By: ALLAN WOLPER
BERL SCHWARTZ, THE general manager of the State News at Michigan State, spent more than 20 years in mainline journalism keeping his homosexuality to himself.
“I was afraid of the professional ramifications if I came out, the 49-year-old Schwartz said after running a workshop for College Media Advisers, a national organization that advises student journalists. “Being openly gay was out of the question.”
Schwartz had used the workshop to encourage journalism students to explore the methods gay men and lesbian women use to disclose their sexual identity.
“If you write a series about the coming out process, it will enhance your long-term credibility in the gay community,” Schwartz informed the students. “There are lots of resources you can use to write those kinds of stories.”
But there was a lot more on his mind than convincing students that they ought to connect journalistically with their college or university’s gay community.
He believed that organized journalism was not doing enough to make life more comfortable for gay journalists, especially those he said who were in management.
Schwartz said in a telehone interview afterwards that he decided to go public about his own experience after the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) refused to include gays in its minority workshops.
“I spoke to Stuart Wilk, head of the APME Minority Issues program, and he told me gays weren’t a minority because they weren’t ethnically or racially identifiable,” Schwartz recalled. “Stuart is wrong. We have been getting bashed because we are gay. That makes us a minority.”
Schwartz wants APME to sponsor gay workshops so he and others like him can help editors who were secretly gay and suffering because of it. He said keeping his homosexuality hidden during his two decades in journalism ruined his psyche.
“I couldn’t feel free to be myself,” Schwartz noted.
Wilk, a deputy managing editor at the Dallas Morning News, said the APME had worked hard to focus on diversity workshops.
“I had asked Berl to put his suggestions in writing, but he never got back to me,” Wilk said.
Schwartz began his journalism career in 1969, at the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, covering music, then moved to the Louisville Times, where he was eventually assigned to its Washington bureau.
“I had always wanted to tell someone I was gay, but it was out of the question because I knew it would have wrecked my career,” Schwartz said.
The disclosure also would have ruined his marriage. Schwartz was married in 1971, and 10 years later, his wife, Alice, gave birth to twin daughters, Rebecca and Abigail.
“Being married was obviously a consideration,” Schwartz acknowledged. “I loved Alice when I married her. I loved her throughout my marriage. I still have feelings for her.”
In 1979, he joined the Scripps Howard Washington Bureau, where he was later promoted to assistant managing editor for features. He resigned in 1985 to become managing editor of the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel.
He continued to climb the masthead in 1988 when he became executive editor of the York (Pa.) Daily Record, before returning to Washington as the bureau chief of United Press International.
Two years later, UPI asked its staffers to take a 35% pay cut, and Schwartz took a leave of absence to teach a semester at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, and while there he became publisher of Oklahoma Today, a state-run regional magazine. At that point, Schwartz’ tightly held secret about his sexual preference had overwhelmed him.
“I wasn’t functioning when I went to Oklahoma,” he said from his States News office. “I was in a fog. I didn’t realize until later that I was suffering from a clinical depression.”
Schwartz took his twin daughters with him to Oklahoma because his wife, an attorney who was still practicing back in York, thought an academic setting would be a good educational experience for the two girls.
It turned out to be the end of their family as they knew it.
“I decided to tell my family I was gay,” said Schwartz, a decision he made after undergoing counseling.
“I told my daughters with my wife sitting next to me. My children were both very supportive.”
By then, Schwartz and his wife were about to separate. They were divorced last year. His children moved back to York, Pa., with their mother.
In August 1994, Schwartz became general manager and publisher of the State News, and moved to East Lansing, Mich.
A political decision
Since he took over the business side of the newspaper, he has encouraged it to become politically active, often on gay issues. And that activism has made some of his journalistic colleagues uncomfortable.
The State News is currently engaged in what it says is a limited economic boycott of the university for refusing to extend same-sex partner benefits to its employees. The student newspaper has traditionally purchased about $10,000 worth of services from Michigan State.
Schwartz said the State News has stopped buying any of those services, even though it continues to order computers from the university.
“It was a symbolic statement more than anything else,” Schwartz said. “It was like saying that we shouldn’t invest in South Africa when it had apartheid.”
Schwartz was a key lobbying figure in getting the State News advisory board, consisting of students, faculty and outside journalism professionals, to agree to the boycott. The vote was six to five to impose the boycott.
Marcia Van Ness, assistant editorial page editor of the Lansing State Journal, and Edward W. Wendover, publisher of the Community Crier, in Plymouth, Mich., opposed the move on journalism ethical grounds.
Wendover supported the right of gay couples at the State News to receive the same domestic benefits as heterosexual couples, but believes using the paper as a political weapon undermines the credibility of the student journalists who work there.
“It’s OK to support something or rail against something on the editorial pages,” said Wendover, a close friend of Schwartz. “But I don’t believe a student newspaper should be used for political purposes that way.
“I was on the State News advisory board during the Vietnam War,” said Wendover, noting that the business side of the paper remained outside of that political debate. “We were careful to make sure that we didn’t become the story.”
Schwartz said the paper’s boycott was less than total.
“We still buy computers from them,” Schwartz noted. “They sell them to us at a substantial discount.”
Wendover also said that Schwartz was responsible for driving the student newspaper onto the information superhighway and has a knack of coming up with special projects for the young reporters.
“We just sent a group of our kids to the Democratic convention to cover our delegates for the local papers,” Wendover said. “And those kids are doing a great job.”
The controversy over the boycott notwithstanding, Schwartz enjoys the political and journalistic combat in which he is engaged as CEO of the State News.
“People here know I am gay,” Schwartz said. “I don’t have to hide anything anymore.”
?(Berl Schwartz, general manager of the State News at Michigan State University, talking with studen staffers Karen Shearer and Craig Schmidt) [Photo & Caption]
?( The dynamics of the news coverage really changed, however, when USA Today reporter Gary Fileds, as he described it at NABJ, “lucked into” the assignment to investigate the fires. His Feb. 16, 1996 story and the accompanying (above left) put the first hard numbers on the scope of the arson: To that point, at least 23 black churches had been burned since two Mississippi churches Today reporters pursue the story vigorously. By thge middle of this summer, for instance, Fields had written 61 articles about the fires, including a major investigative piece which ran the end of June (above right) [Photo & Caption]