Worlds away from the network news operation and metro newspapers he used to run, Michael Gartner molds young reporters at his 10,000-circulation daily in Iowa.
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
M ICHAEL GARTNER HAS BEEN AT HIS DESK for two hours when Carrie Rodovich pulls a chair next to his. Every reporter who has a story in the Mid-Iowa section of this afternoon's Daily Tribune will sit in that chair.
``The story isn't very exciting," she warns Gartner as he begins to read.
``You're right so far," he tells her.
Rodovich is trying to tell the readers of Ames, Iowa, about a group of high school boys who tailgate before home football games. A beat-up car they have painted bright orange is their talisman and somewhere at the core of Rodovich's story. But Gartner--tangled up in a lead about the boys festooning trees with toilet paper that is spooling into the body of the story--can't get to it.
Gartner looks again at the lead. ``It's about the car, right?" ``It's about a bunch of boys goofing off before the games," she tells him, a little defensively. ``My lead is my biggest problem. I worked with it last night after dinner."
She has forgotten what Chip Scanlan once drilled into her during a brutal but crucial six-week writing course at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies: Find the story and put it at the top.
Rodovich wants to take the story back, to go back to her desk and work it out by herself. She alternates between pulling at her short brown hair and picking at the thick knit of her wool sweater. It is 9:32 a.m. at a p.m. paper and the newsroom is churning. Gartner hasn't yet seen half of his reporters. As Rodovich gets out of her seat, Gartner gently insists she stay. ``We'll get it, don't worry."
Rodovich, 24, is in her last week at the Tribune. She is going back to Hammond, Indiana, to work for the hometown Times, a larger paper. Gartner suspects she hasn't put the requisite thought into the tailgating story because she's on her way out the door.
``She may be a short-timer, but her story is slotted for today's paper," Gartner says with a small smile. He has gotten the boys, the grill and, above all, the car in the lead. The toilet paper has disappeared altogether.
On deadline, his polka-dotted maroon bow tie not yet tied today, Gartner has, with a vintage one-sentence paragraph, put the tale in perspective. ``This is the story," the fourth paragraph now announces, ``of Team Tailgate."
``You traveled down the wrong road and you didn't stop," Gartner tells Rodovich as police reporter Mike McNarney, 27, takes her place in the chair. ``I wrote the lead backwards," she says, teasing, ``so I'd get some good quality time with you before I left."
G ARTNER--EDITOR AND CO-OWNER OF the Tribune, onetime editor of the Des Moines Register and former head of NBC News--has no office. The matching glass enclosure next to the office of 30-year-old Managing Editor Jeff Bruner is a conference room. Gartner's desk is at the very center of the single room where news pages are put together, display ads are composed and production is coordinated.
Every afternoon, after deadline, this is where Gartner assembles the extensively reported, exquisitely written editorials that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. Here, Stephanie Armour, now a 29-year-old reporter for USA Today, and other young reporters have observed and learned.
``The process of watching him work was a great learning experience," Armour says. ``The way he probes sources, the way he continues to ask the right questions. He has a wonderful knack of getting anyone to say anything to him. Just by example, he would get you to dig harder for your own stories than you would have. To see him do that every day was invigorating and invaluable."
Watching him mentor young journalists reveals a starkly different aspect of the Gartner persona than the one that sometimes emerges in his public appearances. There Gartner can be curmudgeonly, confrontational, self-important, a far cry from the demanding yet supportive figure who clearly enjoys working with his young charges.
At 60, Michael Gartner wants to write, to persuade and, most of all, to teach. He has put himself in a position to shape reporters in the classic image and to help them get where they want to go.
``I won't hire people who want to change the world. I hire people who want to explain the world," he says. ``You do it by being there. I want them to see me out here working in the afternoons, because I want them to see that you gotta make phone calls, you gotta go through records, you gotta get facts. If there is anything I hope people leave here with, it is that the facts are everything. Nobody cares about your opinions. People want facts. Facts and fairness, that's what we teach. We teach them enough so that they can go to a good newspaper if that's what they want."
Gartner understates the extent of his influence on his pupils, says Julie Harders, 28, a former copy editor at the Tribune and now a lawyer in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Harders says one of her reasons for going to law school was to be more like Gartner, who has a law degree from New York University. Among the highest compliments she says she has ever received was the one from Gartner's business partner, Publisher Gary Gerlach, who told her an editorial she wrote was reminiscent of Gartner.
``In a lot of ways he was a father figure in the newsroom," Harders says. ``I count him as one of the greatest influences in my life."
