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Zaltsberg To End 33-Year Editing Career At HT: 'It's Time For Me To Retire'

(Photo Credit: Tyler Lake/WTIU News)

Bob Zaltsberg, the long-time editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times is retiring in February. He made the announcement in a column published earlier this month.

Zaltsberg has been the editor for 33 years. Prior to that he spent nine years as a reporter, city editor and managing editor at the paper.

Besides the Herald Times, the only other place Zaltsberg has worked was when he first started his career as a sports editor in Plainfield, Indiana. It was a position he held for 18 months before leaving to take a position at what was then known as the Herald Telephone in Bloomington.

Sara Wittmeyer sat down with Zaltsberg as he reflected on his career.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sara: What’s it like [to have been] walking into this same building for work every day for more than 40 years?

Bob: It’s kind of routine. Although the job is so not routine that everything is different every day. Coming into the same place all of the time, there is a sense of comfort to it. But at the same time I know there is going to be something new that I have to deal with or can deal with at the same time.

Sara: Obviously I’m sure you had the opportunity to move to bigger papers or bigger cities. Why did you decide to stay in Bloomington?

Bob: A lot of personal things in my life that went on made it more interesting for me to stay here. The first time I had a good opportunity to move somewhere really was right before I was told I was going to become editor when I was 32 years old. So I had an opportunity to go do a job in Louisville. At the time there were 1700 daily newspapers in the country, and I thought to myself, I would have been one of the 1700 daily newspaper editors in the country. And compared to how many assistant sports editors or assistant city editors were there it just seemed like an interesting thing to do to sort of run my own shop for a few years.

Sara: It’s been more than a few years.

Bob: It’s been a lot longer than a few years. Bloomington kind of gets into your blood. A couple of other places that I kind of toyed with would have been probably good fits if I would have allowed them to be, but I was pretty well tethered to Bloomington at that time. I wanted to stay here. I had a lot of family in the area. We just liked it here. We liked it a lot. And to be a newspaper editor in a city like Bloomington, oh my gosh! I mean, the opportunities that gives you and the challenges that gives you every day.  I’ve been thinking about this the last few weeks – I mean, where else is there a Ph.D. in everything? So, if you’re writing about any topic there’s going to be somebody smarter than you in the community. I had to come to grips early on with the fact that I would never be the smartest man in the room.  I had to learn what I could learn on various topics, and I had to learn how to get information out of people on various topics and I had to learn how to communicate on a lot of different things and then be the smartest guy in the room on journalism if I could be.

Sara: What do you think are the challenges of running a newsroom in a small town vs. a bigger place?

Bob: I think the biggest challenge it presents is you’re not anonymous. I can’t really go anywhere in town without people talking to me, which is sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but most of the time it’s really good. People know who I am. They know who our reporters are. And, if you go out somewhere you’re going to know people. If you write about somebody, they know how to get ahold of you. If you want to be shy and be in a situation where people are not going to talk to you, this is not the job for you.

Sara: Has there been a particular story you’ve done where you’ve thought to yourself, “I’m not going to be able to leave my house for a couple of days.”

Bob: There are lots of stories we have done that made me sort of uncomfortable or feeling like maybe I should just lie low for a while. One story we did was a database on gun permits and how many concealed carry permits there were in Bloomington and Monroe County – actually in every county in the state. It was anonymous – people couldn’t see who they were, but they could see where these concealed carry permits were – and it made the NRA very, very unhappy. When the NRA is unhappy, they can turn up the heat on a small town editor in Indiana. From a journalistic standpoint I didn’t see where we did anything wrong. I did see how what a journalist does can get twisted and turned into something it absolutely wasn’t – and foment a lot of threats. It was an uncomfortable situation.

Sara: Can you talk a little bit about your role as editor? Because it’s not just the HT and you’re not just writing columns – you do so much more. 

Bob: With time comes an expansion of duties and opportunities, and so because I’ve been here so long, I’ve been involved in a lot of things in the community. I meet with a lot of people over the years so I can sort of be the conduit for a lot of news that’s coming in through the doors. It’s important for a small town newspaper to be accessible. I do write a lot of opinion pieces, a lot of columns. I work with a staff of people to try to get the most out of stories. I try to bring people along – making people better, being a coach and a mentor, that is part of it. Handling a budget – the newsroom is the largest expense budget. We don’t bring in any money. We are just an expense budget so I have to keep tabs on that. It’s part of the way we have to do business today.  And I do have management responsibilities over some of our smaller papers: Spencer, Bedford, Martinsville, Mooresville, and now we just bought Paoli and Springs Valley.

Sara: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve guided the paper through during your time at the HT? It wasn’t that long after you started as editor that you switched from the Herald Telephone and became a morning paper.

Bob: We changed names from the Herald Telephone to the Herald Times, and we went from being an afternoon paper to a morning paper, and those were huge changes. Going from afternoon to morning just turned everyone’s jobs upside down. We were running a shift in the newsroom that went from 5:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., and then a few sports guys and people covering city council would work at night. But it went to two shifts for sure – we were starting people at 9 in the morning, and we’d be done at 12:30 or 1 the next morning. Then the website came along and people were wanting their news earlier, so then we were running two shifts from 5:30 in the morning until about 1:30 in the morning. But you just don’t have enough staff to do that effectively in a small community like ours, so we’ve had to decide where do we get the most benefit from having people working. That’s been a big change over time. And the way the newspaper industry has changed – the revenue coming through the door. The expenses have stayed pretty much the same, but advertising revenue and circulation revenue has changed. What hasn’t changed is the mission of being journalists. What hasn’t changed is our desire to cover the communities as well as we can cover them. So it’s a matter of adjusting to the resources we have and trying to keep focused on the things we think are most important. For us that is trying to make sense of complex issues and cover the community in a way that helps inform people and helps them make decisions.

Sara: What advice are you going to give the person who comes into this role?

Bob: My advice that I’m going to give to the next editor of the Herald Times is to stay focused on what they believe is the most important stuff. Define good journalism, then find out how you are going to commit to doing good journalism. I think that’s the job of the editor. How are you going to make everybody who works for you better? That is something that sometimes I think I’ve lost sight of because you’re putting out fires out all of the time. Your hair is on fire and it is like, ‘Oh no, how do I get this space in the paper filled?’ But when I really look at it, the most important part of being an editor or the manager of anything is making sure people have the tools they need, making sure you support people and help them do their job better.

Sara: Looking ahead to the future, you’re not going to be leaving the HT completely. 

Bob:  I’m leaving the door open to work with the company. I’m leaving because it’s time for me to retire. I’m not leaving because I want to leave journalism necessarily. There could be a role for me with the Schurz Company or with the Herald Times or the Hoosier Times. I’d be happy to do certain things, but not full-time.

Sara: You want to enjoy life.

Bob: Yes, enjoy life and teach young journalists.

Bob Zaltsberg will continue teaching adjunct for the Indiana University Media School and hosting Noon Edition on WFIU.

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