Gay Chicago's reformatted cover (left) turned the magazine into a tabloid newspaper.
Gay Chicago's reformatted cover (left) turned the magazine into a tabloid newspaper.

Gay Chicago was shut down in September by two antagonistic owners, neither a fully credentialed member of Chicago’s gay community. Internet whiz Dane Tidwell has lived in Chicago just three years and hasn’t made his mark; not many people know who he is. Most people know the last name of Craig Gernhardt, son of the late Ralph Paul Gernhardt, who founded the beloved bar rag in 1976. But as it happens, Craig Gernhardt isn’t gay—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In its day, says gay politico Rick Garcia, Gay Chicago “was a huge icon in the gay community. I could have my picture on the front page of either of the other papers”—at different times these were Windy City Times, Outlines, and the Chicago Free Press—”and one or two people would say something. But whenever it was in Gay Chicago I’d be in Walgreens and some little old lady—I loved it when little old ladies did it—would say, ‘I saw you in the paper, honey.’ Wow! Everybody picked up Gay Chicago.”

Gay Chicago‘s top ad salesman—until Gernhardt and Tidwell fired him three months ago—says the publication went astray when Gernhardt took it up-market this past spring. “They wanted stories on the civil union bill and gay crime,” says Star Salesman, who asked me not to name him because Tidwell accused him of improprieties, and he doesn’t want them trailing him to his next job. “July 1 was the biggest news in Illinoistwo women can get married. Well guess what! Nobody wants to know that. They want to know who’s got the dollar drink specials. Who’s DJing at what club. Or where they can get laid.” In the view of the bar owners Star Salesman sold ads to, these are the proper concerns of a bar rag, and when Gay Chicago became less of a bar rag they had less reason to advertise in it.

The deeper reason why Gay Chicago folded in September might simply be that folding is what newspapers and magazines are doing these days, be they big or little, prim and proper or laced with porn. Pointing this out is not likely to console a son who feels he’s failed his father. Ralph Paul Gernhardt died in 2006, and Craig, who’d delivered the magazine, and Stacey Bridges, who’d managed it for Ralph Paul, shouldered the load together. It was an unhappy collaboration, and in 2009 Gernhardt bought Bridges out. When Bridges started a competing bar rag, Grab, he was able to take most of the bar ads with him, says Star Salesman. “Craig alienated a lot of people.”

Meanwhile, Tidwell came to Chicago from Texas in December 2008 and was dabbling in local politics—trying to organize the Stonewall Democrats of Illinois, styling the website of gay attorney Jacob Meister during Meister’s brief 2010 run for the U.S. Senate, thinking out loud about running himself for alderman this year. None of these initiatives went anywhere. Says Garcia: “I got an e-mail [from Gernhardt] saying he was having difficulty with his new co-owner, Dane Tidwell.”

Yes, Gernhardt was still Gay Chicago‘s publisher, but in July he made Tidwell managing publisher and gave him 50 percent of the business. Gernhardt took this desperate step because Gernhardt Publications Inc. had run up a huge debt with its printer, Newsweb, and Newsweb was coming after him in court. A default judgment of more than $95,000 loomed, and Tidwell offered to assume the debt in return for half the company.

Gay Chicago’s troubles came to my attention last week when Gernhardt and Tidwell exchanged heated e-mails. Gernhardt accused Tidwell of fraud. Tidwell threatened to sue. Gernhardt copied Garcia, so Tidwell copied Garcia too when he replied, and somehow it happened that minutes after Tidwell and Gernhardt were reading each other’s e-mails I was reading them too—thirdhand, maybe fourth. News travels fast when it’s sensational.

As you’ll notice, Gernhardt’s voice isn’t present in this column. When I asked for an interview he replied by e-mail, “If I’m going to spill the beans, it might as well be to you.” On the other hand, he said, he didn’t want to be sued. He asked if he could think about it overnight. I never heard back from him.

