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Leroy Aarons Dies After Fighting Cancer

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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Maynard Co-Founder Started Gay Journalists Group

Leroy Aarons, a co-founder and board member of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, founding president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a former reporter and editor at the Oakland Tribune and the Washington Post, died Sunday night after a heart attack. Aarons had been battling cancer and would have turned 71 on Dec. 8.

"Though Roy had been ill for several months, he was doing quite well, taking short trips, working on his next project and planning to participate in the board meeting [Dec. 1] via phone," said Dori J. Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute.

Aarons grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx.

In addition to the Post, where he was a national correspondent, and Tribune, where he was executive editor, he worked at the New Haven (Conn.) Journal-Courier; Time magazine and People magazine. He most recently created and directed the Sexual Orientation Issues in the News program at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.

"While reporting in New York for The Washington Post, Leroy Aarons met fellow Post reporter Robert C. Maynard, one of the newspaper?s few black news people during the 1960s. Aarons and Maynard became friends, working together to cover the race riots in Newark, N.J. Later, they would comprise the managerial team that won The Oakland Tribune the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for news photography," as Aissatou Sidime-David, a business reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, wrote for the Chips Quinn Scholars program last year.

"The Post offered Aarons plum jobs back in Washington, but he thought it was time to move on. It was 1976. At that time, Bob Maynard and New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell were working with the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, which began at Columbia University in the 1960s. The program would move to Berkeley, Calif., years later."

"Caldwell asked me to come in as an adjunct instructor," Aarons told Sidime-David. "I got completely captivated by what they were trying to do. It was an 11-week marathon where they brought in 15 to 20 young people -- journalists of color -- who had been trying to break into mainstream journalism but had not been able to break through. And they trained in 11 weeks, obtained job guarantees for them, and sent them into the news business.

"It was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had -- the receptivity of these young people, the eagerness to learn, to suck up everything we taught in these programs. The fact that they were also doing something that was playing an important social role in America's history at the same time -- that was important. As journalists, we were always supposed to be observers standing off to the side, never acting. Here was a chance to actually make social change happen."

"Aarons was hired as a consultant to the Institute for Journalism Education, the Maynard training program in Washington," the Chips Quinn piece continued. "The group created Job Net, a network linking young people of color directly to newspapers that were looking for people to fill jobs. During that time, Aarons says, he 'came to an understanding of myself, and came to realize that it was OK to be who I was.' He joined a gay synagogue in Washington, D.C. It was there that he met Josh Boneh, an Israeli visiting the United States. 'I was dazzled. We began to talk. We began to date. And to make a long story short, Josh has been my partner for more than 22 years.'

While at the Oakland Tribune, the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for its photo coverage of the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. "That was a great high point for everybody. But it was a very schizoid kind of situation," Aarons said. "Because our staff got better, we got better at what we were doing. We were winning prizes all over the place. We were putting out a paper that we respected and were proud of. And at the same time, all kinds of economic hazards and conditions surfaced. It was stressful. Bob developed cancer. Maybe he would have gotten it anyway. I ended up six years later with a heart bypass. Maybe I would have gotten it anyway. But we both struggled under that stress."

"In 1989, the American Society of Newspaper Editors surveyed lesbian and gay journalists working in the newspaper industry and their attitudes toward coverage and workplace issues.

While delivering the results in April 1990, Aarons "came out as a homosexual to a room full of mostly white, mostly male and mostly straight newspaper executives.

"The Associated Press and The New York Times called it 'the most emotional moment' of that year?s meeting" of ASNE. Then, Aarons said, in response to journalists asking what happens next, "Using the model of the Maynard Institute, NABJ, AAJA, NAHJ, I pulled five people together in my dining room and we created an organization with the ambitious name of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. What we didn't realize was that gay and lesbian journalists -- closeted journalists -- were coming to the conclusion that they no longer could afford invisibility." The organization now has 1,200 members and 24 chapters.

Aarons said he soon quit the Tribune because "the NLGJA thing moved so fast. It required full-time attention."

