Windy City: Time’s Up

“This has better than a snowball’s chance in hell of happening, and it’s smaller than a bread box,” said Tracy Baim, an editor and publisher who understands that facts are fine but nothing tops a good quote. Baim was speaking the other day of the likelihood that she would acquire the good name—but none of the liabilities—of the suddenly defunct Windy City Times.

Baim was once a WCT editor—until she led a 1987 staff walkout and started a rival publication—and she speaks with some affection of Jeff McCourt now that he’s out of business.

“We’ve had this weird relationship,” Baim told me. She can’t recall a single conversation with McCourt between 1987 and last August, when for the second time WCT staffers abandoned McCourt and started a rival. “Since the last coup he’s called me three or four times, just kind of feeling like the old warhorses. We’d put in the time, and the new folks had not.” When she heard last week that McCourt was shutting down, she told him that he’d “had custody of our baby for 13 years” and she didn’t want to see that baby die if there was some way she could keep it going. “I think I put a whole lot of different ideas in his head,” Baim told me. “He seemed much more down at the beginning of the conversation than at the end.”

McCourt told his staff on Monday of last week that the paper was done for, without even a final issue. But hopeful rumors rippled from the sinking ship. There was word that McCourt would publish another issue simply to keep WCT technically alive while he negotiated. Word that the Tribune Company was talking to McCourt. Word that William Weybourn, owner of Atlanta’s Southern Voice and gay papers in New Orleans and Dallas, was interested in taking over. But Weybourn told me, “To be honest, at this time we have no interest in buying it.”

As for Baim, she and McCourt have continued to talk. Is this getting anywhere close to the size of a bread box? I asked this week.

“I think the negotiations are progressing—they’re further along,” she said guardedly. “We’re still very interested in purchasing it.”

Purchasing what? Anything besides the name, which Baim definitely intends to perpetuate?

“There might be some computer assets,” she said.

Staff? (Not that there’s much enthusiasm for Baim among the staff, who tend to gag on her “it’s my baby too” gall.)

“It would be one-at-a-time interviewing. I would presume we would take some.”

To keep the history brief, in 1985 the old Gay Life was destroyed by a staff walkout led by sales manager Bob Bearden. Bearden and McCourt, an options trader who was his lover, launched Windy City Times, and Baim became its editor. But Bearden soon died, and McCourt found himself both desolate and in possession of a weekly newspaper he wasn’t sure he wanted. But adversity has always focused him. In 1987 Baim walked out and founded Outlines. McCourt persevered, and Outlines never threatened WCT’s dominance. A year ago editors Louis Weisberg and Lisa Neff led the mass walkout from Windy City Times that led to the Chicago Free Press. This last, carefully plotted mutiny came as such a shock that the first McCourt knew of it was when I called him at his place in Michigan to ask for comment (which may help explain his decision not to answer my calls this time around).

Though in good times McCourt has brooded about abandoning the newspaper business to do something better with his life, his tenacity in bad times has been awesome. Despite having to hire virtually an entire new staff overnight last year, McCourt neither missed an issue nor blatantly lowered his standards. But soldiering on was harder this time than before. The competition was keener, for one thing, and by then McCourt had burned a lot of bridges, making the enemies serious publishers always make and then some. For example, he’d fallen so far behind with Newsweb, his printer, that Newsweb cut him off and took him to court. The newspaper war of the past year found McCourt struggling to survive wildly discounted advertising, a slipping product, and a new printer who kept him on a short leash.

Tributes from victors often flatter the defeated. In WCT’s case, magnanimity has been squelched by litigation—the founders of the Free Press think it unwise to say anything at all, given that McCourt’s accused them of conspiring to put him out of business and taken them to court and that the Free Press’s main financial backer has sued McCourt for allegedly falsifying circulation figures. (The Free Press didn’t even cover WCT‘s demise.) Yet gay activist Rick Garcia, political director of Equality Illinois, isn’t speaking only for himself when he praises McCourt as a journalist.

“I think Windy City Times has been horribly undervalued and unrecognized for the critically important contributions it has made to the gay and lesbian community in Chicago,” Garcia says. “McCourt has never gotten the credit he richly and rightly deserves. People bitch and moan because he’s had the courage to expose organizations and activities when they fuck up.” He says McCourt crusaded for a Chicago gay-rights bill in the 1980s, and in the 90s “hammered the city” for underfunding its AIDS programs. “Funding tripled, over the opposition of Mayor Daley,” says Garcia. “Windy City Times kept exposing what the situation was.”

