Windy City Times celebrates 30 years of headlines, breaking news

Wed. May 27, 2015 11:59 AM by Ross Forman

wct co-founders tracy baim and jeff mccourt (lower left)

photo credit // m.j. murphy

Windy City Times launches $30 for 30 Years Campaign on Indiegogo

Chicago, IL - A new issue of the Windy City Times arrives across Chicago and the suburbs every Wednesday, carrying the legacy of the city's LGBT community. Featuring award-winning reporters, diverse photos and produced under the eyes of its longtime publisher, Tracy Baim, the Windy City Times is truly part of Chicago's LGBT community—not just the lone surviving weekly gay newspaper in the city and one of only 11 weekly LGBT newspapers in the nation.

The Windy City Times is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, highlighted by a Sept. 27 party at Sidetrack

"It is kind of unbelievable to think I started in LGBT media for GayLife newspaper in 1984, at age 21, and then helped co-found Windy City Times a year later, at age 22. I feel like it was another lifetime ago," said Baim, 52, a Chicago native who graduated from Lane Tech High School and now calls her home the South Loop. "I feel very fortunate to have been able to do what I love for all these years. It has been a constant struggle, but worth every minute of it ...well, most of those minutes.

"I wanted to be a journalist from age 10, so to be openly lesbian and a journalist, I had to make my own path. I am so happy I did."

But the path to Baim's profession of choice has been anything but a smooth, paved road. Rather, it's as if she drove from O'Hare International Airport to Lakeview during the afternoon rush hour, on a Friday, coupled with a snow storm and limited visibility.

Both her mother, Joy Darrow, and stepfather, Steve Pratt, were journalists. Baim started working at GayLife newspaper in 1984 for publisher Chuck Renslow, yet in 1985, Baim split off to start Windy City Times, along with co-founders Bob Bearden, Jeff McCourt and Drew Badanish, plus several staff members and freelancers.

"When Bob Bearden died of AIDS complications in early 1987, I decided I could no longer work with Jeff McCourt, his partner, because of disagreements in style," said Baim, who then co-founded Outlines with several investors and about 90 percent of the staff from the Windy City Times.

For 13 years, Outlines and Windy City Times battled.

Outlines also started BLACKlines, En La Vida, OUT! Guide and other media, but Windy City Times was still the stronger business, benefitting from the stereotype that Outlines was a women's paper, which it wasn't—and McCourt was a more aggressive businessman. But that led to another staff walkout in 1999, "and as a result of his battling those people, we actually were able to buy Windy City Times in 2000 from McCourt," Baim said. "There have been a lot of splits and mergers in LGBT media over the years, much of it personality driven, but also based on the approach to coverage of the community."

Gay media has long been a battle for resources, or lack thereof. And that's just a start of the woes gay media has had to overcome. Of course there was the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, plus hate crimes, discrimination, internalized homophobia, and more.

"To keep going as a newspaper, it always comes down to time and money. We could do so much more if we had more resources, but we do a lot with little," Baim said. "During the years I was doing Outlines, and McCourt was doing Windy City Times, he actually was making a lot of money. But I saw how that money actually corrupted, so in many ways I may have had the slower, better path to doing this work. We never saw the gravy years."

The mainstream media vilified the gay community in the 1980s and when they were not doing that, they were ignoring it, Baim said. "So, there was so much riding on LGBT media getting [out] the full story, and covering all aspects of the community. AIDS also was starting its devastation of the community, so it was important to document what was going on, to tell people about events, protests and more. There was no Internet [at that time], so the newspapers were how people found out about everything."

Baim said there is no way to accurately estimate the impact HIV/AIDS had on the gay community, or the role of the newspaper and groups. "We lost many colleagues at Windy City Times, Outlines, BLACKlines and En La Vida. Our friends, our family, our community suffered tremendous loss," she said. "I felt as if I was dropped into a war zone at age 21 and have never been off the field of battle. We owe a lot to those warriors who acted up and fought back.

"As the mainstream media finally [started to] cover our community more, we had to adjust how we did things. The Internet helps, because we can break news daily online and scoop the daily papers. But what is interesting is that because the mainstream media is also suffering through staff cuts, in many ways they are not able to fully cover any one segment of their readership, including LGBT. So the LGBT media is just as needed now as it has ever been."

LGBT media in the U.S. was at its peak in the mid-1990s, Baim said. In fact, there was a time when there were three weekly gay newspapers in Chicago, but that was just for a year. The Chicago Free Press was the last local weekly newspaper to cease operation, yet a few Free Press boxes still linger around the city even now, five years after its last paper was printed.

There was a time in the U.S. when there were hundreds of LGBT publications, and yet now it's down to just over 100—and only 11 weekly LGBT newspapers.

"Being in this work for the community—not the money or some craving for power—is one key to surviving," Baim said. "Those who were in it for the money or a notion of power left a long time ago. It's really about loving the work and having passion for the community and its news."

Another bit of luck for Baim and the Windy City Times hit in 2008, sort of by accident. That's when the paper closed its Edgewater office, and has remained a virtual office ever since.

