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Chicago Phoenix Rises from the Ashes of Gay Chicago and Chicago Free Press

By Tony Peregrin in News on Dec 8, 2011 4:10PM

Tidwell from facebook.jpg
Dane Tidwell
The name of the Windy City’s newest entry on the LGBT media landscape—Chicago Phoenix—is a not-too-subtle nod to the mythical bird with Technicolor plumage thought to symbolize rebirth and renewal. It’s a fitting moniker, as Chicago Phoenix features key staff members plucked from the mastheads of the now-defunct Gay Chicago and Chicago Free Press, including co-founder Dane Tidwell, former managing publisher of Gay Chicago, and Tony Merevick, the former online editor for Chicago Free Press and opinion columnist for Gay Chicago.

When Gay Chicago folded in September after a respectable 35-year run, the LGBT community lost a popular media outlet, a venerable bar rag, yes, but a brand that had an undeniably loyal readership.

Chicago Phoenix focuses on quality journalism, opinion and media that will inform and enrich our community,” says Tidwell, when asked what separates Chicago Phoenix from other LGBT outlets past and present. “We’ve removed ourselves from the bar culture of Boystown and chose to focus on happenings throughout the region that are newsworthy in a purely journalistic sense. We have true journalists working as our writers, which is also a step in a different direction from other LGBT publications.”

Launched about a week ago, Chicago Phoenix is, according to their website, “the source for unbiased LGBT coverage and is the highest trafficked news site in the Midwest.” Tidwell, along with Merevick, have launched Merewell a network of three publications including a new high-end LGBT print magazine set to launch next spring.

Chicagoist caught up with Tidwell to discuss why Gay Chicago foundered, and how Chicago Phoenix is ready to take flight in a whole new direction.

Chicagoist: Talk about the launch of Chicago Phoenix—as the site’s name suggests, this venture truly is a kind of rising up from the ashes, right?

Dane Tidwell: The idea for the publication actually originated shortly after the Chicago Free Press (CFP) closed in May of 2010. A group of writers and editors from CFP got together to come up with something new to replace it, and the entertainment editor, Gregg Shapiro, offered the word "Phoenix," which suggests that this new publication would rise from the ashes of Chicago Free Press. However, the idea never came to fruition.

Tony Merevick, the former online editor at CFP, who is now the editor in chief of Chicago Phoenix, initially worked to get the publication started over a year ago. Merevick and I both were at Gay Chicago, and since that publication has also closed, we decided that it would be a perfect time to bring Chicago Phoenix to the community. It happened pretty quickly. I think we talked about it on a Tuesday night. The site was live and we were reaching out to our contacts less than 24 (exhausting) hours later.

Chicagoist: The Facebook page for Chicago Phoenix states that the website was “born as a response to the closures of Chicago Free Press and Gay Chicago Magazine.” Can you expand on that statement, Dane, and describe what elements of Chicago Phoenix are similar to those publications, what your site is doing differently?

Dane Tidwell: Chicago Phoenix builds on the closures of those publications in the sense that they published news and offered another voice to our community. There are facts, and then there are interpretations of those facts. What would it be like if Chicago only had the Sun-Times, or if the only television network was FOX News?

What is similar about Chicago Phoenix is that we have an excellent web strategy and a focus on informing the community with excellent coverage. Indeed, we have brought on some of the former Chicago Free Press and Gay Chicago staff, who have a clear vision of what content we’d like to provide to the community and who have also grown from the closures of these great publications. In a way, they know more about LGBT media than anyone else. They know the community and they know our business, and that is very special. Gay Chicago and Chicago Free Press focused a lot of their coverage on Chicago nightlife. While we will be publishing pieces about that here and there, it won’t be a major focus. We definitely will not be publishing porn reviews or classifieds. There are other, more appropriate venues for that type of content. And unlike other sites, we have no intention to try to be all things to all people. CP will be an authoritative voice with a focus on journalistic integrity.

Dane Tidwell: No print version of the publication is planned. We went into this knowing that a weekly printed newspaper is a terrible business model, so our online strategy is perfect. News, by its very definition, should be recent and current, and quite frankly, there’s nothing recent or current about seven-day-old news (and that's assuming you pick it up the day the paper comes out). Besides the online strategy, we have some other innovative distribution channels. Starting Monday, December 12th, you’ll be able to purchase a Kindle with a year’s subscription pre-installed, or if you already have an e-reader or tablet, you can simply purchase a stand-alone subscription.

Chicagoist: For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a little about your professional background and the role you’ve played in LGBT media in Chicago.

Dane Tidwell: I worked in politics when I first moved to Chicago. Jacob Meister, Governor Quinn, Alexi Giannoulias, Mayor Emanuel—I was involved with each campaign, primarily in the LGBT community. Afterwards, I became Managing Publisher of Gay Chicago, overseeing its re-branding and repositioning in the market. Long, long ago I worked for a daily newspaper in Texas, starting out in the design department (creating those “SALE, SALE, SALE!” ads) and ending up as Deputy Publisher after it was purchased by CNHI.

My CP co-founder Tony Merevick, was also on the staff of Gay Chicago as an opinion columnist. He was the online editor at Chicago Free Press after spending some time there as a news reporter. In 2010, he founded The Q Review, an LGBT literary magazine that publishes quarterly online. He actually just got back from New York, where he was an intern at O, the Oprah Magazine as part of their iPad team.

Together, we started Merewell and are creating a network of three publications: Chicago Phoenix, The Q Review, and Opus, a high end LGBT quarterly print magazine, which is due to launch in March 2012. We’ve also signed with a distributor to create an LGBT book imprint in all that free time we have.

Chicago Phoenix logo.
Chicagoist: Last month, in an article written by Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader, you were asked about Gay Chicago’s new format, which was sort of a last ditch effort to save the publication before its demise. Here’s your quote:

“It was a bar rag that had just transitioned into a newspaper, and you can't attract high-end advertisers if you have bathhouse ads." Also, "I didn't want to go head-to-head against Windy City Times. I wanted to differentiate it as a weekly newspaper that focused more on features than breaking news."

If you could start Gay Chicago again, which has such strong brand recognition in Chicago, what would you do differently this time, Dane?

Dane Tidwell: I obviously thought the idea had merit or I never would have signed on. I rebranded and redesigned the website and newspaper shifting focus of breaking news to our online properties and beefing up the features in print. All in all, I increased Gay Chicago’s coverage, increased our distribution footprint, reduced overhead, streamlined operations, and improved the paper’s image in the community.

However, there were several problems that Gay Chicago was never able to overcome. A $100K debt coupled with some exorbitant expenses, for one. I should have focused on our sales team sooner, but bringing in good, loyal sales staff on a commission-only pay structure is nearly impossible.

Chicagoist: Since we’re approaching the end of 2011, what in your mind, were the big LGBT stories in Chicago this year? And what do you see as being big issues/stories moving into 2012?

Dane Tidwell: A lot happened this year. We saw Illinois’s first Civil Unions. Emanuel’s announcement that the city will no longer have an LGBT Advisory Council and his cancellation of both the Mayor’s Pride Reception and the nation’s only city-organized Salute to LGBT Veterans were huge news (and, incidentally, first reported by Gay Chicago). Chicago Phoenix will be watching these developments into the new year: How will this new Council work? What will its duties be (and how much influence will it really have)?

We’ve also seen members of our local community soar to the tops of their organizations, like Jamal Edwards, and the tragic loss of Christina Santiago in the Indiana State Fair stage collapse disaster. Next year, will undoubtedly bring us even more stories —both positive and negative—especially as the 2012 presidential race goes into its final stretch.