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Backstabbers/From Hoops to Scoops

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By Michael Miner

Backstabbers

In unity there is strength. At least the appearance of strength. Or maybe an admission of weakness. At any rate, 14 staff members of the new Chicago Free Press insisted on posing as a group for last week's Reader. Jeff McCourt contemplated the photo and then told me, "What was done was one of the most unprofessional acts of cowardice I have ever witnessed."

The day before the photo was taken, almost all of them had been on McCourt's payroll. They collected their last paychecks and quit while McCourt was out at his cottage in Michigan; he didn't know what had happened until I called him. For months they'd been locating investors, renting space, agreeing on titles--in short, creating the infrastructure that would let them walk out of McCourt's paper and launch their own.

McCourt went on, "I operate in an atmosphere of trust. I don't operate in an atmosphere of paranoia. If I did, perhaps I'd have been more suspicious." He continued cryptically, "In retrospect I've uncovered a great deal of information, but that's for my counsel to deal with."

If Cesare Borgia were to immerse himself in the gay press of Chicago it wouldn't take him long to get his bearings. In 1985, when McCourt was a trader on the options exchange and his lover was advertising manager of Gay Life, McCourt opened negotiations with owner Chuck Renslow to buy that paper. But instead of making the purchase he started Windy City Times and Gay Life's staff walked out on Renslow to join it. Gay Life quickly collapsed.

Renslow's last managing editor and McCourt's first was Tracy Baim. In 1987 Baim led a walkout from Windy City Times and founded Outlines. "When we left Gay Life there was no warning," Baim remembered. "It was quick and devastating--[Renslow] couldn't recover. When we left Windy City we gave Jeff two weeks and put out two more issues. It was horrible and difficult to do but the staff felt it was ethical. So it was a very different departure."

"She came to my desk. She sat down in a chair in front of me. She turned in her key. She turned in her resignation face-to-face during regular business hours, and she said she needed to start a new paper because she couldn't buy this one," McCourt remembered. "She didn't call a journalist at the Reader or anywhere else in the wee hours to give them a tip. It was very different. That's my recollection--which is very accurate."

What's more, I chirped, she gave two weeks' notice...

"No, she did not," said McCourt. "But she left in a way that was not as--let's just use the words 'potentially destructive.'"

He was comparing the kinder, gentler faithlessness of 1987 to the brutal faithlessness of 1999. So I called Louis Weisberg, Windy City's former national news editor and now editor in chief of the Free Press, and put the question to him: Why did you all slip out the back door, so to speak? Because that's how it's done, he replied. "People don't usually say, 'We're all walking out in two weeks.' I've never heard of that."

McCourt studied the picture of the Free Press staff and compared it to the Hot Type story. "Right now the gay and lesbian media market is way too segmented," the story had Weisberg saying. "There's a paper [Outlines] with feminist appeal, a paper [Windy City Times] with upper-middle-class white male appeal. There are minority papers [Baim's Black Lines and La Vida] and party-boy papers [Gay Chicago and Gab]. But nothing appeals to a cross section--and a good alternative publication does."

"I find that rather ironic and hypocritical," said McCourt, "because I'm looking at 14 white faces. There's not a Hispanic among them, and only three women. That's the least diverse staff I have ever seen. I find that not only hypocritical but appalling. I find that incongruous with the text published and the ideals expressed."

"Well, we came from his paper," said Weisberg. "We plan to branch out quite a bit but this is our core group. We want to bring more people into the family but this is what we're starting with."

"I have a diverse staff coming on," said McCourt, "Much more diverse than the old. I have already hired three Hispanic gentlemen and two women. I'm making it clear to every single one that I want them to come aboard--once I select them--only if they give proper notice wherever they are. Because that's what I've always wanted to be done to me."

Weisberg's published remarks aggravated Baim too. "It's the same thing Windy City has been doing for 12 years to cut us down," she said. "It's an extremely sexist interpretation of what Outlines and all of our publications do. We have by far the most diverse writing crew, photography crew, and staff. Gender, race, and sexual orientation, including the words that get tossed around--'bisexual' and 'transgender'--we cover those communities far more than the other publications do. We cover Mr. Leather. We cover men's softball. We cover women's softball. We cover every part of this community. All the surveys show we have 60 percent male readers and 40 percent female. That's the most balanced in the country."

Over at the Windy City offices McCourt has changed the locks and alarm system at "great expense." He mourned, "I've only received one set of keys. Tim Nedoba was one of the sales representatives who left. Last Wednesday he dropped off the signed letters of resignation of most of the parties--so they didn't formally resign when they departed Tuesday in the wee hours. Included when he came by was a set of keys.

"I think it's a nice statement to send a key back. It only costs a stamp."

Two weeks from his first issue, Weisberg was fired up. "We've been out there a week and we're feeling really great," he says. "We're really charged and excited. We're just amazed at the response we're getting from advertisers."

McCourt was also fired up. "It's really turning out to be an extraordinary experience," he says. "I'm rejuvenated. I will publish and I will publish well."

"It will be fascinating to watch the battle between the two of them," said Baim. "I think the 13 who left underestimated him. I would never underestimate him. They might have thought that walking out would be enough to kill him immediately. But there's no way. It might take six months. It might take six years. But it'll be an ugly battle."

