Wisconsin Light Ceases Publication

By Jamakaya

Milwaukee -- The Wisconsin Light, one of most long-lived gay and lesbian newspapers in the history of the state, ceased publication after the distribution of its final issue on March 29.

In a final Publisher’s Note, Greg Quindel reiterated his goal of making the Light “an editorially and economically strong weekly newspaper for Wisconsin’s LGBT community -- fully staffed by paid professionals.” He wrote that “Support for this venture was lukewarm from the beginning.” He cited the state’s “notoriously risk-adverse business climate” and a “competitive environment” that kept ad rates “amongst the lowest in the country.”

In that same issue, Ron Geiman, who had been named editor after the abrupt departure of Nadine A. Walther, wrote of the Light’s inability to attract good writers and, more damaging, the dearth of “consistent advertising support” from groups and businesses in the LGBT community and the broader straight community.

The demise of Wisconsin Light leaves IN Step, founded by Geiman in 1984, as the only major LGBT newspaper in the state of Wisconsin. Quest, published out of Green Bay, bills itself as a gay bar and entertainment guide. A newer publication, Probe, which has not yet seen widespread distribution, describes itself as a lifestyle magazine.

Bill Attewell, editor-in-chief of IN Step, said, “We view our heightened position as the state’s only LGBT newspaper as a serious responsibility. We will continue to do our best to make IN Step’s content reflect the diversity of LGBT people across the state. We will redouble our efforts to bring readers accurate and unbiased coverage of important news events.”

History of
Wisconsin Light

The first issue of Wisconsin Light appeared on Nov. 20, 1987 under the direction of Publisher Jerry Johnson and Editor Terry Boughner. The front page banner included the motto: “Give the People Light and they will find their own way.”

The premiere issue indicates that Wisconsin Light was initiated as a direct successor to OUT, a small monthly newspaper based in Madison which had ceased publication that summer. IN Step, in a 5-1/2” by 8-1/2” magazine format at that time, was primarily covering the bar scene, and many activists felt a need to launch a new publication that would include a fuller array of news and commentary. Ron Geiman, publisher of IN Step, supported the effort.

The first issues of Wisconsin Light came out monthly, but by the spring of 1988, in hopes of raising more advertising revenue and accommodating the increasing volume of news copy by and about gays, a decision was made to publish bi-weekly. This the Light did consistently until March of 1999, when it went weekly.

High water marks for Wisconsin Light during its 12-1/2 year history include its extensive coverage of the Jeffrey Dahmer case in 1991-92. The Light published an “Extra” edition on Aug. 1, 1991 to provide timely information on many aspects of the mass murder, which had a dramatic impact on the city’s gay and lesbian community. The Light scooped the mainstream media with information on some of Dahmer’s victims and past evidence of Milwaukee police officers’ harassment and insensitivity to gays. The Light’s coverage of the Dahmer case won awards from the National Gay and Lesbian Press Association.

On Nov. 6, 1997, Wisconsin Light published a 120-page anniversary issue called “A Decade of Light.” It included a massive timeline of all major LGBT events -- local, statewide and national -- that had been reported in the Light since its founding, along with hundreds of photos of those events, most taken by Jerry Johnson. It stands as the most thorough history ever compiled of that 10-year period of LGBT life in Wisconsin.

On the debit side, the Light was often marred by typographical errors which rendered words or headlines incomprehensible. Sometimes it caused inadvertent humor, like the time Light reported that a gay editor had been “fried” (rather than “fired”) for outing someone. The final issue was true to form with the following tribute: “Congratulations to Hilary Swank for his Best Actress Oscar...”

In June of 1998, Johnson and Boughner sold the Wisconsin Light to Greg Quindel and another unnamed investor. “Jerry and I spent ten years plus and we did the best we possibly could,” former editor Terry Boughner told IN Step. “We’re very proud of the national reputation we built for the Light. But it was time to hand it off to others. ‘Hail and farewell!’ was our attitude. There comes a point you just have to let go. I don’t regret it. Now Jerry and I have a life again.”

Bill Meunier, a longtime political columnist for Wisconsin Light, was named editor and Ron Geiman, who had sold IN Step to Bill Attewell and Jorge Cabal in 1996, was named publisher. At the end of 1998, Light announced that Greg Quindel would take over as publisher and the newspaper would begin publishing weekly. Its first weekly issue debuted in March, 1999. Exactly one year later, the Light published its final issue.

Why Did The Light Fold?

“We were losing money as a bi-weekly,” Light publisher Quindel told IN Step. “We did a careful financial analysis of the bi-weekly vs. weekly format and determined that our chances for success were better if we had 52 revenue producing days than if we had only 26. But we didn’t anticipate the pressure on ad rates and we could have used more marketing support at the time we went weekly.”

Quindel’s strategy was also tied to his goal for consolidating LGBT publishing in the state through a merger of the existing publications. He stated in numerous “Publisher’s Notes” in the Light that he believed the only way a weekly newspaper with full-time staff could be viable was if all the LGBT publications joined together.

But Mark Mariucci, publisher of Quest, stated publicly he was not interested in a merger. At IN Step, Attewell made no public response to Quindel’s proposals over the past year, preferring to keep private any discussions that may have taken place. Several gay leaders who have observed the ups and downs of local gay publishing noted that in the past few years IN Step has strengthened its position both financially and editorially and there was no reason for IN Step to either sell or merge.

In the interview with IN Step, Quindel also acknowledged what had been widely discussed in the LGBT community. “We had serious personnel problems. If I have one regret, it was not re-organizing staff as soon as problems became evident.”

Terry Boughner was more blunt. “No one was in charge! Someone has to keep their finger on the pulse constantly. Somebody’s got to be ready to wield the whip when necessary!”

Expressions of disgruntlement by former and even current staff members made their way through the community, contributing to rumors and negative publicity. “Everyone was dissing us so much,” Ron Geiman commented, “that it became like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Quindel felt things were turning around after the appointment of Nadine Walther as editor in December. But a front page account of the arson trial and guilty verdict against Sharon Dixon, a well-known lesbian bar owner, angered many in the Milwaukee community. The headline read “Look Who’s Doing the Jailhouse Rock!” and the word “Guilty” was stamped over a photo of Dixon, who faces 42 years in prison.

Quindel, who defended the Dixon coverage at the time, concedes there was a decline in advertising after the story appeared. The Light was dogged by computer glitches which delayed publication in the last few weeks, fueling more speculation of a collapse. Then, on March 23, editor Nadine Walther quit.

“There has to be a point at which you say, ‘This is just not working,’” said Quindel.

Quindel told IN Step that Wisconsin Light would not be declaring bankruptcy and that he was working hard to settle all accounts, including several liens filed against the paper for failure to pay employee withholding taxes. “We are going to be exceptionally aggressive about the money owed us,” Quindel said. “This is necessary so that everyone we owe money to can be fully paid for their services.”

Wisconsin Light is perhaps most identified as the “baby” of its founders, Jerry Johnson and Terry Boughner.

Jerry Johnson told IN Step he felt a mixture of sadness and relief at the passing of Wisconsin Light: “It was so painful watching them struggle and not be able to do anything about it.”

Terry Boughner worried that the paper “had become a shadow of its former self” but nevertheless suggested: “We should all weep a tear for the death of a good old friend.”


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