During his retirement, said Pamela Strother, executive director of NLGJA, Aarons wrote the libretto for the 2000 opera ?Monticello,? about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and more recently wrote ?Sarah?s Diary,? a fictional opera about woman who lost her husband in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the time of his death, Aarons was working on a play about South Africa?s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which he and Boneh spent a month in South Africa early this year. His book, "Prayers for Bobby," was an account of a family coping with the suicide of a gay son who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Journal-isms last wrote about Aarons in September 2003. He had successfully campaigned before the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. The group added teaching about sexual orientation issues to the diversity standard that journalism schools should meet in order to qualify for accreditation.

He said of his role in that development, "you work the corridors, you build the momentum so it reaches a critical mass, and then you pray."

Remembrances may be e-mailed to

Tavis Smiley Quitting NPR; Show to Continue

Tavis Smiley, the talk-show host whose move to National Public Radio in January 2002 was hailed as a breakthrough for NPR with its black-oriented content, is leaving the network effective Dec. 16, Smiley announced in a memo to public radio stations today.

NPR plans to continue the show with substitute host Tony Cox at least until Jan. 7 and will conduct a nationwide search for a new host, David Umansky, NPR's vice president for communications, told Journal-isms.

Smiley said in his memo, posted on the Romenesko Web site:

"After all that we've accomplished towards our goal of seeking a broader, more diverse and younger audience for public radio, NPR's own research has confirmed that NPR has simply failed to meaningfully reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans who would benefit from public radio, but simply don't know it exists or what it offers.

"In the most multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial America ever --- I believe that NPR can and must do better in the future."

Umansky praised the talk-show host and said the research Smiley cited "reveals that the show has the most diverse audience of any on National Public Radio." He said the audience was 29 percent African American and that 40 percent were age 44 or younger. It is carried in nine of the top 10 markets, he said.

Some 18 months after it began, NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, wrote the Smiley show "is attracting both the fastest growing audiences in public radio . . . and some of the most intense and visceral reactions -- both pro and con. The perspective is overwhelmingly African American. . . . The program is something new -- even radically new -- for many public radio listeners. The program's producers shouldn't underestimate that there is a 'squirm factor' for many listeners."

"He is going to bring people into a conversation that they don't often hear," NPR CEO Kevin Klose said when the show began. "The conversations are going to open up a different world for many of our current listeners and are sure to attract new listeners to public radio."

Smiley landed at NPR after a falling out with BET founder Robert Johnson while at BET. Later, he additionally took on a television show on PBS.

It was pressure from African Americans at NPR affiliates that created the Smiley radio show.

Edith Thorpe, who took over as general manager of the radio station at North Carolina Central University, was quoted in a 2001 article in the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun:

"In about 1994, I started sending out e-mail on the public radio satellite system, and I just let people know that our station was a new station to the system. We were paying $16,000 a year, and we found out that [NPR was] going to eliminate all the African-American news and information programs and keep the cultural and jazz programs.

"For so long, public radio thought African Americans were only interested in music programs, but there's been research that shows that that's not true. . . . Our audience also wants to be kept informed and abreast of issues relevant to our communities."

The article continued: "In 1995, Thorpe called on other black general managers across the country to gather in Elizabeth City for a meeting with NPR producers and staffers to highlight their concerns. Although the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NPR's administrative arm, later sponsored a formal conference on the topic, little changed until 1999, when Kevin Klose became NPR president and CEO, Thorpe said."

"I met [Klose] two years ago at the development exchange conference in Portland, Ore. He had just come on board and was telling everyone how great NPR was," Thorpe continued in the story. "I began to explain to him that I didn't feel the same and why and what my efforts had been in the past."

"Another meeting between NPR officials and member stations followed, but this time, the general managers organized to research the need for more black news programs, Thorpe said. Research showed that standard NPR news shows such as 'All Things Considered' did poorly with black audiences. As a result, stations appealing to those audiences could not compete in the morning hours against commercial stations.

"In May, NPR announced a partnership with the 38 member stations to develop a daily morning news program. The partnership has signed a contract with former Black Entertainment Television talk show host Tavis Smiley. A pilot show is being developed and should air before the end of the year."

Thorpe told Journal-isms today that she was waiting for an NPR announcement about Smiley, but that the African American Public Radio Consortium, which now has about 25 stations as members, is developing other news projects with NPR. In recent days, the group met with NPR for three days in Washington and developed a "semi-road map for additional programming and possibilities" for new African American products, she said. Smiley "is not the only thing we were thinking about. We weren't stopping there."