Isn't it a battle between all three of you? I asked her. No, she insisted, because she's got her niche. "There's nothing those two publications can do to directly hurt us. For 12 years our advertisers have been pushed to go away from us. And they've stuck with us."

"When the paper comes out I'm going to be mailing out copies to almost all our advertisers, writing nice letters of thanks and appreciation," said McCourt. "One advertiser I won't identify called me up and said he went into his showroom and looked around and wondered what would happen to him if nine of his ten salesmen walked out unexpectedly with no notice in some sort of collusive way. And he said to himself, 'I'd be devastated by the enormous challenge.' And then he thought of me, and he said, 'I can't imagine what Jeff's going through but he's amazing. He always pulls this stuff out.' And he called me up and increased his ad bookings and said 'I'll never place an ad in the other paper.'

"Businesspeople respect perseverance,' said McCourt.

From Hoops to Scoops

"It looks like I'm the new 'Inc.' guy," says Terry Armour. "There's a joke going around the Tribune that it's very rare when a person gets a job they really want. This is something I was interested in when it became open the last time, but I couldn't do it during the Bulls season."

Duty bound to chronicle the thrills and spills of Kornel David and company, Armour looked on with an aching heart last winter as the Trib's gossip column was awarded to Ellen Warren and Teresa Wiltz. But Wiltz quit the paper this summer--a "stunner," says Armour, deploying the sportswriter's vocabulary--and Armour reminded the powers that be he was available. "When the Teresa fiasco happened I kind of knew they'd have to hire somebody and probably they'd want to do it quickly."

Why do you want to write gossip? I ask.

"That's a damn good question. Anybody who's been in the business a long time will tell you the worst feeling in the world is to pick up the paper and find you've been scooped by your competitor. That's it for a good night's sleep. But writing 'Inc.'--technically you can scoop other people but no one can scoop you. What if Sneed had something, or Zwecker? Who gives a damn? You're all out to outscoop each other. You can scoop but you can't be scooped, because everybody has something different."

I'm not sure I understand what Armour has just said, so he walks me back through it. Let's say one day Sneed shows up with a cops scoop, says Armour. It's OK if "Inc." doesn't have the cops scoop because "Inc." is going to have some other scoop of its own. "Technically," says Armour, "she's scooping somebody who has the cops for a beat. She's not scooping me!"

He's given this an impressive amount of thought. "If I'm the Bulls beat reporter and I wake up in the morning and the Sun-Times has learned Michael Jordan will come out of retirement again and report to training camp, my bosses are on my ass. But now--it's not my beat! It's no skin off my nose."

Except it is, I respond, because no doubt your bosses presume you still have terrific Bulls sources.

He accepts the point. "I would assume if I am involved with the 'Inc.' column, they'd say, 'Gee, how come you didn't have a read on that?' There'd be skin off my nose, but not as much skin as if I was on the beat every day."

And if you have no idea what Jordan's doing you can always write, "Is Michael Jordan coming out of retirement?"

Not as often as you think, says Armour. "It's like the boy who cries wolf. You don't want to be throwing that stuff out there every day. You'll lose readers that way. We have enough contacts that we're not going to be throwing that crap out every day. If the sky is falling all the time, then when the sky actually falls how does anyone know it's falling? Because you said it was falling last time."

When the sky actually falls it probably won't be an "Inc." scoop anyway, I muse.

"The Tribune would have a special section," he agrees.

News Bites

A reader complained that I ignored the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. "Please don't tell us that, a la Diane Sawyer, you were too 'overcome with grief' to write about it," her letter said. No I wasn't; but I was too moved by the event to analyze the coverage of it.

This wasn't a breaking story--ten minutes of TV told us all we needed to know. So, since I've been asked, I guess the nonstop coverage was out of all proportion. But it also was appropriate, because the death plunged so many Americans into such a ghastly deja vu. Since 1963, an immense, horrifying absurdity has subsided into something resembling God's will. JFK Jr.'s plane crash brought all that horror back. As the media offered the romantic explanation of a family curse, I though about human nature's adamant genius at wresting order from chaos. Sometimes we call chance fate, because unlived lives become easier to accept once we've told ourselves they were never meant to be. Sometimes we bide our time until we can locate meaning retroactively. When November 22, 1963, became a taproot of the only world we know, it also became teleological.

Something that could have been shouted about the death of JFK Jr., but decently was only whispered, made our response even more anguished. His death resembled his father's murder less than it recalled Chappaquidick. Like his uncle, JFK Jr. committed the sin parents dread most in their children's friends; he was reckless with others. He can be more easily mourned than forgiven. But that's a lesson for another day and less suited to columnists than to the nation's dinner tables, where the old preach to the young.

Two weeks ago Hot Type described the argument between schools CEO Paul Vallas and Catalyst over how to calculate dropout rates. Vallas insisted the dropout rate's declining, Catalyst reported otherwise, and Vallas was furious. That doesn't mean he's inflexible. It wasn't much noted, but on July 27 school board president Gery Chico announced the closing of Urban Youth Alternative High School. Associate editor Maureen Kelleher, author of Catalyst's special report on dropouts, described the school to me as "the place where regular high schools routinely refer kids who aren't showing up to school...the place where most of them never show up or drop out."

Memo to the CTA. I don't know about the rest of the system, but Red Line passengers have pretty well figured out that when the conductor says "There is another train directly behind" he means one'll be along eventually on the same track.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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