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Windy City Blown Away/Cleaning House


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By Michael Miner

Windy City Blown Away

The stack of resignations was supposed to be sitting on Jeff McCourt's desk when he got to the office Tuesday. But McCourt didn't get to the office Tuesday. He spent the day in Michigan, at his place in Harbor Country, on the phone a lot of the time and hurt, angry, and stunned.

That morning I'd called him for comment. Comment on what? he wondered.

Just about everybody you employed at Windy City Times has quit to start a newspaper of their own, I said.

"They did?" he said. Everything after that was off the record.

A blowup the day before explains why the resignations were late. Monday was payday, and the staff's plan was to do a day's work, take their paychecks to the bank, and quit. But McCourt didn't show up with the checks. He called from Michigan and said his car had broken down.

Metro news editor Louis Weisberg, on the Chicago end of the line, was furious. This inconvenience was a little too familiar to suit him. If we're not paid there's no paper this week, Weisberg told McCourt. ("It was rather chaotic," says national news editor Lisa Neff.) Business manager Jim McElaney and senior account managers Bill Feld and Dave Ouano drove to Three Oaks, Michigan, collected the checks from McCourt, and brought them back Monday night. But there was no way for the staff to get to the bank until 7:30 Tuesday morning. We don't want McCourt to find out and stop payment, they told themselves, so the resignations weren't turned in until ten. The reason I found myself breaking the bad news to McCourt is that he wasn't supposed to know it yet.

But insurrection had been brewing for months. Last February Feld had lunch with his friend Bill Atwood, a venture capitalist. Atwood recalls Feld telling him he was unhappy at Windy City and wishing he could buy the paper or start a new one. "That's kind of my business," Atwood told him. And their talk turned serious.

Feld wasn't the only one discontented. Most of the Windy City staff had been stewing for a long time and for a lot of reasons, some of them personal, some philosophical. They complained about paychecks that arrived late. They complained that McCourt, the editor and publisher, was marketing his paper for a narrow, upscale gay market when the community it ought to serve was far broader. They didn't complain about McCourt's salary scale, but that was their only solace. Atwood, says former classifieds manager Jeff McBride, raised their sights from "wishing and dreaming by disgruntled staffers" to careful planning. Through intermediaries they sent out feelers, testing McCourt's interest in selling the paper, something he'd been talking about for years. They concluded it wasn't going to happen. They courted investors and located the essential backer in Jerry Matustik, an Oak Brook insurance executive. Several weeks ago they quietly incorporated.

A couple of months ago a McCourt loyalist who would stay at Windy City came across a discarded scrap of paper dated June 7. It was a to-do list of people to see and calls to make that clearly revealed that the paper stood on the brink of upheaval. The staffer wrote a note to himself that he called "The Plot Thickens," and this week he read it to me. "Later that day it did occur to me that there's so much ill will and negative energy out there towards Jeff, but they fail to empathize with a man who embodies so many of the demons they themselves can't shake....There is right action, there is right speech, and things that cause hatred and division and negativity cannot be good even if it's based on the truth. Truth does not justify cruelty though it seems to fuel it....I hope Jeff finds balance and happiness and hope he finds peace from the suffering of the life that he's living....If they do try to destroy him, I think I might try to help Jeff insofar as he is a person worthy of some dignity and respect, even if flawed."

But McCourt has fought battles before. In 1985 he led a staff mutiny at the old Gay Life and founded Windy City Times with Tracy Baim. Two years later Baim walked out in the name of editorial in-tegrity, taking some of the staff with her, and founded Outlines. McCourt kept on trucking. Because no one doubts his resilience, no one was confident that he wouldn't find a way to go on publishing, even though his paper had just been gutted.

On Tuesday most of the old Windy City staff issued a press release an-nouncing that the first edition of the new Chicago Free Press would appear on August 25. Their goal was "to raise the alternative weekly press to the next level." Matustik will be CEO of Novus Publishing Group, the corporate frame-work. Weisberg will be editor in chief and Neff managing editor. Feld will be general manager and Mark Olley advertising manager. Other Windy City renegades present at the creation are Jason Smith, the new art and photography director; Jeff McBride, the classified advertising manager; writers Kerrie Kennedy, Bill Behrens, Jennifer Earls, Paul Varnell, and Jennifer Vanasco, and account managers Tim Nedoba, Matt Mabery, and Ouano. Atwood will be around too, as a business consultant.

"I think that all of us were frustrated with Windy City Times," says Neff. "We feel that personally and for the community we have ambitions we just can't realize there. We're leaving Windy City Times to create a paper that we think will serve the community's needs better." Weisberg adds, "Right now the gay and lesbian media market is way too segmented. There's a paper [Outlines] with feminist appeal, a paper [Windy City Times] with upper-middle-class white male appeal. There are minority papers and party-boy papers. But nothing appeals to a cross section--and a good alternative publication does."

