Publisher reflects on new role
by Matthew S. Bajko
An attorney by training, Thomas E. Horn knew little about the newspaper business when he transitioned from Bay Area Reporter legal counsel to publisher upon the death of the paper's founder and publisher, Bob Ross, in December 2003. It has been a trial by fire ever since.
"It has been a challenging experience because I don't come from a newspaper, journalistic background. I am a lawyer. Lawyer skills come in handy but they don't train you to be in the newspaper business," said Horn, who spent nearly 20 years as the paper's attorney. "Fortunately, Bob put together an excellent staff and infrastructure that was functioning smoothly. I was able to learn at my own pace."
Horn, 59, said his first task was to assure the LGBT community that the B.A.R. would continue publishing. Rumors were rampant after Ross's death that the paper would be sold and lose its Bay Area focus.
"I think I made clear to everyone that the paper is not going anywhere. There was a lot of fear early on as to the future of the paper," said Horn. "I think I have been able to assuage that fear both internally and in the community. Everybody recognized and treasured the B.A.R. as a community resource. The B.A.R. is here for the long-term."
Running the paper on a day-to-day basis has not been as easy. Horn's first crisis came in 2004 when the paper missed its deadline for the first time in its history. Waller Press, a family-run business and longtime printer of the paper, sold its company and operations to Cenveo, and with it, responsibility for the weekly Wednesday printing of the B.A.R.
"It was the first time in 33 years we missed a deadline. The publication still hit the streets later that day on Thursday but not at 5 or 6 a.m. like it was supposed to," said Horn. "Under the new leadership [at Cenveo], the B.A.R. was not the priority it had been. We knew we had to change printers."
As if preparing for a case, the attorney immersed himself in learning about the printing business. In the end, the crisis turned into a benefit for the paper. By changing printers the B.A.R. went to full color each week. In the past, the paper depended on color advertising to use full color in its news pages.
"At the time, I didn't even know what printers in the region were capable of doing it," recalled Horn, who eventually selected Paradise Press three hours north of the city.
His other challenge came from the absence of the B.A.R. online, an odd omission for a paper near the heart of Silicon Valley and in a city known for its embrace of digital technology, but understandable by the fact that Ross never used a computer or an e-mail account.
"Cutting edge technology was not a priority for him. He saw the Internet as direct competition," said Horn.
Unlike Ross, Horn made launching the paper's Web site a top priority. It would prove a task filled with headaches, countless delays, and technological setbacks, but one the paper had to undertake, he said. As with mainstream dailies, Horn noted that the gay press also has had to compete with the move of classified advertising to sites like San Francisco-based Craigslist.
"Clearly, the newspaper industry is facing challenges it didn't have 20 years ago, principally the advent of the Internet. We have to adapt to that new medium," said Horn.
Since launch of the paper's site eBAR.com last fall, more than 35,000 unique visitors click on the online edition each week. Counter to Ross's fears, the Web site has not led to a reduction in the number of papers being picked up by readers.
Horn said the paper did have plans to change how it distributed the 30,000 papers printed each week if circulation dipped but so far that has not come to pass. The city's changing skyline and where LGBT people in the Bay Area call home has led the paper to review where it drops off the paper, but for now, Horn said he is happy to let the Web site expand the paper's readership.
"It is a low cost way of having much greater distribution. It provides information to a much broader audience," he said, adding that the paper will continue to modernize and develop its site. "We are at ground zero for the fight for gay rights. The B.A.R. has the responsibility to cover that struggle and make it available to the widest number of people worldwide who want that information. That is what the Web site does."
Horn's next goal for the paper is to name a new political columnist. Since the paper's early days, the B.A.R. has kept tabs on the region's political movers and shakers through the eyes and ears of Harvey Milk, before he went on to become the first gay man to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors, and Wayne Friday, who retired from the political editor post in 2005 after three decades as the column's author. Last year former city AIDS czar Bill Barnes took on the column until his seat on the Democratic County Central Committee led to a conflict of interest in his covering political races.
"We will get a political columnist," said Horn. "It's a definite challenge. We want someone with close ties to the political scene that's going to have access to items of interest to readers but we don't want someone invested in that scene. The goal is as soon as possible."