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Hot Off The Press: Windy City Times Celebrates 25 Years

By Tony Peregrin in News on Sep 24, 2010 4:00PM

Tracy Baim, editor and publisher of Windy City Media Group
The Village Voice may have sounded the death knell for gay print media earlier this year, but try telling that to Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times, and she’s likely to respond with a patient, all-knowing grin. In fact, The Windy City Times—one of the most influential gay newspapers in the country—is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a special edition on September 29, an astounding milestone considering the fickle and unpredictable nature of the publishing market. The Windy City Times was founded by Baim, along with Jeff McCourt, Bob Bearden, and Drew Badanish, in September 1985, a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community. Baim left the original Windy City Times in 1987 to launch Outlines, and in 2000, she purchased Windy City Times from McCourt, combining both publications into one paper. [Full disclosure: As of 1999, I have been, and continue to be, a senior writer for Windy City Times.]

Chicagoist caught up with Baim to discuss the evolution of local gay media, why she will continue to produce a print version of her publication, and her new book, Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage, the first book to address Obama’s relationship with gays and lesbians.

Windy City Times’ 25th Anniversary issue hits stands on Wed, Sept. 29, 2010. Baim will read from and sign copies of Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage, at two Chicago locations: Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., October 20 at 7 p.m., and the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., October 27 at 6 p.m.

Chicagoist: What’s the first image that pops into your head when you think back to 1985, the first year an issue of Windy City Times hit the streets?

Tracy Baim: Freezing my fingers off with Jorjet Harper and Toni Armstrong, Jr., at the typesetting office downtown we used in overnight shifts. We had to borrow the machine when that business was not using it. Later when we got our own machine, it was in the basement of Jeff McCourt and Bob Bearden’s apartment on Melrose, and there was no heat, broken windows, and more freezing temperatures. We ran the copy up and down three flights of stairs from the machine. The technology was so different, and the resources were so limited. I can’t believe how hard it was back then.

C: Twenty-five years ago, the issues that most people associate with gay rights today—marriage, adoption, serving openly in the military—were barely conceived of as a possibility, and as a result, the gay media was a little more covert, at times, than it is today. In fact, pseudonyms were common in the gay press. Jeff McCourt, former publisher of the Windy City Times, sometimes wrote under the name “Mimi O’Shea.”

TB: Yes, some people used fake names—sometimes they were in the closet and not openly gay, but some writers also some wanted to create personas for certain articles. That is not common now. Many people did not want their photograph published in a gay paper, and that is not as common now, but it does happen. The community of the mid 1980s was very different, but in some ways very much the same. There was racism, sexism, ageism, classism, all the baggage of mainstream society, as there is today. But the AIDS movement and the push for the city gay-rights bill actually brought diverse groups together in a terrific way during those years. That sometimes happens now, but not as frequently, and not as much as I would have thought by 2010. In some ways, now that the community is larger, we self-segregate more frequently, which is really a shame.

C: Many of the gay publications 25 years ago were little more than going-out guides or bar rags, with maybe a gay-bashing or police raid story thrown in for good measure—but that was never really the case with the Windy City Times.

TB: There have always been two main kinds of publications serving the gay community—the bar rags and the more serious newspapers. This is true in Chicago and elsewhere. Chicago has had some great gay newspapers, from short-lived ones in the 1970s like the Gay Crusader and Lavender Woman to longer runs such as GayLife, Outlines, and Windy City Times. The goal of Windy City Times from the start was to have a mix of coverage representing the “whole life” of the community, from news and sports, to entertainment, travel and features.

C: Tracy, you’ve said that part of the success behind the Windy City Times is the fact that you are part of the community that you cover. Talk a little about how you encourage your staff to find a balance between being a part of the GLBT community and remaining objective in their reporting.

TB: There is no such thing as pure objectivity. If you start with that understanding, I think you try harder to make sure you are trying to get all sides to a story. I cannot separate myself from the community I serve, but I can strive to cover the good, the bad, and the crazy in our midst.

C: In 1999, Windy City Times staff members—fed up with publisher Jeff McCourt’s rumored drug-fueled erratic behavior—fled Windy City Times en masse and started the now defunct-Chicago Free Press. As you sat behind your desk over at Outlines watching this all unfold, what was going through your head, Tracy?

