by Joe Siegel
Past and present writers and editors of San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter (BAR) gathered for a series of online forums to celebrate the publication on its 50th anniversary.
The 12th and final instalment of the forums, called BAR Talks, which focused on the history of the newspaper history in print, was streamed live on April 7 on the newspaper’s YouTube channel.
Publisher Michael Yamashita and News Editor Cynthia Laird participated in the forum. Yamashita recalled his start with the paper in the 1980s.
“It was my first job out of college,” recalled Yamashita. “I was applying to all the publications, when we used to have national magazines here downtown, so I applied to a bunch of them. BAR was the first one to give me an interview and Bob [Ross, the paper’s founder and former publisher] gave me a chance and so did the news editor at the time, Ray O’Loughlin.”
Laird started with the paper as a freelance writer in 1996 and never left. Other LGBTQ publications have shut down in past years, but BAR still endures, she noted.
“We’re just trying to cover the news,” Laird said. “I have a journalism background. I worked for a small paper in Northern California right out of college and then that paper went bankrupt so I moved back down to the Bay Area because that’s where my family was and I could have a place to live for free.”
A display of vintage covers of the paper featured issues from the early 1970s through the 2000s. One of the notable features in the early years was a column about the leather community by Mister Marcus.
“Bob [Ross] traveled in different circles,” said former publisher Tom Horn. “He was in the leather circle. He was in the court circle. He was in the political circle. And he saw that the different groups within the community weren’t speaking to each other. They had no information of what was happening, yet we were being attacked from all sides, [especially] by the police and the establishment. That was really the motivation to start the paper and to get columnists from all over the world.”
One of the biggest stories covered by the BAR was the 1978 assassinations of two notable public officials — Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
“It was not really covered too sensationally or that much at all,” noted Jim Provenzano, the paper’s arts editor. “It was a week and half later when this is the first item that appeared on page three. It was odd. I was very surprised to see that.”
Longtime political editor Wayne Friday wrote a column about Milk: “The Harvey Milk I Knew.”
“[Friday] always got a lot of dish from the local politicians,” Laird recalled. “They were calling him all the time with how to get their favored position into his column or talk about a candidate they wanted to win election. He actually made his own endorsements separate from the paper for many years.”
Many memorable stories in the paper focused on the battle for LGBTQ rights as well as the AIDS epidemic.
“Bathhouses were making the front pages for years,” Provenzano said. “Closing, opening, everyone’s getting involved. Police abuse really ran rampant. There’s a lot of [stories about] policemen, firemen trashing gay bars.”
Other major stories in recent years were about violence committed against trans individuals and the impact the coronavirus had on the city’s nightlife scene.
A March 2020 headline read: “SF Shuts Down.”
“It seems like 100 years ago,” Provenzano said. “These are PDFs. We did the paper, we went mobile.”
On March 23, BAR ran a 64-page special edition commemorating the paper’s news and entertainment coverage, along with “sexy erotica uncoverage” and pages of escort ads from the 1990s.
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