Chicago Free Press will be printed by Newsweb, which used to be McCourt's printer. Its president, Fred Eychaner, is a prominent benefactor of gay causes and someone it was foolish to alienate. Nevertheless, McCourt managed to do it. A couple of years ago unpaid bills prompted Eychaner to file suit and drop the account. Windy City Times eventually settled out of court.

Cleaning House

When a newspaper's whaling away at a public figure for the company he keeps, don't expect it to eagerly acknowledge that it runs with the same wrong crowd.

On Sunday, July 25, the Tribune launched its expose of the Duff family's alleged mob ties and millions of dollars in city contracts. The previous Wednesday James O'Shea, deputy managing editor for news, had read over the copy for the first time and come across an inconvenient admission. Reporters Andrew Martin, Laurie Cohen, and Ray Gibson were pointing out that one Duff-controlled business, Remedial Environmental Manpower, was under contract to help clean Tribune Tower.

O'Shea scratched his head and cut the reference. "I didn't think they needed it," he says. "The story is about $100 million in [city] contracts by a company pretending to be a minority business enterprise. This didn't have a damn thing to do with it." Furthermore, O'Shea seemed to recall that Tribune Properties had been spun off and was no longer even part of the Tribune Company.

O'Shea made two modest mistakes. Yes, Tribune Properties had been spun off--but then it had been reabsorbed. And the R.E.M. contract at the Tower didn't have a damn thing to do with the story--but the Tribune needed to mention it anyway. The contract was sure to become public later, and Daley's friends would cluck, "Shoulda been sooner."

What the Tribune reported at the get-go about R.E.M. was that it appeared to be a Duff-run company fronted by a black crony, William Stratton. Virtually moribund in 1993, it had sprung back to life in '95 when it was named "main minority subcontractor on the city's huge Blue Bag recycling program." That deal has brought R.E.M. more than $36 million.

Four days after the Duff story broke, a reporter asked Daley what he made of the Tribune Company having its own deal with R.E.M. "What do they clean?" Daley answered sarcastically. The Tribune reported the exchange the next morning--and now was obliged to acknowledge and explain: "Tribune Properties no longer does business with the firm, which was hired in 1994, according to Al Gramzinski, director of Tribune Properties. Remedial supplied 2 to 10 non-union janitors to supplement Tribune Properties cleaning staff, Gramzinski said."

This wasn't precisely true--the contract with R.E.M. wouldn't formally expire until August 1. Gramzinski had broken the bad news to Stratton in a letter dated June 25. "We have concluded our evaluation regarding the subcontracted cleaning services at Tribune Tower. At this time, we have elected to make a change," Gramzinski wrote. "This letter is to notify your firm that as of August 1, 1999 the contract that is dated October 15, 1998 is terminated. This complies with the requirements set forth in the agreement regarding thirty days termination notice by either party."

Gramzinski didn't tell Stratton that the Tribune was about to open fire with both barrels, but he concluded with what easily can be read as a hint that Stratton should bide his time until the unpleasantness blew over. "We at Tribune Properties appreciate the working relationship and services provided by your firm during the term of the contract and look forward to perhaps doing business in the future."

The letter makes the Tribune look a little silly. Speaking to me through a Tribune publicist, Gramzinski insists that he wrote Stratton having no idea what the newsroom was up to--he'd decided to cancel R.E.M. because he was running out of work for it to do. However, the day he sent the letter to R.E.M. was the day the newsroom filled him in on its plans, and he doesn't recall whether it went out while he was still ignorant or finally in the know. And O'Shea insists that while the Duff story was being reported he had no idea that R.E.M.'s nose was inside the Tribune tent. "It's not untypical around here for an editor in the editorial department not to be speaking to a lot of the other business units," he says.

Once in a while a newspaper trips on that old church-state divide and falls flat on its face.

News Bites

Mayor Daley can't be happy with Bruce DuMont. "When Kathy became special events director," DuMont, Kathy Osterman's widower, told the Tribune, "there were certain people who were recommended to her by Daley that she should do business with. The Duffs were among the coterie....My impression from talking to Kathy was that the mayor and Mr. Duff were longtime friends."

If his talkative wife told him that about the mayor and Duff, what else did she tell him? But DuMont has kept his silence since the Duff story broke, even when Daley hinted amiably on WBEZ that he knew DuMont's wife better than DuMont did. It's possible that the mayor has DuMont right where he wants him and they both know it. DuMont's pride and joy, his Museum of Broadcast Communications, is a $1-a-year tenant in the city's Cultural Center. The lease has a couple years to run.

Daley sailed through the WBEZ interview with morning host Steve Edwards. A second interviewer--a political reporter--would have been a good idea, since Daley one-on-one is as elusive as Barry Sanders. Nobody's saying City Hall dictated the form of the interview, but when the mayor's limo drove him out onto Navy Pier he couldn't have been distressed by the reminder that WBEZ is a tenant of the city-controlled Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

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

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