Robert Sharoff (via Romenesko) profiles a journalism pioneer, Windy City Times publisher Jeff McCourt. Sharoff chronicles the McCourt’s 1985 founding of the WCT during– an eventful era for both Chicago and gay politics. According to Sharoff, McCourt and his colleagues created a paper that was both a journalistic enterprise and and advocate for the gay community during the first years of the AIDS crisis.
The highlight of the paper’s early years was undoubtedly the passage of the Human Rights Ordinance. The bill had been languishing in the city council since 1973, when it finally came up for a vote in the summer of 1986 and was solidly defeated. Within days, a lobbying effort began to reintroduce the bill, with McCourt playing a leading role. “I remember Jeff saying, ‘Here are the desks, here are the phones, here are the typewriters. Whatever you need, do it. Get it done,’” says [activist Rick] Garcia. “We called Windy City’s offices Ordinance Central,” says [journalist Albert] Williams, who was one of a number of activists working on the campaign.
Two weeks before Christmas in 1988, the slightly retooled bill sailed to passage. The subsequent victory party—held that night at Ann Sather on West Belmont Avenue—felt like a watershed moment. Among the dozens of politicos and media figures who felt compelled to make an appearance and offer their congratulations to McCourt and the assembled crowd were the two most powerful politicians in the city: the then mayor, Eugene Sawyer, and the future mayor Richard M. Daley.
Suddenly the people “who know nobody and who nobody knows” were being perceived as an important swing vote well worth courting in future elections.
Sharoff also makes the case that the Windy City Times was an innovator “on the business side.”
“He recognized that we needed to bring in standard publishing ideas,” says [Wall Street Journalist reporter and former WCT editor Mark] Schoofs. “We were one of the first gay papers in the country to have a real-estate issue, a fashion issue. Jeff’s thinking was that if we created these advertising venues, the advertisers would come. He also wanted straight advertisers like car and beer companies. He understood that this is journalism, it’s a business, and it needs to be done right.”
“Jeff always said, ‘My competition is not GayLife. It’s the Reader and the Tribune,’” recalls Williams. Over the years, McCourt would get almost every advertiser he wanted—everyone from Neiman Marcus to IBM.
McCourt, who died earlier this year of complications from AIDS, comes across as sad and lonely. Jennifer Vanasco remembered him after learning of his death:
Jeff was the first person to take a chance on me, a young writer, eventually giving me the column I still write.
Jeff was difficult, needy, an asshole, a bastard. He would storm through our windowless office sucking on cigarettes and booming out curses or praises, depending on his mood. I am grateful for his early support—and I wish I could be sorry about his death. When I was hired, he was already deep in decline, from drugs, from AIDS, from his pinwheeling narcissism. But it’ thanks to him that the WCT—and eventually the Chicago Free Press–became the papers they did.
Michael Miner announced McCourt’s death in the Reader; the piece includes remembrances by former colleagues in the comments section.