by Chuck Colbert
As a three-day convention of gay media professionals concluded in Boston, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), in a significant nod to LGBT media, inducted two founders of gay weekly newspapers into its Hall of Fame.
They are Bob Ross and Mark Segal. The late Ross, who died in 2003, was founder of the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco. Segal is founder, owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News.
|Bay Area Reporter’s Matthew S. Bajko
BAR assistant editor Matthew S. Bajko, who started at the paper in 2001, was on hand at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel to accept the honor during a closing reception.
“To say Bob fit the caricature of a newspaperman depicted in old films noir is an understatement,” said Bajko, who also writes the paper’s weekly print and online political columns.
Ross, said Bajko, “would sit in his office smoking his beloved cigars working the phones, as he refused to use a computer.”
“He was a treasure trove of stories about San Francisco’s LGBT community and political infighting at City Hall,” Bajko added. “As the new reporter on the beat, I learned quickly that the best way to get a politician or nonprofit leader to return my calls was to casually mention to Bob how difficult it was to reach them. Within minutes, they were on the phone eager to be interviewed.”
In terms of his contribution to journalism, Bajko explained, “Bob was truly a visionary. At a time when many gays and lesbians had no voice and were afraid to speak out, Bob saw the need to provide that platform.”
For example, Bajko said, Ross “hired his friend, Harvey Milk, as a political columnist and backed Milk’s bids for elected office. He used the pages of BAR to shame politicians who did not support gay rights and championed those who did.”
Ross was also philanthropic as well as civic and arts minded. “He quietly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to local LGBT charities and AIDS agencies over the years. And he was a strong backer of the San Francisco Ballet whose board he served on and civic manager of the famous Golden Gate Bridge, on whose public oversight body he was a member for years,” said Bajko.
Ross, along with Paul Bentley, founded the BAR on April 1, 1971. Bentley sold his interest in 1975. By 1979, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein was asking Ross and San Francisco Sentinel publisher Charles Lee Morris to investigate the city police department’s response to riots following the sentencing of Dan White for the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Milk, then a city supervisor.
One of Ross’ most trying challenges was how to respond to the AIDS crisis beginning in the early 1980s. He decided in 1983 on extensive coverage. That year, BAR reported that 40 percent of all persons with AIDS were members of minority groups, demolishing the idea of AIDS as a gay white disease. In 1984, as tensions emerged between health concerns and preserving a culture of sexual freedom (the latter supported by his editor, Paul Lorch), Ross sided with health regulations. Subsequently, Lorch left the newspaper.
When Ross died in 2003 of diabetes complications, he left an estate of more than $11 million in addition to BAR itself.
Before his death, Ross established the Bob Ross Foundation to give money to a wide variety of Bay Area causes, ranging from AIDS organizations to the San Francisco Ballet.
Earlier this year, it was estimated that the foundation will give away all of its money by 2023, including proceeds from a legal requirement that it sell at least 80 percent of BAR by 2016.
On August 1, the paper formed a new company, BAR Media Inc., to meet that legal requirement. The paper’s new publisher is Michael Yamashita. Thomas E. Horn, who had served as publisher, now heads up the Bob Ross Foundation, as has been the case since Ross’s death. Todd Vogt and Patrick Brown, with the San Francisco Newspaper Company, are the other two investors.
NLGJA established the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame in 2005 to recognize journalists for their commitment, courage, and dedication to LGBT issues in the media. Since then, NLGJA has honored a total of 23 journalists in the LGBT community.
PGN’s Segal, 62, this year’s other Hall of Fame inductee, was also in Boston. A living legend in his own right, Segal recalled the early, struggling days of LGBT media and PGN in the 1970s.
|Mark Segal of Philadelphia Gay News
“Local LGBT publications were brand new,” he said. “In our first office, when it rained outside, it rained inside. Our plumbing was literally jars in the basement of the building. It wasn’t too long ago when I tried for 15 years [unsuccessfully] to become a member of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Today, I sit on their board.”
Along the way, he added, “PGN has won awards from practically every major journalism organization, from the National Newspaper Association to the Society of Professional Journalists,” among others.
Back in the day, however, when PGN operated “with no toilets and water coming through the ceiling, I realized that newspapers can’t be done with volunteers,” Segal said. “That’s how PGN became a business because if you want to have good journalists, you have to pay them. That’s what being a newspaper is all about. It’s about journalism, good journalism.”
And Segal left little doubt about the stature of LGBT media vis-a-vis mainstream outlets. In Pennsylvania at least, “PGN will be treated like you treat the dailies and any other media – and no less,” he said.
In a subsequent PGN column, “Road to the Hall of Fame,” Segal offered additional thoughts on success in print media.
“Stories that readers can get only in your newspaper bring readers, so publications shouldn’t be afraid of controversy and strong opinion pieces, and allowing those who disagree with you in your letters to the editor or in op-ed pieces,” he wrote.
Segal founded PGN as a monthly newsletter in 1976, after being inspired by the late Frank Kameny when they met in 1970.
Before Segal started PGN, however, he was a gay activist. In 1972, after being thrown out of a dance competition for dancing with his male partner, Segal crashed the evening news broadcast of WPVI-TV in what became known as a “zap.”
By 1973, Segal, along with Harry Langhorne, calling themselves Gay Raiders, had zapped “The Tonight Show,” “Today,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” and the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” that time holding a sign saying “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.”
At Segal’s April 1974 trial for zapping Cronkite, the CBS anchor asked Segal for details on the gay community’s media complaints. As a result, the “CBS Evening News” substantially increased its coverage of gay news and Cronkite became a supporter of gay rights.
In 1975, Segal went on a hunger strike and a took part in a sit-in at the Philadelphia City Council to call attention to the need for a gay-rights ordinance. In 1976, PGN used Pennsylvania Department of Justice memos to show that state police were entrapping gay men seeking sex. In the late 1970s, PGN was publicizing how legislators voted on laws that concerned the gay community.
By 1981, PGN published a series about drug and alcohol abuse within the gay community and was mainstream enough to boast about its straight readership. In 1993, Philadelphia magazine’s “Best of Philadelphia” gave Segal a Clout Award.
“To be recognized by your peers is one of the most wonderful things that can happen in anyone’s life,” said Segal in a recent telephone interview. “I think it’s really a complement to LGBT media and what we have gone through in the last 40 years or so to build our industry. I thank those in mainstream media for recognizing that.”
(Editor’s note: Versions of this article first ran in Bay Area Reporter and Windy City Times.)