others have stuck it out to this day, including even as we added Windy City Radio after buying the old Lesbigay Radio.

In the summer of 1999, Jeff suffered another mutiny, but this time the way it happened ( with no notice ) somehow really hit him so hard that he actually rebounded all the way back to me—he called me for the first time in 13 years, and commiserated about the way they left him. The departing staff started Chicago Free Press and battled Windy City Times for a year—both in the courts and for advertisers [ Jeff was suing them for the way they left, alleging wrongdoing ] . Outlines just chugged along for that year, trying to dodge the bullets and stay away from an advertising rate war.

The fight drained Jeff so that even when the court case ended, he had lost the final battle. He was forced to close the paper and I called him immediately to buy it back. He agreed, and after a few weeks of negotiations, Outlines' parent company, Lambda Publications, purchased just the name of the paper. There were no other assets, just a lot of bad will with staffers and some in the community. We merged the two weeklies into Windy City Times, and I felt as if I got my baby back after it was in foster care.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. After 21 years in the gay press, I look back and wonder about these 'dog years.' I would change many things. Mostly, I would have tried to be a better boss. When I would go sometimes three or four days with no sleep, never going home, I had much difficulty trying to run a business and be an editor and reporter all at the same time. Taking photos at a sports league in the morning, at a leather bar at midnight and going back to the office to write an editorial, and then trying to balance the books for payroll—my family and friends joked that I was probably cloned years ago. But in truth, I had so much help in keeping it all afloat.

There have been many key players at Windy City Times and Outlines over the years, I hesitate to even start listing them all. I know I will leave too many out. A key delivery driver, a photographer, a sales person, a reporter, the staff, the great interns, and the supportive investors and advisors. We have also had to say goodbye to way too many young colleagues, most due to AIDS, some to cancer and other tragedies. Bob Bearden, Richard Cash, Bob Kraus, Mike Simanowicz, John Schmid, Jon-Henri Damski, Danny Sotomayor, Paul Adams, Joseph Beam, Tony Hassan, Marvin Patterson, Alfredo Gonzalez, Fernando Flores, Sarah Craig, GayBoy Ric, Chris Cothran, Kathleen O'Malley, and unfortunately the list goes on.

There have also been some key people there from the very first issue, still helping today in some fashion. Those include Toni Armstrong, Jorjet Harper, Yvonne Zipter, and Alison Bechdel. Many started just after WCT's launch, including Rex Wockner, Envoy Travel ( now Aqua Terra ) , Paula Walowitz. And there were hundreds more, including my first partner Angela Schmidt, and my partner now, Jean Albright. Plus key assistant publishers along the way, Pat Bechdolt in the early years, Terri Klinsky in these later years. My family, my friends, they all played some role, whether it was helping with staff photos, covering a theater opening, doing delivery, or loaning me money endlessly to help pay those print bills.

Most important, our advertisers and our readers—we absolutely wouldn't be here without either. We will continue in our mission of providing a 'voice' for the GLBT community, whether in print, on the radio, or online. We want to be there for you for many years to come—here's to another 20 years.

This article shared 5416 times since Wed Sep 21, 2005
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