An editor once told me, in the sort of bass-ackwards management advice I’ve come to think of as Thoroughly Hoosier: “It’s always tricky to write something about someone who’s dead that isn’t 100 percent complimentary.”
Noted, chief. So, on with it.
Jim Barbieri died this week. Chances are you didn’t know him. I didn’t know him, but I knew a lot about him. A good friend of mine, Bob Caylor, worked for him. I write this with a fat file before me, mostly letters from Bob, but with lots of clippings and photocopies of the incontrovertible evidence that his boss, Jim Barbieri, editor of the Bluffton News-Banner of Bluffton, Ind., was, well, a real piece of work.
The obit linked above tells you so little: James C. Barbieri had served as the News-Banner’s publisher, editor-in-chief as well as reporter and editorial writer during his more than 50 years with the paper. He was 77. All true, but such a thin, pastel picture of what Barbieri was — an old-time editor of a small-town daily, with all that entails. When I first became acquainted with his work, it wasn’t unusual for him to have written every word on the front page, and this was one of those old-fashioned front pages, cluttered and crammed with stories in 9-point type (although he took all the pictures, too). You’d turn inside, and he might have one or two signed editorials. It’s hard to imagine he had need of a staff, he worked so hard, straddling the town like a colossus, up on every possible story, and then some.
Small-town newspapers run by a different set of rules than the New York Times. These rules include, but are not limited to:
1) Everyone who wants to be in the paper, can be, with their name spelled correctly.
2) Every big story can be localized somehow.
3) News will be placed in its proper perspective.
As to that last one, here’s Barbieri on a barn fire, under a six-column, two-deck, 48-point headline reading, no, screaming: 40-MPH Wind-Whipped Super-Blaze Destroys 2 Lockwood Barns, Machinery; $500,000 Losses This was under a six-column kicker: 3 Big Tractors Among Dozen Implements Plus 2 Trucks, Car in Toll; Daring Firemen Ward Flames From Propane, Gasoline; Save House, 4th Barn.
OK, that’s just the display type. Here’s the lead:
Driven like a molten arrow by 40-mile-per-hour gale winds, one of the largest and most spectacular fires of modern history here catapulted through three large barns at the Richard Lockwood place on the Ellingham Pike, devouring building structure and machinery in superheated flaming gulps Thursday afternoon in a little-precedented rampage of destruction.
It was like something from the other planets.
The story goes on. And on. And on. I think in word counts these days, and I’d estimate it at 2,000 words, minimum, maybe closer to 3,000. The Chicago Tribune might write that much if the mayor were caught in bed with a 9-year-old boy, but probably not. And having started at a gallop with those superheated flaming gulps, it never really slows down — “erupting streams and 4th of July bursts of shooting flames and encircling smoke” … “blackened by the ultra-heat but not aflame” … “swallowing and blasting in the inferno.” And my favorite: “rural holocaust.”
Nine grafs later: “But the firemen appeared like pygmies confronting King Kong as they hustled about trying to defend against and peck blows at the superfire under the compulsion of the tremendous wind.”
And that was one story. He probably wrote five others that day, plus the editorials. I don’t know what his hours were, but it’s safe to say he was never home for long. One of my favorite stories about him was the one Bob told about the secretary who mistakenly bought decaf for the office coffeepot, while Jim spent two days walking into walls and wondering why his usual 70 cups a day were failing him so utterly.
Rule No. 2, about localization? No one could do it like Jim. A plane crash over the Indian Ocean with no Americans aboard? Look for it on Page One, because “Bluffton-made Franklin Electric submersible motors” are being used in the hunt for the black boxes. I hold in my hand a 10-paragraph Barbieri story about the jail in Covington, Ky., which was sadly outdated only 15 years after its construction. And this is news in Bluffton why? Because the Covington jail was “hemmed in” by the river, but the new county jail in Bluffton has a “5.84-acre tract in a project based on calculated inmate population growth plus adaptability for expansion beyond that if ever necessary.”
As for Rule No. 1, let it only be said that the News-Banner was a prime source for one of my summer dog-days perennials — a roundup of all the enormous-vegetable news from the surrounding area.
But Jim didn’t just follow these rules. He made up his own. He’d been around that town about as long as anyone; why shouldn’t he be in charge? When the sheriff had a heart attack in office, Jim decided he needed to go. And started running speculative stories about who might succeed him should he decide to retire after his “punishing” cardiac event, and how risky it is to be a county’s top law-enforcement officer with a bad ticker.
Well. It turned out the sheriff only wanted to stay in office long enough to see ground broken on the new jail, so history would record that it happened under his watch. A resignation for health reasons was timed to coincide with the gala groundbreaking. Jim stayed on message until the end:
…the sheriff is expected to raise a small symbolic amount of already loosened turf — not enough for overexertion — as he turns the first spade Friday in the groundbreaking ceremony…”
(This became known, in a small way, in our own small newsroom orbit, as the “pre-loosened shovelful of dirt” story.)
I’m going on and on, and I haven’t even gotten to my favorite, about what happened the night he got a call from a family who had an unwelcome visitor. (Why call the police when you can call Jim?) Again, a multi-deck headline:
N-B Writer’s Covering BHS 100 Years Interrupted by Man Hallucinating on LSD, Rural Wells Family Alarm (The kicker: Asked about ‘Downers,’ Guns, Help; Killing Talked)
This reporter had been covering events all Saturday afternoon at the Bluffton High school 100-year celebration and was about to go into the cafeteria for the alumni banquet when the phone rang at the high school. Over the next four hours this writer was drawn away from the historic educational milestone and festivities — dealing with a young man who was hallucinating on LSD.
Jim drove him around for a while, and then to the hospital. Then he went back to the high school and finished that assignment, before banging out 2,000 words or so on the tripping guy. Just another day at the office.
Jim didn’t keep this pace up for his entire career; he slowed down a bit at the end. For the longest time, all I noticed about him was his convoluted prose, his goofy Page One tributes (Happy 50th Birthday, Bluffton Bridge!), his elevation of a barn fire to a rural holocaust. He didn’t really gain my respect until his paper was sold to a local chain; they owned a bunch of little dailies out in “the region.” The head of the company had political aspirations — he wanted to be governor — and I expect he thought his own newspapers would back him up on it, like a rural Citizen Kane. Wrong-o.
It was hard not to notice the News-Banner’s editor didn’t think much of his new publisher. Every poll that showed him doing badly ended up on Page One. I don’t remember all the details, but it was plain Jim thought of his new boss as anything but a newspaperman worthy of collegial respect. As the publisher’s star fell, Jim was right there with the pre-loosened-shovelful-of-dirt stories. What was the publisher going to do, fire him? Fire Jim Barbieri? You might as well try to fire God.
If there is an afterlife, and a God, I expect Jim is talking to him now. I don’t know what final disposition of his case will be — as I said, I only knew him by reputation — but I expect that whatever it is, Jim will file something by deadline. I can’t wait to see the headline.