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Before the 'Net, there was The Front Page


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Jim Baxter
  • Jim Baxter

Some years back, I was being defamed in triangle.soc.motss, a local newsgroup (remember newsgroups?). There were numerous charges made against me, but the one that rankled was a reference to me as "conservative." For the record, I have been a registered Democrat since I came of voting age, and consider myself to be your basic Johnson-era bleeding-heart liberal.

But it made me think: Haven't we come a long way since the days when just being openly gay made you a dangerous radical and kept you from being invited to the better dinner parties?

The gay liberation movement (as it was known when I was coming out) has been attributed to a lot of things: the social upheavals of World War II, the civil rights movement, the Kinsey report. But the actual organizing, then and now, owes a good deal to changes in technology.

One important change came in the way printing presses worked. Underground newspapers were in their heyday during my teenage years. I didn't know anything about cheap offset printing then, but I was struck by the fervor of the handmade publications circulated around the university near where I grew up.

I never had the chance to work on anything as exciting as those 1960s counterculture newspapers. When I entered college in the early 1970s, however, I volunteered for a monthly publication called the Greensboro Sun. The Sun came along too late to be "underground" and too early to be "alternative." I wanted to be a part of it, whatever you called it, so I wrote a column called "On Being Gay," which was scandalous at the time, and helped with production.

We would type our stories in 2-1/4-inch columns on plain paper and then carefully cut and paste the columns onto layout sheets using rubber cement. You couldn't get much lower tech. However, we were using an IBM Selectric typewriter, another remarkable innovation. The Selectric used a film ribbon rather than cloth, so you got crisp letters on the page--nothing fuzzy or faded. I've seen the Selectric referred to as "the start of desktop publishing," and the point has merit.

For national news copy, we subscribed to the Liberation News Service, then past its late '60s prime. LNS offered a weekly digest that arrived via U.S. mail, a legal-size envelope stuffed with blue pages. The purple ink was a sign that the pages had been mimeographed (a forgotten technology, please don't ask me to explain). Every story had to be retyped on our trusty IBM.

In 1979, using the experience I had gained at the Greensboro Sun, I started The Front Page, a biweekly publication for the gay and lesbian community. The need was there, and I had the knowledge and the passion. More to the point, I had access to typesetting equipment.

The Varityper phototypesetter, another innovation, enabled me to produce a publication that looked
professional, even when the content varied in quality. Even if there was very little to report, the newspaper said "gay pride" just in the way it looked. The machine was extremely expensive, far beyond my reach. Luckily, the man who owned the advertising agency where I worked supported the project.

Typeset copy came out of the Varityper machine in one long column, producing a series of slippery galleys. I used to tape them, Martin Luther style, to the door of the office just to keep them from slithering away. You still had to cut and paste by hand back then, but hot wax had replaced rubber cement. In my heyday, I was the fastest paste-up man around--a skill that is, of course, entirely obsolete.

In the early days, I used a small outfit called the International Gay News Agency for copy. This was a weekly digest put together by one man in San Francisco. Copy was mailed to us as with the Liberation News Service years before. Another innovation, the fax machine, eventually delivered the digest on soon-to-fade thermal paper.

For years, I subscribed to a clipping service that sent me any story about homosexuality that appeared in any North Carolina newspaper. We would cull the newsworthy from these and boil them down to 200 words or less, with attribution. Whatever the source, everything still had to be retyped.

In the early '90s, similar newspapers banded together to share stories via a computer bulletin board (remember those?). With the arrival of the Internet, we began to receive news and feature stories via e-mail. All we had to do was metaphorically cut and paste.

Jim Baxter was publisher of The Front Page, a Raleigh-based newspaper for the gay and lesbian communities of North Carolina, from October 1979 to May 2006.
  • Jim Baxter was publisher of The Front Page, a Raleigh-based newspaper for the gay and lesbian communities of North Carolina, from October 1979 to May 2006.
The era of desktop publishing arrived in the 1990s but The Front Page was one of the last publications around here to make the switch. Free access to typesetting equipment made it economically unappealing. When my friend's agency finally junked the Varityper, however, we had to make the jump. Almost overnight, we were working on Macintosh computers, designing entire pages in some strange software called Quark and printing them whole on a laser printer. We still pasted the pages to flats using that same
old hot wax.

Over the years, a regularly published newspaper offered the LGBT community a lot of things: some way to get the news out; somewhere to announce your meeting; somewhere to run your personal ad.

In 1984, the writer John Preston called The Front Page one of the "great bulletin boards of the gay world" with "marvelously inventive and creative advertisers" and a "great source of amusement and assignations."

Of course, today, the Internet does all these things much more effectively (especially when it comes to assignations). As a means of communication, newsprint was awfully cheap, but the Internet is cheaper and faster.

Beyond the basics, The Front Page tried to offer (or perhaps even create) some sense of community, some sense of history, some way to stop reinventing the wheel every couple of years, some way to build a movement for change that could mark its progress in real accomplishment. Much of this has happened and it's very gratifying to have been a part of it.

The Front Page published its final issue on May 12, ending a 26-year run. As the sun sets slowly in the west, do I feel like an old dinosaur lumbering off to wherever old dinosaurs go? Damn right I do.



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