Gernhardt’s decision to take Tidwell into the business was the latest in a series of dramatic maneuvers. In April, the 35th anniversary of Gay Chicago‘s founding, Gernhardt dumped the magazine format, turning the bar rag into a tabloid newspaper that made some effort to do serious reporting. He also filed papers to create a not-for-profit Gay Chicago Foundation to run the paper, lower its tax burden, and simulate a fresh start. With Tidwell, Gernhardt’s original idea was that Tidwell would create a snazzy website and split the Internet profits. But once Tidwell got his nose inside the tent he saw bigger problems and bigger opportunities. For half the business, he’d tackle them.

In Tidwell’s view, Gay Chicago‘s new format was half-baked: “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.”

As for Star Salesman, Tidwell decided he had to go. “He was abusive to other employees and would steal accounts from other sales staff,” Tidwell says. “Mr. Gernhardt was well aware of these issues and continued to let him work there because he generated half of the paper’s weekly income.” Tidwell told Gernhardt he had to fire him.

Tidwell wouldn’t name the salesman. But he was easy to identify and track down—and eager to defend himself. “What Dane doesn’t want to recognize was that he had no business sense,” says Star Salesman (who doesn’t think Gernhardt had much either). “Dane wants a sales force that was friendly and all smiles. A friendly sales staff couldn’t sell worth a—whatever.”

“It’s not easy to sell mainstream advertising in a magazine that’s got porn reviews and escort ads,” Star Salesman continues. “When you’re calling on a supermarket or clothing boutique or restaurant and they see editorials that says ‘John fucked Bob in the ass,’ it’s hard to sell ads. Lakeview merchants, they’re liberal but not that liberal. You have to be a strong salesperson, and I was.”

Tidwell concedes that when they lost their “primary revenue generator” they couldn’t replace the business he’d brought in. Revenues plunged. Tempers frayed. Tidwell thought twice about the printing debt.

With Gay Chicago sinking fast, Gernhardt turned to Garcia for help. Garcia told Gernhardt his 50-50 split with Tidwell was ridiculous because no difficult decisions could ever get made. Gernhardt said he knew (Tidwell had said the same thing), but there was a solution: he and Tidwell had agreed to turn all unresolvable arguments over to mediators.

To mediators! Garcia marveled. “I’ve put you down as my mediator,” Gernhardt told Garcia.

Garcia recalls, “He said, ‘You’ve known me hundreds of years. You’d fight for the paper and the community, and to keep my father’s legacy alive.’ And he’s right. I was deeply honored. I teared up.” But what Gernhardt was describing was an advocate, not a mediator.

Garcia nixed the mediator idea, and Gernhardt was ready with Plan B. “I shouldn’t say this but I will,” Garcia says. “He said, ‘I’ll give you my half because I want the paper to continue.’ I said, ‘Craig, that’s really nice, but I don’t know anything about running a paper.’ And I thought, how desperate is this poor guy?”

Everything fell apart with lightning speed. In mid-September Gay Chicago announced it was shifting from weekly to biweekly publication. But before it could even take that step, on September 29 it announced it was shutting down. “Gay Chicago will continue, however, to produce an online news and entertainment [website],” said the announcement. “It’s time to turn toward a new direction.”

Kept up by Tidwell, the website survived a few weeks longer. Then it too disappeared.

Tidwell says he’d figured that if the court allowed him to pay off the Newsweb debt for under $1,500 a month, he could swing it. “But they took a really long time getting the paperwork together, and the day they finally sent the agreement over there was no Gay Chicago anymore. I was not about to assume a $100,000 debt for a company that doesn’t exist. I was living off of savings. I was about to lose my house. When there was no more print I wanted to continue online, but seeing no revenue from it whatsoever, I gave up.”

Did Gernhardt give up too? I asked.

“I really can’t tell,” says Tidwell, whose new idea is to launch Opus, a stylish news monthly along the lines of Monocle, with correspondents around the world. “At this point we couldn’t be in the same room together.”