Newspaperman.

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.

New graf:

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)

The lead:

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.

Posted at 12:20 pm in Media |
 

19 responses to “Newspaperman.”

  1. Claire said on April 3, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Fabulous post. Thank you!

  2. Adrianne said on April 3, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    Nance:

    How well I remember Jim Barbieri’s “rural holocaust” account! I still have a copy of that Bluffton News Banner front page floating around in my own newspaper morgue.

    Didn’t you once pitch a profile of Jim to one of the journalism reviews, describing him as “William Allen White’s addled copyboy”?

    We will not see his like again!

  3. stevel said on April 3, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    Nance,

    You nailed it. The energy level of that man was terrifying. Anyone decent in this business wishes they had a fraction of it. (Of course, a bit might be applied to the editing function.)

  4. Kim said on April 3, 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Brilliant.

  5. Dave said on April 3, 2006 at 8:56 pm

    I used to work at a job that took me to Bluffton for the day. I often would purchase the Bluffton News-Banner, just because it was so chock full of news and so daggone entertaining, I felt like I knew everything about everything in Bluffton after reading it, and I barely knew more than two or three people in town.

  6. Jim said on April 4, 2006 at 7:24 am

    I used to work for that local chain that took over the News-Banner. I didn’t know Jim Barbieri, but I know he was considered a bit of a crackpot. We used to love reading those headlines — 3 (or even 4!)-deck banner headlines — with hammer heads. But it was true that Jim was Bluffton and he represented an “old-school” philosophy of local journalism. I think many papers today are missing the local, homegrown unique flavor. His weird localizations may have seemed amusing, but it was his way of saying, “Why should people in Bluffton care about this story?” Little ol’ Bluffton is a part of this world, after all, and products made in Bluffton are used all over the place. I think there will always be a place for this type of journalism, but it will likely be in blogs rather than in newsprint.

  7. Dave B. said on April 4, 2006 at 10:11 am

    Nancy,
    Being originally from Bluffton, and working in Wells County for twenty some years, I feel like I could write about Jim for days. But just a few highlights:
    Nearly 35 years ago someone attempted to shop lift something out of a Bluffton store. Patrolman Carl Pace happened to be in the right place at the right time. Jim’s headlines were, “Officer Pace subdued the criminal with the liquid chemical mace.”
    I once attended an economical development meeting in Ossian in which Jim attended. I remember that Jim looked extremely tired. He appeared to be dozing off from time to time. I left that meeting thinking that very little of importance had been discussed. Yet, the next day Jim wrote nearly a page about that meeting. I remember thinking “were we at the same meeting.”
    When I was in high school there was a drive-in theatre two miles north of Bluffton. In the back there was a huge wooden pole about 75 feet tall on which the flood lights were mounted. One night some kids used a cross cut saw to cut the pole down. Jim wrote about that incident for weeks and weeks…about the ongoing investigation and juvenile delinquency, etc. The case remains unsolved. I always wanted to tell Jim who the culprits were, but I guess I waited too long.

  8. Dan said on April 4, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    Here’s a Obit by Barbieri in 2002 I saved because it was about a friend…

    Bob Mattax Obit, by J. Barbieri

  9. alex said on April 4, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    I interviewed at the News-Banner with Barbieri when I was first out of college. This was 20-some years ago, and even at that time he looked like he was 80 — disheveled, stooped-over, emaciated. Clearly this was a man who couldn’t be torn away from his work for such unimportant things as sleeping or eating. He really did live in the newsroom and it was quite apparent he expected the same sort of devotion from a new hire, along with allegiance to the GOP. We didn’t hit it off, but it was a memorable interview.

    My dad still sings Barbieri’s praises as a journalist, and indeed the man had an incredible mind. One day while my dad was at an event in Bluffton he got chatted up by this funny looking little guy and didn’t think anything about it. The next day it was a lengthy front-page story in the News-Banner. My dad was awed by the detail and clarity of the story, which told of my dad’s involvement in a business venture in Fort Wayne. The Fort Wayne media hadn’t been getting it right at all — and that was despite note pads and tape recorders and much ado about interviewing.

  10. michael mosettig said on April 4, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Dear Ms. Noll,

    I saw your column on today’s Romanesko web site, and it brought for memories that go back even beyond the 50 years of Mr. Barbieri’s career.

    My grandfather Edgar (Bat) Nelson and uncle Ross Nelson, both born and raised in Bluffton, started their newspaper careers on the News Banner. My grandfather died in 1935 and was Sunday editor of the old Evening Star in Washington.
    Ross Nelson was an editor for many years on the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, where his daughter Mary Jane worked before and during World War II. Ross, who died in 1960, ended his career as an editor on the Indianapolis Star. Ross had one of the saddest assignments imaginable, covering the death of their youngest brother in the inter-urban crash. Edgar and Ross are are buried with their spouses in Bluffton.

    As you can see from this address, I followed my grandfather into journalism (including a year in Bloomington), starting as a copyboy at the Evening Star and for the last 23 years at the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as senior producer for foreign affairs & defense.

    Glad to see that the editors of the News Banner still are searching for the best angle on even the most obscure story. A good less for us all.

    Best wishes.

    Michael D. Mosettig

  11. Bob Cook said on April 4, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Great post on Jim Barbieri. I remember seeing copies of the Bluffton paper coming into UPI’s office in Indianapolis (circa 1988-90), and I remember as a young journalist being stunned by the amount of words one person could crank out while also handling every other function at the paper. In fact, I wondered if Jim Barbieri also ran the printer. I remember also being stunned at those screaming headlines and subheads.