A prominent Chicago businessman who’s gay says McCourt gained “a lot of respect from politicians and community leaders for putting out a responsible paper. It was a big part of the emergence of a gay and lesbian constituency downtown. It helped that the mayor could pick up a sort of fat gay weekly and read good stuff in it. That has an influence.”

Tracy Baim allows that one reason she and McCourt parted company in 1987 is that they had different visions of a gay paper. “We wanted to reflect the community,” she says. “He felt the paper needed to lead in terms of politics and news. He took a more aggressive role in what the newspaper was about than a lot of us were comfortable with.”

“Keynes talked about the businessperson’s drive you can’t quantify in an economic model,” says the businessman who spoke above. “I think he called it ‘animal spirit.’ Today it’s called entrepreneurial drive. Jeff had this animal spirit, and he really did fight hard. He deserves a lot of credit for keeping the paper going as long as he did. But he was pretty compulsive about stuff.”

McCourt was generally viewed as his own worst enemy—hyper, controlling, egomaniacal. “I like what he does,” says someone who’s known him for years, “but oh my God, how can people stand to work for him?” As last year’s coup was being plotted, a McCourt loyalist wrote himself a memo regretting that the plotters around him “fail to empathize with a man who embodies so many of the demons they themselves can’t shake. . . . I hope Jeff finds balance and happiness and hope he finds peace from the suffering of the life that he’s living.”

And the businessman told me, “I think the poor guy felt bad about himself. I don’t mean to make it sound self-pitying, but I think he was surprised at how much abuse he got over the years. He was surprised by the bitchiness that goes on. It’s inherently a bitchy profession, and this was a particularly bitchy aspect of the profession.”

Oprah Loses One

From 1986 to 1993 photographer Paul Natkin took pictures at the Oprah Winfrey Show; photographer Stephen Green did the same from 1989 to 1996. Eleven of their photos subsequently appeared in Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life, a book published in 1996 that was written by Winfrey and her weight-loss coach, Bob Greene. Asserting a violation of their copyright, Natkin and Green filed suit against, among others, Winfrey and Harpo Productions, Inc.

On the one hand, the access Natkin and Green enjoyed was provided by Winfrey and Harpo. On the other, in shooting their pictures they used their own equipment.

On the one hand, the plaintiffs were limited by the defendants as to what, where, and when they could photograph. On the other, choices as to cameras, lenses, film and shutter speeds, and the like were entirely their own.

The photographers were paid a flat fee, from which no taxes or social security payments were withheld, and these fees were reported to the IRS by Harpo on 1099 forms as “nonemployee compensation.” But Natkin and Green attended staff functions, had access to the company cafeteria, and were referred to and referred to themselves as “staff photographers.”

When a photograph created by one person has been commissioned by another, what ongoing claim to the image can the patron assert? In an opinion issued last week, federal judge Ruben Castillo came down on the side of the creator.

“The defendants maintain that they are in the business of promoting Oprah Winfrey, which includes taking photographs of her on the show,” Castillo wrote, and that they “controlled the vast majority of the picture elements.” However indispensable the role of Winfrey and Harpo in bringing the 11 disputed photos into being, the judge concluded, only Natkin and Green “are the authors.”

Winfrey and Harpo provided the subjects and settings, but these preconditions were no more than the “facts” of the photographs. “Ideas and facts are not copyrightable; rather copyright law protects only the tangible expression of ideas and facts,” Castillo wrote. “The defendants’ co-authorship claim boils down to the assertion that they contributed noncopyrightable elements to the pictures. Specifically, they claim authorship of Winfrey, her facial expressions, her attire, the ‘look’ and ‘mood’ of the show, the choice of guests, the staging of the show, and so on. In simpler terms, they claim a copyright to the show, which Natkin and Green photographed. But . . . the subject matter of the photographs is not copyrightable.” And quoting from a precedent, the judge continued, “An author is the party who actually creates the work, that is, the person who translates an idea into a fixed, tangible expression.”

This opinion doesn’t conclude the case. Acknowledging Harpo’s “implied license” to make some use of Natkin and Green’s photographs, Castillo reserved judgment on whether Make the Connection exceeded that license. But his point is this: it was a license, not an entitlement.

Oprah Winfrey seeks absolute control over her environment and how she’s perceived in it—employees must sign a confidentiality agreement, and her new magazine, O, seems to exist to present her as she wants to be presented. Presumably she’s now learned a lesson. The creation belongs to the creator, not the facilitator—at least not until the facilitator sets the creator up with health insurance and paid vacations and starts withholding taxes.

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