Leroy F. Aarons, 70, a tough and exacting newsman who was a pioneer in the effort to bring greater visibility to gay and lesbian journalists and who worked to improve coverage involving gays, died Nov. 28, 2004 of a heart attack at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. A resident of Sebastopol, Calif., he had been battling cancer for months.
Mr. Aarons was a founder and former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. At his death, he was the director of a program on gays and the media at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles. A former journalist with The Washington Post and the Oakland Tribune, he also was an author, a librettist and a playwright.
In 1989, the American Society of Newspaper Editors asked Mr. Aarons, then the executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, to conduct a confidential survey of gay journalists. When he presented the survey findings at an ASNE conference the next year, he used the opportunity to announce his own homosexuality. He hadn't planned to do so, but shortly before he was to make his presentation, he got a call from a member of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force who was so enthusiastic about the report that Mr. Aarons realized -- as he told the San Antonio Express-News in a recent interview -- that "I can't do something, be something, that I'm not." He penciled into his report: "I'm proud -- as an editor and as a gay man -- proud of the ASNE for having done this." "And with that clutched in my hand," he told the Express-News, "I went to the podium. And I did it. I said it. It was a bombshell."
Mr. Aarons and five other journalists gathered in his Piedmont, Calif., living room a few months later and founded the gay and lesbian journalists' organization; they were presumptuous enough to include "national" in the name. He left the Oakland Tribune shortly thereafter and ran the NLGJA as its president until 1997.
Leroy Aarons was born to Jewish Latvian immigrant parents and grew up in a working-class neighborhood of the Bronx, N.Y. He majored in psychology at Brown University but discovered his flair for writing and earned a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1958. He served in the Navy for two years in the late 1950s.
He was hired as a copy editor at the New Haven (Conn.) Journal-Courier and later became a reporter. By age 27, he was city editor. He joined The Washington Post in 1962 as an editor who came to be known as the "Silver Slasher," both for his trademark white hair and his exacting editing style. He was a national correspondent from 1963 to 1974, first in New York City, then in Los Angeles.
Known for his charm and intellect, Mr. Aarons once recalled being the reporter who informed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., while covering Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. He also covered Kennedy's funeral.
He covered the Newark race riots in 1967 but not the Stonewall protest of police brutality against gays in New York City in 1969, since he avoided covering "gay stories" at the time. He also served as assistant city editor and assistant Style editor. He left The Post in 1976 to work with the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, based at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1982, he spent a year in Israel, where he covered the Israel-Lebanon war as a freelance writer for Time magazine.
The next year he joined his friend and former colleague Robert C. Maynard, who was the new owner of the Oakland Tribune. During Mr. Aaron's tenure as executive editor and then as senior vice president for news, the newspaper won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for its photo coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area.
Despite economic recession in Oakland and declining circulation at the Tribune, he pushed to make the paper one of the most diverse in the country. He was a founding board member of the Oakland-based Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. He left the Tribune in 1991 to pursue writing projects, including "Prayers for Bobby," a book about a family coping with the suicide of a gay son; a libretto for an opera about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; and an award-winning radio docudrama about the Pentagon Papers that aired on National Public Radio.
He became a journalism professor and director of the USC Annenberg School's Sexual Orientation Issues in the News program in 1999. At the time of his death, he was working on a play about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Survivors include his partner of 24 years, Joshua Boneh of Sebastopol, and a brother.