    Of course, we at UPI loved him in particular because he kept us on long after pretty much everyone else had dropped us. Plus, guaranteed, if we sent a story with one of our bylines on it, he ran the byline. A lot of the clips I was able to submit for future jobs came thanks to Jim Barbieri’s insistence on bylines. I never met the man, so I’m not sure if he kept the bylines because of a great respect for the work of a reporter, or so it didn’t look like he wrote every single word in the paper. Probably both.

  12. MarkH said on April 4, 2006 at 7:03 pm

    Nancy, may I add my thanks for this post AND the responses. I especially enjoy your entries about news and reporting, and this one is now my favorite. This entire post and more on Barbieri should be required reading for young reporters-to-be. It can be a fine thing to expend the energy reporting a story to death, as long as it’s edited the same way. For better or worse, Adrianne is right.

  13. Royal Calkins said on April 4, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    While working for one of the Fort Wayne papers in the late 1970s, I was sent to Bluffton to cover a strike at Franklin Electric. Everyone I talked to said that if I wanted to get it right, I should talk to Barbieri.
    They were right. He knew everything about everything and everybody in Bluffton and he was glad to share.
    I started reading his paper after that and I remember thinking at times that it was a spoof. The kicker on the front-page story on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident was something awfully close to “Mayor’s secretary’s sister (maybe sister-in-law) well outside 10-mile danger zone.”
    I remember thinking some of it was pretty silly, but I also remember thinking that I could believe every word.

  14. Carmella said on April 5, 2006 at 6:10 am

    I’ve never heard of this Barbieri fellow, but I’m loving this post!! I wish I had known about him before his death. I’m also thinking this would make a good movie, and Hal Holbrook should star. Did anyone see him on the Soprano’s Sunday?

  15. Dave said on April 5, 2006 at 8:50 am

    Wow! You can’t see that kind of detail in Yahoo! news. That’s pretty special. I wish he’d submitted his own obit before he went.

  16. John Strauss said on April 5, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    Nancy,

    I wonder if Indiana has any more like Jim Barbieri.

    For years, Kentucky’s most memorable editor was probably Larry Craig, editor of the Green River Republican in Morgantown. An ordained Baptist minister, Larry won numerous awards and routinely took unpopular stands. Somebody fired a shot through his office window, and the church he pastored was burned down. Nowadays, he’s an adjunct professor of journalism at Western Kentucky University.

    Thanks for a great post and these responses.

    John Strauss
    Indianapolis

  17. Dee said on April 5, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    Fabulous post, Nancy!

    I grew up in the Bluffton area and appreciate your tasteful handling of a true one-of-a-kind guy/editor/publisher/reporter/photographer/town character. I haven’t chuckled that much at such a true depiction in quite some time. Mission accomplished, Nancy. If you hadn’t said so, I would have sworn you knew him personally.

    And, note to Dave: I would almost bet that Barbieri DID write his own obit. There just may have been a little editing applied.

  18. cindi pastore said on April 14, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    Nancy,

    What you might be interested to know is that my father had a wonderful sense of humor. Much of what he wrote was laced with that.

    You also might like to know that he full realized that other people didn’t write like he did. But i don’t think he much cared- this is how he saw fit to write, not in some journalism school formula.

    He wrote his headlines long because he realized that most people read not much more than headlines. Then he followed through with detailed information (that did tie in local with global as much as possible) probably in the hope that someone would like to know as much and care as much about what he was writing about as he did.

    You might also want to know that his view of a community newspaper was that it’s function was to help the community and the people in it to thrive AND to sell papers in order to perpetuate the ability to help the community. And he did so by promoting all “good” causes in the community and also by reporting thoroughly and accurately and by editorializing.

    You may also want to know that while working hours all his life that would “kill” all the rest of us, that he never missed an event of his children’s or his grandchildren’s life. He was never too tired or too stressed or too busy to take time for those things.

    Regarding the mention of the “owner of the local dailies” becoming the publisher, I’m really not sure how you could read from newspaper accounts that my father didn’t think much of him. I’m not saying he did or he didn’t, but what I am saying is that my father treated him in all accounts fairly and honestly. I believe you may be reading in a general feeling about the publisher into what my father actually wrote.

    I think what I’m trying to point out here is that my father wrote every word with the intent to make the community he lived in a stronger, better community. I’m sorry too, that you never knew him. You could have learned a lot from him.

    Cindi Pastore

  19. belinda l giordano said on April 5, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    I have a wonderful memory of Jim Barberi. I worked at Subway for 2 years and he came in for lunch quite often. I can tell you this, he never drove in. That wonderful man walked every where, whether it was for lunch or to get a heads up on a story to taking pictures of all the new construction and destruction in town. When he came in for lunch, I could see him with his camera and his paper toiling over the next issue that he was to write and more times than once I’ve had to wake him up after the rush so that he could get back on track.( a little power nap never hurt anyone). He came in many times with his wife as well, such a sweet woman. To see them at their age be so loving towards one another was the highlight of my day since it seems that it is so rare to see that these days. When his wife was hospitalized for her attack the whole town knew and we all prayed for her recovery. He was still out doing his job and still coming for lunch, walking. I admired this man so much after getting to know him while I worked. It was so sad not to see him in for lunch anymore and not to see his head lines in the paper. It isn’t the same now that he’s gone (but not forgotten) but the newspaper and the news goes on without him.Thanks for the memories Jim. God rest in peace.