After the NPR response, NPR and the consortium issued a joint statement saying, "NPR and the Consortium are committed to the continuation of this show -- and the creation of others, for which it opened the door."

Deborah Heard Named AME at Washington Post

Deborah Heard, a black journalist who is the no. 2 person in the Washington Post's Style section, has been named to the top job, which carries the rank of assistant managing editor, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. announced today.

Heard, 47, succeeds Eugene Robinson, whose failure to be selected as managing editor at the paper has precipitated a discussion about the Post's commitment to diversity. Robinson has been named associate editor and op-ed columnist.

"As deputy AME, Deb has played a large role in Style?s prize-winning success and its special place in our readers? daily lives. We now expect Deb to take the talented staff that she and Gene have built to new places, further delighting readers and challenging the rest of the newsroom. Her leadership, talent and judgment will be invaluable as we work on ways to make the entire newspaper as compelling for readers as possible," Downie wrote to the staff.

"Deb, who grew up in Alabama and received her bachelor?s degree from the University of Alabama, worked as an editor at the Miami Herald before coming to The Washington Post twenty years ago this month as an editor in Metro. She was lured to Style by Mary Hadar and became Deputy AME in 1995.

"Over her nine years as deputy to David and Gene, she has earned the admiration and respect of everyone in Style. Deb also has helped build bridges between Style and the rest of the newsroom, and she has become a strong voice among the newspaper?s senior editors for innovation, inclusion and excellence in our journalism."

Black Press Said to Be on a Rebound

"The black press is on a rebound, pushed by a sophisticated readership increasingly loathe to accept mediocrity, pulled by owners who realize their old business model is utterly broken and advertisers who now demand a more specific return on their dollar than a feel-good vibe," Mark Fitzgerald writes in a 2,500-word piece in Editor & Publisher.

"'The black press has gotten the memo that change is required,' says DC Livers, who catalogued more than 400 black newspapers and other publications as editor of the new Black Press Yearbook: Who's Who in Black Media. 'They're starting to understand that their reader . . . expects the black press to be as good as the general market [paper]."

In a story keyed to the efforts to revive the Chicago Defender, Fitzgerald also makes these points:

  • "African-American publishers are also turning the tables on the metro papers that traditionally stole away their best employees. For the first time, the black press is successfully raiding the general-market papers."


  • "For the first time, too, the black press is attracting the attention of venture capitalists ? and facing the consolidation that inevitably follows."


  • "Good-looking papers with acclaimed content such as The St. Louis American are pursuing readers with business models closer to that of alternatives than the traditional black press paid model."


  • "The black consumer market is more affluent and established than its Latino counterpart. Yet it is the Spanish-speaking demographic that has captured the fancy of the mainstream newspaper industry, which is furiously creating niche publications for Hispanics but not for African-Americans."

After a quick read of the article, black press historian Todd S. Burroughs pronounced it well-written and thoughtful, but said it could have added:

  • That local black broadcasting replaced local black print media in the 1970s.


  • Mention of the Daily Challenge in Brooklyn, N.Y., the only other black weekday daily.


  • That black Web sites are transforming the Black press.


"The challenge for the Black press is to continue the Black media convergence attempted by BET in the 1990s and REACH/Radio One today," Burroughs said. "Although many of these papers are going to continue to be independently run, I won't be surprised if regional 'chains' will be created in the future. But, who knows? After all, Black print media convergence has already begun on the Web. So who knows where all of this will go."

N.C. Judge Asks Further Journalist Protections

"Cops, paramedics, teachers and journalists would be protected from frivolous criminal warrants under a new policy proposed by the head District Court judge in Orange and Chatham counties," Benjamin Niolet wrote Saturday in the Raleigh News & Observer.

"Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner, who supervises magistrates in the two counties, said he plans to require a review from the District Attorney's Office before a magistrate can file a misdemeanor warrant against a person working in one of the protected jobs. He said the new policy will be implemented within a few weeks."

Buckner's proposal comes in response to a case in which News & Observer reporter Demorris Lee was charged with making harassing phone calls by a woman he was trying to interview for a news story.

Meanwhile, N&O Executive Editor Melanie Sill wrote a column Sunday about the case in which she concluded, "There is a way to complain about a reporter's behavior. Call his boss."

An editorial in the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun also applauded the district attorney's decision to drop the charges.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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