United States Project

How the Miami Herald’s Steve Rothaus became an LGBT pioneer in mainstream journalism

April 6, 2016
Steve Rothaus

When Steve Rothaus began covering the gay community for the Miami Herald nearly 20 years ago, he was one of the first reporters at a mainstream newspaper anywhere in the country to cover gay issues as a regular news beat.*

It was the summer of 1997, and Gianni Versace had just been murdered on the steps of his South Beach mansion. Though investigators never determined the motive of spree killer Andrew Cunanan, many people speculated it had to do with Versace being gay. Herald editors came to Rothaus, then an 11-year veteran of the paper who had been out at work most of that time, and asked him to start writing twice a month on gay issues.

“We had trouble competing within our own community,” Rothaus recalls. “We didn’t have anybody on the staff who was plugged in within the LGBT community. We had gay reporters, but they were not covering that.”

You might think by now he’d be one of many newspaper journalists on the beat. But the increasing visibility of the LGBT community coincided with the collapse of newspaper economics, and while there’s been an explosion of gay-themed news coverage and commentary online, Rothaus’ role at a local paper remains pretty unique. Over the years, he’s served readers with coverage of subjects both weighty and light-hearted, and served as a resource to colleagues learning how to cover LGBT issues. He’s also been a pioneer in other ways—as a newspaper reporter who embraced the online world, and demonstrated the value of community engagement.

“Steve is like our greatest treasure,” said Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami Beach attorney who has spent her career fighting for LGBT rights and won important battles in the fight for same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court ruled on it last year.* “Not only does he tell our stories, he gives us access to the broader world and gives the broader world access to us.”

“For people to see their lives and their love reflected in the Miami Herald, that’s nothing short of a life-saver for some people,” she added. “I really don’t think that’s an overstatement.”

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When Rothaus first started on the beat, he says, “it was a different world.” Many people warned that it would interfere with his career path, but the Herald offered a welcoming environment.

His early work consisted of news coverage, but it ran as a column, alongside his photo—first in the Herald’s “Neighbors” section, then in features.

“We wanted people to know that I was a real person so they would feel more comfortable having their name in the paper, knowing that they were talking to someone who was in the paper and who also was gay,” he said. (In the early 1990s, Deb Price of The Detroit News had become the first newspaper journalist to write a syndicated column from a gay perspective. And beginning in the 1980s, Randy Shilts covered the AIDS epidemic, including its impact on the gay community, for the San Francisco Chronicle. )

After a couple years, the paper’s publisher said the stories should be like any other news, with no columnist sig and placed wherever they belonged. But the focus on the beat continued.

Rothaus also was a resource in the newsroom for straight reporters covering stories that touched on LGBT issues—and an advocate for greater awareness of transgender issues, at a time when that couldn’t be taken for granted even in the gay community. When I was new to the Herald, years before any major news organization had come up with a style guide on how to handle the pronouns in stories about transgender people, Steve helped me make sure a story about the murder of a transgender woman was written sensitively.

“I wanted the Herald to be out front, ahead of all the other news organizations in South Florida in terms of how we covered the LGBT community and how we treated people,” he explains.

He was also active in the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, now the Association of LGBT Journalists. Rothaus volunteered to visit newsrooms around the country on behalf of the association, training editors and reporters on how to report fairly on the LGBT community.

It’s more than a beat. People live this. It’s important that they see themselves in the paper.

“Steve was one of the early leaders in the organization,” says Bob Witeck, a marketer in Washington, DC who focuses on how businesses and nonprofits reach the LGBT community and was on the association board with Rothaus in the 1990s. “Steve was amazing because he was already creating a name for himself nationally.”

That national profile was boosted by Rothaus’ embrace of digital media. In the mid-2000s, the Herald began to move into blogging, and he started “Steve Rothaus’ Gay South Florida” blog. It met with quick success, drawing strong readership and dedicated advertising requests. The move to digital prepared him to develop an active social media presence, too.

Becoming a more public figure took some getting used to. But, he says, “We are much more engaged in our community than we were before, engaged with readers and advertisers. We are a society of people who interact online and know each other that way.”

The contraction of newsrooms around the country amid the digital transition affected coverage of many groups, and particularly the LGBT community, says Mike Signorile, editor-at-large for Huffington Post’s Queer Voices. “Steve’s been able to make that transition digitally that has been so difficult for many journalists to do,” says Signorile. “As coverage of so many things has been contracting, he’s gone in the opposite direction, covering a community that we don’t see anyone else in the country covering for a mainstream newspaper.”

These days dubbed “Gay South Florida,” Rothaus’ platform has evolved beyond the blog format. It includes his own stories—which might be about drag brunches at a popular local restaurant, or developments in the legal fight over same-sex marriage or adoption—while also aggregating articles from around the world.

“He’s really the authority on LGBT issues,” says Rick Hirsch, the Herald’s managing editor. “This is a region with a very significant LGBT community. Covering it well and intelligently really has value to our readers.”

Rothaus’s own work also strays beyond the local market at times. In 2014, he wrote about Jennifer Gable, a transgender woman in Idaho who died at age 32. At the funeral, Gable’s family presented her as a man in an open casket. The Herald article about Gable was the most-read story of the year across all of McClatchy’s publications, said Rothaus.

“Ten years ago, I hoped there would be people doing what I do all over the country, but it never happened,” he says. “Maybe not in every city, but in a lot of cities, this is a beat that should be considered a vehicle to increase readership.”

Over the years, Rothaus has been offered some other opportunities, but he’s never really considered leaving the Herald, where he’s handled other jobs while covering the LGBT beat—editing in business and features, working as an online producer, and now editing the community sections. Miami is home to his family and his longtime partner, who’s now his husband. And he wanted to stay at the Herald, he says, because “I like being mainstream.”

“It’s more than a beat,” he says about his work. “People live this. It’s important that they see themselves in the paper. That’s a big part of what it is and why I’m still doing this.” He’s not an activist, he says, “but I’m part of the community.”

Schwartz, the attorney, says Rothaus’s coverage of events in the local LGBT community often feels like validation. On a recent weekend, he was too busy to cover an event, she says, and “it was like it didn’t happen.”

Now, that community plans to honor Rothaus. The National LGBTQ Task Force announced Wednesday that it has selected Rothaus to receive its annual Eddy McIntyre Community Service Award at a Miami gala this fall. Someone else will have to cover it for the Herald.

* Corrections: This post has been revised to refer to Rothaus as “one of the first” reporters at a mainstream newspaper to cover gay issues as a regular beat, not just “the first.” It has also been updated to note Randy Shilts’ work for the San Francisco Chronicle, and revised to more accurately describe Elizabeth Schwartz’s legal work.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.