TB: We knew that [Chicago] Free Press would be first gunning for Windy City Times, so we tried to stay on the sidelines and out of that line of fire. It was a brutal one-year war. But we knew as soon as they defeated the old Windy City Times, they would come after our advertisers and readers, so we had to go an offense, which is why Outlines purchased Windy City Times. We had to be strong to handle the aggressive tactics they used. I am about the community, and have never been the strongest businessperson on the block— I admit that. So, that was the vulnerability back then, and why we purchased Windy City Times from Jeff McCourt. I felt like I had my baby back, having co-founded it with Jeff, Bob [Bearden], and Drew Badanish in 1985. Jeff even said that to me at the sale, that it just felt right to sell it to me. It has not been easy, as the peak ad years for gay media, I think, were in the 1990s, before we purchased Windy City Times in 2000, but we do our best every issue to fully represent the diversity of our community.

C: Who is Windy City Times’ biggest competitor at this point?

TB: I think all media is our competition, and we are all simply vying for people’s time. It’s no longer about gay or not gay, it’s about time. People have so many media choices—and by media, I mean iPods, TV shows, Hulu, Netflix, you name it. We would like for people to carve a few minutes a day to check out the gay news site, and weekly for the print papers, but the competition is every other form of stimulus out there.

C: How long will Windy City Times continue to publish a printed version of the publication? Is the print form dead, Tracy?

Volume 1, Issue 1 of Windy City Times, September 26, 1985.
TB: I do not believe print is dead, but I do believe we are a media company now, and no longer just a newspaper. We have iPhone apps, Facebook and Twitter accounts, a podcast, video, daily website updates for breaking news, and then we also have two print publications, Windy City Times and Nightspots. So, we try to be where the readers are. And for now, some readers also want print, as do our advertisers. We simply could not do what we do now with the limited amount of online advertising that is out there—and the limited amount of space available for it on our website and weekly e-mail newsletter. No one has figured this out yet, so we will watch what happens, and this will be significantly driven by what advertisers want.

C: A few years ago, you made a move that some editors and writers thought was rather risky—moving the Windy City Times’ operation from a central office location to a completely remote office-based operation. Talk a little about how that model has worked for you and your staff, Tracy.

TB: In 2008, we were facing a lease renewal, and the company we shared office space with was downsizing, so we had a decision to make. Gas prices were going up, and other expenses were always escalating, like printing, utilities, and rent. Most of our staff was working at home by then, and a majority of our writers across the city and across the country, always worked at home, so it made little sense to have a large overhead every month. And it made us a “greener” company. I can’t believe how easy it was to do this, and how amazingly freeing it was. We had some staffers who liked to work 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and some 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Why force them into a 9-5 office when they do their best work at midnight or 6 a.m.?

But you have to have a great team that you can trust to make this work, and we have a fantastic Windy City Media Group staff. I think their average time with the company is 10 years, which is almost unheard of in gay media, or any media these days. I credit the staff with handling the transition so smoothly. Some other gay papers laughed at us when we did it, and then when the economy tanked just two months later in September 2008, no one was laughing anymore, and they were asking my opinion about how they might go virtual.

C: Your new book, “Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage” was released this month. Talk a little about how the book—which features articles and essays by top gay journalist and activists—addresses the role that gay Chicagoans played in Obama’s trajectory.

TB: This year, I read several of the new Obama books, and while most are well done, it struck me how “disappeared” the gay people and gay issues were from Obama’s history. I wanted to make sure that the gay community was not ignored for the significant role it played in his U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns. History belongs to those who write it. During the presidential campaign, gay issues were very important and debated at length by the Democrats. And now as president, Obama has made some positive moves on gay rights, and stumbled on other issues. So, I wanted to lay out everything he has said and done so far, to enable readers to make up their own minds. I wrote about 80 percent of the book, and then asked other respected writers to contribute articles and essays. There are also 140 images and photos, some never before seen in print. There are about three dozen interviews with current and former Chicago gays as well, showing their views about Obama and the gay community.