I think of it as bookends.
The year was 1973. I had just finished a journalism degree at Southern Illinois University. It was a tumultuous time—the unpopular Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the Watergate scandal.
Call that Bookend Number One, when I learned to report the news, defining journalism forever for me as a profession which relentlessly pursues hard truths, holds the powerful accountable and provides a voice to the voiceless.
It seems fitting and appropriate for Bookend Number Two—winding down my daily newspaper career—to be the political donnybrook that is the election of 2020. Not since the turbulent times at the beginning of my career have I seen the country so divided and struggling to find common purpose. When Nixon left office, people began slowly to find their way back to a more civil tone, with Gerald Ford playing a healer’s role. Will the country move in that direction again? Can Joe Biden be a healer? Will the people step back from the brink and stop hating each other?
For nearly half a century, most of it spent in Beloit, it has been my privilege to observe and report history as it occurred. There have been so many stories, big and small, shaping Greater Beloit and the surrounding region on both sides of the state line. Exciting moments. Interesting people. Daunting challenges. Grand initiatives. The sunshine of success. Sometimes, the dark clouds of failure.
I have to admit, when I arrived in Beloit as the assignment editor in the latter part of the 1970s, there were moments when I wondered if the move had been a mistake. Downtown looked like a bomb hit it. Crime and violence were growing concerns. Longtime industries were in decline. People’s negativity hung in the air. The paper, to put it mildly, was not well loved.
True story. After a very long day trying to learn my new job, I visited a local pub for a bite and a beer. The guy on the barstool next to me was friendly and chatty. Then he asked what I did for a living. I told him. He picked up his drink and, without a word, moved to the other end of the bar.
And so it evolved from there. Beloit has come far, and the paper chronicled it all in ways I hope were helpful. This is not a wealthy town, so the Beloit Daily News has never been an easy-money paper. We’ve always kind of struggled, to put a point on it. And it isn’t getting any easier in a time when people not only read less but increasingly segregate themselves into information silos singularly designed to tell them what they want to hear. From those early days and sobering experiences, though, the overriding goals have been to provide the Stateline Area with stability at the paper and the kind of news coverage readers can trust. That means unvarnished truth on the news pages and opinions that stay on the page labeled Opinion.
An illustration may be found in two points almost everybody who has worked with me has heard:
First, leave your opinions out of your reporting. If you are staunchly pro-life, I ought to be able to send you to cover a pro-choice event without any reader being able to discern your own views.
Second, never lose sight of what you’ve been given. As an American journalist, you have a constitutionally protected voice, an opportunity to right wrongs and make a difference. Millions of people across the globe would die to have what you’ve been gifted. Don’t waste it.
I’m proud to say very few did, of the many colleagues I’ve worked with at the Beloit Daily News, some of whom went on to make big names for themselves in other markets. It’s been a paper that punched above its weight because of the commitment and fire in the belly of its professional journalists. The paper has won stacks of awards for its reporting in state and regional contests, and even a few prestigious national honors. That’s a tribute to the skills and integrity of the men and women with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. At the close of a career, those teammates are the ones I’ll hold forever in my heart.
Among those closest associates and friends over the years are people like Ron Cruger, publisher back in the ‘70s who first saw something in me; Bill Behling, a mentor for nearly two decades; Kent Eymann, independent-minded publisher and my dear friend; Don Behling, computer wizard who helped make us Wisconsin’s first online newspaper; Terry Rose, printer supreme and the darndest stickler for precision I ever worked with; Jim Franz, and Clint Wolf, long-term colleagues who remain key players in the newsroom; Hillary Gavan, 17 years at the paper and the senior writer with a boatload of awards to show for it; Todd Colling, now the paper’s general manager, with whom I’ve worked for more than 20 years. Definitely, that list could go on and on, and I apologize for leaving out others, but readers get the picture. It’s the people, the deeply committed people, who are the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
Another observation seems worth making. One of the first to greet me in Beloit and become a friend was the late Larry Raymer, who began working at the paper in the 1920s until his retirement as executive editor. A few years after I started in Beloit, Bill Behling rejoined the Daily News. Bill started at the paper in the 1940s and, with the exception of a short stint in Rhinelander, built his career in Beloit until his retirement in the early 1990s. I often think of it this way, that between Larry’s 1920s beginnings and Bill’s 1940s start, then my own tenure since the ‘70s, that’s three editors who guided nearly a century of Stateline journalism. Folks, you will never see that again.
For many years now, most of my personal writings have been opinion pieces—editorials, like those to the left, and columns, like this. I took it very seriously and made it my purpose to dig deep and research the facts, not just prattle on with a bunch of dumb thoughts off the top of my head. I wasn’t trying to be a smarty pants, or be bossy and tell everybody what to think. The objective was to hit a chord that encouraged people to think for themselves, and to consider differing points of view. All I hope is that readers thought these opinion pieces were factual, fair, reasoned and civil.
I also hope Beloit welcomes Sid Schwartz, in his new regional role overseeing both the Beloit Daily News and The Gazette in Janesville. Sid’s a good guy and a talented journalist. I hired him as a reporter in Beloit over 30 years ago and later enjoyed watching him climb the ladder in Janesville. He’s got what it takes.
Meanwhile, I’m sure I’ll find something to do with myself. I hope my beloved, Stephanie Klett, can stand having me around more. I look forward to more golf and motorcycles with my sons, Kyle and John. I have a new grandson in Roscoe—Jackson—from John and Amanda, whom I intend to shamelessly spoil. I hope to get to know the granddaughters—Kyle’s girls who live in the Chicago ‘burbs and daughter Traci’s girls who live in Florida—a little closer if the nasty virus ever lets us travel again.
To all the readers, over all the years, I don’t have the words. You made it not only possible, but worthwhile. Thank you.
Newspapers exist because you choose to read and trust them and support them financially. If you stop, they’ll stop. That would be a calamitous day for free people.
Thanks for everything, Beloit. It’s been fun.
William Barth has been with the Beloit Daily News for 44 years, the past 25 as Editor. Regional Editor Sid Schwartz assumed management responsibilities Nov. 20. Barth has agreed to contribute weekly editorials and occasional columns.