Editor wrote 31.5 miles of stories
56 years writing for The News-Banner, in Bluffton, Indiana, Jim Barbieri
churned out an estimated two million single-column inches, or 31.5 miles, of
reports. "Probably wrote more column inches than perhaps any mortal human
being" (Mayor Ted Ellis). He attended every imaginable gathering, knew everyone, and wrote about
them at length.
When he died last month, aged 77, the small town (population 9500) mourned
the editor's passing. "Jim was the finest, hardest-working journalist anywhere
in our state, and traveling as I do, I have met them all," Indiana Governor
Mitch Daniels said in a written statement. "He wrote, he edited, he took
pictures, and he'd seen everything; no one ever put anything over on Jim, and
I'll bet very few people even tried."
Daniels recalled that during his 2004 campaign for governor, he visited an
elementary school before it opened.
"Jim rode his bike from out of town, grilled me, took the pictures, turned
down a lift back to town, and rode back to cover a City Council meeting,"
Daniels said. "Back on the RV [recreation vehicle], my young road companion
said, `Who IS that guy?' and I told him, 'Ben, you just met a legend.'"
The Governor said he wished every young journalist in Indiana could have
spent "even a day or two understanding Jim Barbieri. Then all our citizens would
one day be as well-informed and well served as the citizens of Bluffton have
been for so long."
In a moving tribute, Joe Smekens, The News-Banner's managing editor,
who was once its linotype operator, wrote:
Jim was a 24/7 news guy. At the same time, he was a loving husband,
father and grandfather.
He spent the better part of his 56-plus N-B years catching cat-naps in
his chair while cranking out all those stories, most of which were written
in the wee hours of the night.
It was not uncommon to see Jim nod off for a few winks at just about
anytime of the day, only to see him minutes later go flying by, wide awake
and on the way to some kind of a story.
It was not uncommon for him to even doze off while covering a government
meeting, only to somehow have the exact and entire story in the next day’s
paper. To this day, I don’t know how he did that, so don’t even bother to
It was not uncommon for him to interview someone by looking that person
straight in the eye and making all these chicken scratches on his notepad
only to have each and every word in the next day’s edition. No tape
recorders for Jim.
It was not uncommon for one of our staffers, myself included, to head out
to cover an accident or fire, take a picture or two, and turn around to see
Jim taking the same picture. It wasn’t because he didn’t think we could do
the job. It was just the consummate reporter mode which he was always in,
and which was not turned off until the last day.
Writing in The News-Sentinel in the much larger Indiana city of Fort
Wayne (population 207,000) Bob Caylor, News-Banner reporter from 1983 to
It became an eccentric expression of Barbieri’s drive to cover the news
in exhaustive – maybe even exhausting – detail. He wrote headlines as long
as ordinary paragraphs and published as many as 50 photographs of a single
His coverage of auto crashes was so thorough that police sometimes
attached copies of his stories to their reports. In his prime – the 1970s,
’80s and ’90s, roughly speaking – he banged out between 5,000 and 10,000
words of local news and editorial comment in a typical day. (The Evening
Forum on a typical day includes about 2,500 to 3,000 words of editorials,
guest column and letters.)
In the process, he came to know Bluffton and Wells County better than
anyone. Any small-town editor can spare no detail of 4-H fair coverage, and
Barbieri certainly didn’t skimp on livestock photos. But his presence at
every news event of any size made him such an institution that readers
sometimes called him to report crimes or to summon his help.
In 1982, while Barbieri was covering Bluffton High School’s graduation
ceremony, he was called away to a phone. A home south of Bluffton had been
invaded by a clearly deranged young man on one of the worst LSD trips ever.
In a hysterical frenzy, he’d started tearing up the house. The homeowner
tried to calm the tripper. Finally, the acid victim agreed that he could
tell his story to Barbieri. Only Barbieri. That was the only way he would
leave the house peacefully.
So Barbieri drove to the rural home, took the homeowner and the tripper
for a ride that lasted four hours, during which Barbieri heard every detail
of the young man’s paranoid delusions about the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia and
so on. The ride ended at a hospital, and the episode was retold in thousands
of words in the next edition of The News-Banner.
He took every crime committed in Bluffton personally, as if a swindle
anywhere picked his own pocket. When a con man played on church connections
to sell tens of thousands of dollars in worthless stock to Wells County
residents, Barbieri chronicled the unraveling scheme in dozens of stories
and sent reporters to other states to report on the enterprises the stock
Indiana's senior US Senator, Richard Lugar (who is chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee) paid tribute to Jim Barbieri, "a
great Hoosier newspaperman and civic leader" in a statement to be published in
the Congressional Record.
The senator said Barbieri had attended DePauw University in Indiana where he
was editor of the student newspaper. After graduation, Barbieri had turned down
a job offer from the Indianapolis Star to work at the small-town
The senator continued:
Beginning in 1950, Jim Barbieri worked almost every job conceivable at
the Bluffton paper. He was a reporter, advertising salesman and circulation
director. He became general manager of the venerable Wells County
publication in 1975, and then co-owner, president and publisher in 1986.
It was not unusual that on any given day he might write every page-one
story, the editorial, and if someone called in sick, he'd pick up delivery
route too. He was always available because he only missed one day of work
over a 50-year stretch.
Jim Barbieri had that venerable small-town newspaperman ready opinion on
virtually everything that passes us by in life. Whether it was roads, parks
or the time Indiana should set its clocks in the summer, Jim used his unique
forum to editorialize.
I knew he was always looking over my shoulder providing ready comment on
anything I did in the state, national or international arena. On visits to
Bluffton, Jim Barbieri would cover the community event I was attending, and
then in an extensive interview, explore my thoughts on the issues of the
day. He would then exhaustively report all of it in the newspaper astutely
and accurately. He did not cease to impress all with his indefatigability.
The senator recalled a poem Barbieri wrote to celebrate his 50 years at the
So that the way I work may be out of date,
But don't try to bend me and make me go straight,
Let me go on in my very old fashion,
Covering the news with an old time passion.
The style in which my career has been blest,
To you may be faulty, but I (gave) it my best,
When God takes me home at the end of my years,
He'll not straighten me out and pop all my gears.
He'll say 'you, reporter, for the sins that you bring,
We'll take you like you are with a bent angelic wing.'
And we all know that Heaven could not run well,
Without a journalist to give them all hell.
So in the celestial press room we bid you to trod,
But don't ever misquote Peter or misspell God.
BLUFFTON REMEMBERS JIM
Signs around town spoke volumes about how folks felt about the editor of
their daily newspaper.
"Jim Barbieri, Bluffton's Best," proclaimed a sign
outside a local hotel.
"God Bless Jim Barbieri," read another outside a
main street bank.
"We will miss you, Jim," was the message on a sign
outside a tire store.
- Keith Robinson,
Fort Wayne News.
POSTSCIPT from Joe Smekens: The governor was wrong
when he said Jim rode a bicycle out to a school function. Actually, Jim walked .
. . .3 1/2 miles one way. Jim walked 5-10 miles every day. He NEVER rode a bike
anywhere. The governor just assumed he rode a bike.