"Our timing [for the virtual office] was perfect because two months later the economy collapsed," Baim, said. "We did it because of the reality of running a newspaper—most of our people worked from the field or at home already. So it was a waste of money and time running an office. [Closing the office] really helped us weather the recession."

Baim also reflected on the importance of events back in 2000—when her publication merged with the Windy City Times. She tagged it, "the most important decision to survival of the company, of both companies," she said. "Going to a virtual office was a key [to surviving]. But really, it's a bunch of steps along the way, not being afraid to tackle new ideas and new ways of doing business. For example, we have always been free, so when the Internet came along, we were not afraid to go online with content. We were among the first LGBT media to do so."

Baim, no doubt, has a trophy-case of accomplishments she is proud of—in print, for print and from print. The Windy City Times has survived the worst of Chicago winters and shined under a summer sun's glare that brings hundreds of thousands to Lakeview annually on the last Sunday of June for the Chicago Pride Parade. Baim singled out seven aspects of the paper she is most proud of:

— The diversity of its staff and coverage. "We have always covered all aspects of the LGBT community," she said.

— Hundreds of staff, writers, photographers, delivery drivers and others made Windy City Times possible for 30 years. "I am very proud to have known these people," she said.

— "The community is very divided, but there have been times when we have come together, and I have been very proud to be a leader for some of those times, including Gay Games VII in 2006, and the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality in 2013," Baim said.

WCT writers have done some investigative, award-winning series that have made Baim proud, such as series on trans violence, youth homelessness, the criminal legal system, and AIDS.

— "Individuals within our community who have done this work have inspired me most," she said. "Not those in it for a career, but those who just do the work for very little reward. When I get close to burning out because of petty infighting, I look to those individuals to get re-motivated, including those people we have lost. I feel very committed to carrying on the work in their names."

— "We could not have survived without our initial investors in the newspaper, and the advertisers who have stuck with us for these 30 years. As a free newspaper, the ads are what pays the bills."

— Last, but certainly not least, the readers. "We just would not be relevant without them, and I could not stay as involved in the community without their support," Baim said.

So where will LGBT media be in, say, a year, or five years, or another 30 years?

Well, that's way too difficult to predict, but, Baim said, "We hope to continue to adapt to new technology, and survive as an advertiser-based model.

"There are still so many stories to cover, and LGBT media are the only ones doing this work every day of the year. The mainstream media does cover us more objectively than ever, but they just can't focus the same resources we can to cover the community, especially at a local level."

And nothing, or no one, is off-limits.

"I think we would cover anyone, but from an LGBT perspective," Baim said. "So if we interviewed a homophobic or transphobic person, our questions would be focused on that."

Baim has been partnered with Jean Albright for 21 years, and the two had a celebration (not legal marriage) a few years ago. And for the past 20 years, Albright has been the WCT circulation manager and director of online media.

Baim's first WCT stories that she ever wrote were about a serial killer targeting gay men, along with a man who tried to firebomb gay bars.

Baim is a writing machine, with her 11th book, a biography of gay pioneer Barbara Gittings, due out in July. She still has a list of want-to-profile, and tagged Larry Kramer as a recent "fun interview." And yes, she admitted that she was still "very intimidated" before talking with Kramer right after a performance of his play The Normal Heart in New York City, "but he was terrific," she added.

"I really can't name any one individual who has impacted me most in my 31 years doing LGBT media, [but] I am very grateful to have met the early pioneers in Chicago gay media, including William B. Kelley and Marie J. Kuda, plus Chuck Renslow," Baim said. "Renee Hanover, an attorney, was a great mentor.

"But the best part of my job is that I have gotten to cover tens of thousands of amazing people in the LGBT movement. It is an embarrassment of riches, and worth all the sacrifices of time, sleep and money.

"Sometimes we do the difficult work of holding community institutions or people accountable, but more often we get to call attention to the hard work of groups and activists. We also roll up our sleeves and try to be part of the solution on issues. Often we write the final stories about people we have lost, and it has been an honor to document the lives and deaths of so many amazing people in our community."

Yes, Baim and the Windy City Times have survived—and thrived—for 30 amazing years, and now ready for another 30 years of award-winning journalism that often is locally driven, yet also carrying a worldwide impact.

The 30th anniversary celebration for the Windy City Times is set for Sunday, Sept. 27, from 2 to 5 p.m., at Sidetrack in Lakeview. "We want it to be a fun afternoon of food, drinks and music. We will tell some stories of the past, have some of our former staff [attending], and also have copies of old WCT covers on display," Baim said. "But mainly we want to have some fun."

In May, Baim and the Windy City Times launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo in hopes of raising $30,000.

"We have been free for 30 years, in print and online. We have sponsored thousands of community events with free advertising, or discounted ads. We are asking everyone in the community to donate $30 for those 30 years," for journalistic projects the paper is planning, Baim said.

To donate, go to: #/story 

Ross Forman has written for the Windy City Times for 10 years, primarily covering LGBT sports, both locally and nationally. He also has written business profiles, feature stories, breaking news, and has been one of the main writers/photographers for the paper's popular In The Life series. Ross won the 2012 Peter Lisagor Award for Best Sports Story when he profiled gay former NFL player Esera Tuaolo. Ross can be reached by email at: