Leroy Aarons, a former editor of the Oakland Tribune who also was the pioneering founder and first president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Assn., has died. He was 70.
Aarons, who had been battling bladder cancer, died of heart failure Sunday at a hospital in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Under his leadership from 1985 to 1991, the Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for news photography in 1990 for its coverage of the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989. It was the paper’s second Pulitzer, the previous one also coming for photography in 1950.
But his more lasting contribution was in changing the perception of gays and lesbians in news coverage and in the newsroom.
While editor of the Tribune, Aarons was asked to coordinate a survey commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In the study, gay and lesbian print journalists were asked to assess coverage of gay and lesbian issues in their own newspapers and comment on conditions in their workplace.
The result was an 85-page booklet that offered statistical and anecdotal data from those surveyed noting that coverage was overwhelmingly poor to mediocre and that anti-gay bias existed in many newsrooms.
Aarons offered these findings before the society’s convention in April 1990 and, in the process, revealed that he was gay. In doing so, he became the first openly gay top-level editor at any mainstream daily newspaper in the country.
A few months after the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ conference, Aarons invited five Bay Area colleagues to his home to discuss common concerns as gay journalists. From that meeting, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Assn. was born. It now has more than 1,300 members in 23 chapters around the country.
Charles Kaiser, author of “The Gay Metropolis” (1997), a history of gay life in America since 1940, and a founder of the organization’s New York chapter, put the importance of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Assn. in context Monday in an interview with The Times.
“Before NLGJA, gay reporters had no idea who their colleagues were in other cities around the country,” he said. “NLGJA gave hundreds of us courage to declare ourselves. For the first time, we knew there was an organization that would back us up if our coming out had any negative consequences in the workplace.”
A native of New York, Aarons was born on Dec. 8, 1933. He graduated cum laude from Brown University and earned his master’s degree at Columbia University. He also served in the Navy and Naval Reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant.
Aarons started his newspaper career with the Washington Post in 1962 as an editor on the city desk. He then became the Post’s first New York bureau chief and later opened the Post’s first West Coast bureau in Los Angeles.
After leaving the Post in 1976, he worked as a freelance writer and later spent a year in Israel covering, among other things, the Israeli-Lebanon war.
In 1977, he became a founding board member and officer of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a leading source for training minority journalists for the newspaper industry.
Aarons went to work for the Oakland Tribune in 1983 as features editor. In 1985, he was named executive editor, and in 1988, senior vice president for news.
More recently, Aarons taught journalism at USC and directed the USC Annenberg School for Communication’s Sexual Orientation Issues in the News program. In that capacity, he led research projects on media coverage of lesbian and gay issues. Aarons also developed a journalism course on covering diversity, and successfully led efforts to include issues of sexual orientation in standards for journalism school accreditation.
A man of diverse interests, he co-wrote, with Geoffrey Cowan, the dean of USC’s Annenberg School, the docudrama “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” which was broadcast by National Public Radio in 1991 and won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Gold Award for best live entertainment program on public radio. Aarons also wrote “Prayers for Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms With the Suicide of Her Gay Son,” which was published by Harper Collins in 1995.
In 2000, his opera libretto, “Monticello,” about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, premiered at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and was later broadcast on KCRW-FM (89.9).
He is survived by his partner of 24 years, Joshua Boneh.
A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Center for Spiritual Living, 2075 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa.