A conversation with Tracy Baim, co-founder of the pioneering LGBTQ publication that’s served Chicago for 35 years and counting
Two weeks after the first issues of the now-iconic Windy City Times (WCT) hit the streets of Chicago, the fledging newspaper told one of the biggest stories to rock the nation’s gay community, especially in October 1985: Rock Hudson had died from an illness related to AIDS, a story that was front page news all around the world.
With Hudson’s admission of his diagnosis that summer and his death, the straight news media finally woke up to the crisis that was gutting the gay population. But even before that, and to this day, Windy City Times covered Chicagoans impacted by AIDS and HIV and told stories of everyday life for local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people with the same fervor and esteem that has won the newspaper accolades over three and a half decades.
Now, as part of its 32nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards, the LGBTQ advocacy organization has revived its much-celebrated Barbara Gittings Award for Excellence in LGBTQ Media, to honor the legacy of Windy City Times and the end of an era.
This year’s recipient of the Barbara Gittings Award for Excellence in LGBTQ Media is @WindyCityTimes, Chicago’s pioneering LGBTQ news publication! #GLAADawards @TracyBaimWCMG pic.twitter.com/ABtRjcThtY
— GLAAD (@glaad) April 6, 2021
The issue published on Sept. 30, 2020, marked its 35th year in print, and its final print edition.
“It was very painful, but it was also coming for a couple of years,” said Tracy Baim, the out lesbian co-founder and president of the Windy City Times, as well as co-publisher and president of the Chicago Reader. “So, the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin, but it had already struggled for a long time.”
“Struggle” is really too kind a word: “I had been propping it up for a very long time with a mortgage on my house,” Baim said. “So I basically did an intervention of myself, saying I cannot continue to hoist this up on my shoulders.”
And despite being from a place known as The City of Big Shoulders, Baim was shouldering quite a lot.
One of the burdens she carried is that Windy City Times, since its inception, had always been a free newspaper, and made whatever money it earned from advertising. It will continue to exist online, without a paywall, Baim promised, along with its incredible archive of 70,000 news and feature articles and videos. There will also be a special quarterly insert of WCT in its sister publication.
“The Reader prints 56-thousand copies, and the Windy City was 10-thousand copies. So we feel like the name will continue.”
The story of Baim and her connection to Windy City Times starts in 1984, when GayLife newspaper hired her as a part-time “typesetter/reporter/photographer,” one month after graduating from Drake University.
“I felt like I’d won the lottery in terms of just doing the career I always wanted,” Baim told GLAAD, “in an environment that accepted who I was. I didn’t even realize a lot of my colleagues at the time were using fake names. It literally didn’t even occur to me that people’s bylines were not their real names; I was that naive to how powerful that closet was, and the repercussions on your career. But I was either going to be an openly gay journalist or I wasn’t going to be a journalist.”
Baim grew up in the shadow of journalists: Her stepfather was at the Chicago Tribune for 29 years and her mother was managing editor of the Chicago Defender. “She was the perfect role model for me,” she recalled, “because she was always fighting against sexism. And the sexism she experienced was far worse than the ones I did.”
A year into her very first job out of college, Baim followed GayLife’s art director Drew Badanish, Jeff McCourt and Bob Bearden in a mass defection to start their own newspaper. Each of the three men put up $10,000 to create Windy City Times in McCourt and Bearden’s third-floor walkup apartment blocks from Lake Shore Drive. In a 2007 Chicago Magazine profile of the tragic life and death of McCourt, Baim described the shoestring conditions of their startup: “We did layout in the kitchen, and the typesetting machine was in the basement because it was too heavy to bring up three flights of stairs.”
Badanish left shortly after launch. McCourt’s partner, Bearden, died in 1987, the same year Baim quit to start her own gay-focused publication, Outlines newspaper, and learned first-hand about the business side of journalism.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell the stories,” Baim said. “But I learned early on that if you didn’t control the business side and learn the business side on the job, I wouldn’t be doing it for very long. I had to learn how to sell ads, paste up ads, do the crap work and the business work in order to do the other work.”
Baim and Outlines battled McCourt in what Chicago Magazine called the city’s last great newspaper war. WCT grew from “a better-than-average community paper to a publication that changed the paradigm of gay publishing,” Robert Sharoff wrote. For example, WCT was seen as instrumental in the adoption of Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance in 1988, which had languished in the city council since 1973. Chicagoland’s so-called paper of record for the gay and lesbian community of that era gained clout as a legitimate power broker and political kingmaker.
McCourt ran WCT from the late 1980s until he nearly ran it into the ground, with the staff fleeing the paper in an ironic twist to how it started. In 2000, Baim returned. Her company, Lambda Publications, bought the paper for about $400,000 and merged it with Outlines. The new parent company became Windy City Media Group, and was also responsible for Nightspots, a biweekly, four-color, glossy entertainment guide; Blacklines; En La Vida and Identity.
Baim was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1994, and in 2014, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in Chicago journalism by the Chicago Headline Club, the largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter in the country.
Baim is also an author of several books, including Barbara Gittings, Gay Pioneer. Published in 2015, it’s the first full-length biography of the woman who has been called the mother of the gay-rights movement, from the 1960s until her death in 2007.
“For over 35 years, Tracy Baim and the team at Windy City Times have been a trailblazing force in LGBTQ media, helping to reach generations of LGBTQ people with inspiring, uplifting, and enlightening stories from our community,” said GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “Born in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, Windy City Times has a profound legacy of centering LGBTQ people and issues at a time when acceptance for our community was minimal. Today, Windy City Times remains a powerful example of the critical significance and impact of LGBTQ media, and is truly deserving of this year’s Barbara Gittings Award for Excellence in LGBTQ Media.”
What does winning the Gittings Award mean to Baim? “Well, this is an honor for Windy City Times, and I feel lucky that I’m the one being a spokesperson for it, but I’m absolutely not the only person,” she said. “I want to acknowledge that there’s been hundreds of people from the co-founders, Jeff, Bob and Drew and I, to people through today, like hundreds of people who’ve made this happen. I’ve been lucky to be the one to lead this for most of its life. But there’s not even a question there that I could have done it without people like Terri Klinsky, who’s the publisher now, and took over when I left for The Reader, my partner Jean Albright, Andrew Davis, Matt Simonette, Kirk Williamson, Kate Sosin, Trudy Ring. We had hundreds and hundreds of people that made Windy City Times happen. And all of them, whether they were there a week or 25 years, contributed to it.”
Dawn Ennis is the managing editor of Outsports.com and in 2013 was the first transgender journalist to come out in network TV news. In addition to being an award-winning journalist, she hosts the “RiseUP With Dawn Ennis” talk show, co-hosts “The Trans Sporter Room” podcast and is a television correspondent for: “Connecticut Voice Out Loud” on WTNH-TV. She is a contributor to Forbes.com, The Daily Beast, StarTrek.com, Out Magazine, The Advocate Magazine, CT Voice Magazine. NBC News, and NewNowNext.