Not long after Gartner took the helm of the Tribune full time in 1993, a New York Times reporter followed him into Ames. He asked the locals what they made of this former network news chief taking over a six-day-a-week newspaper with a circulation that just last year consistently topped 10,000. The Times story concluded that Gartner had come to Ames with his tail between his legs. Gartner had been forced out at NBC, the story said, in the wake of the disclosure that an explosion had been staged to provide dramatic video for a ``Dateline" report on what were said to be the potentially fatal hazards of General Motors pickup trucks. How else to explain why a major player in American journalism would retreat to a nowhere destination like Ames?
Gartner says he left the network not because the flawed report was his fault, but because he volunteered to take responsibility for it and apologize to the public. While the public found his apology sensible, Gartner says, the press demanded NBC make an example of someone. Gartner says he was willing to take the fall, having become vested after five years with the network.
He says he had always intended to settle in Ames with a pension when he turned 55. ``My partner [Gerlach] and I bought the Tribune in 1986, prior to my going to NBC," Gartner says. ``So while I was off having a good time in New York, my partner is back here killing himself trying to make this paper work. When we bought this paper [from two local families], it was pretty run down. I came back to restore some of the balance in the workload."
``He didn't come here to hide out," Harders says. ``Michael came here to show us what it is to be a newspaper, sort of shaking the foundation in Ames. When you come out of college, you hear about the bottom line in the real world, that you can't take stands because of advertisers. He is proof that it doesn't have to be that way."
G ARTNER'S EDITORIAL IDEALISM, Gerlach says, sometimes obscures a keen understanding of the bottom line at a daily in the shadow of the Des Moines Register, just 35 miles to the south. When Gartner arrived in 1993, the Tribune's circulation was about 9,200 papers a day. Circulation has climbed slowly since, to about 10,200. The paper has been distributing coffee mugs whose soothing pastels tout a goal of ``12,000 by 2000," a goal Gerlach has tied to hefty employee incentive bonuses. The Tribune's profit margin is a little over 10 percent.
Gerlach and Gartner are partners in a $20 million chain of small dailies, weeklies and shoppers for which the Tribune serves as the ``flag skiff" and headquarters, Gerlach says. The partners have bought up small clusters of family papers: five around Ames, five in Illinois, five in Colorado and three in Nebraska.
All of the newspapers have been acquired since 1986, after Gerlach and Gartner left the Des Moines Register following an unsuccessful attempt to buy it with the help of Dow Jones. Gerlach, the publisher of the Register at the time, and Gartner, the editor, had learned the Cowles family was considering selling the paper it had owned since the turn of the century. They feared that the paper's sale to a chain would bring about the end of the Register as the newspaper for all of Iowa, and that's what happened after the Cowles family sold to Gannett, Gerlach says (see "The Retrenching Register", November 1997).
The Tribune, much like their 25-year friendship, is an alloy of their contrasts: Gerlach, moderately conservative, patient and contemplative; Gartner, liberal, impetuous and decisive. The forge, Gerlach says, is their belief in financial independence, editorial freedom and the city of Ames.
``We both have a good, strong sense of journalism, but also a good, strong sense of place," Gerlach says. ``We like Iowa. We are both from Iowa. Our roots are here. Our families are here. We came to Ames not afraid to tackle sacred cows. We're not intimidated when those cows bellow back at us. I think this town was a little smug and self-satisfied. We wanted to teach this town what a good newspaper is."
And they wanted to increase both the quality of the product and the number of people who read it. In 1997, the Tribune added two new units to its presses and bought a former bank building to accommodate expansion. The paper hired Deb Withey of Knight Ridder to freshen the paper's look. Pagination made it possible to bring crisp color to the Tribune for the first time. The news hole has increased by 40 percent, in part by expanding from two sections to four: the front section; local and county news; sports; and classified. Circulation for 1998 through the end of October was 3 percent higher than a year before, after a 5 percent jump in 1997.
``We'll continue to invest in equipment and people and the community, for we like it here," an editorial last January read. ``This is, as we said, a very good community. We want to be a very good newspaper."
Gartner is known for his passionate commitment to the First Amendment, a commitment amply reflected in the Tribune newsroom. The text of the amendment, in 7 1/2-inch-high Times New Roman font, adorns its west wall. On the south wall in 4 3/4-inch letters are quotes about press freedom and responsibility from Thomas Jefferson, William Randolph Hearst and Herbert Bayard Swope.
``The management over there refers to our work as Michael's shrine," says Stephanie Nigh, general manager of Sign Pro of Ames. ``After seeing what they did, we've had some companies commission us to have their mission statements printed on their walls. I think it's catching on."
Directly behind and above Gartner's desk is a quote from Barney Kilgore, president of the Wall Street Journal when Gartner worked there. ``When Barney Kilgore ran the Journal, he came up to me one time when I was a 21-year-old kid and asked me what I was working on," Gartner says. ``I told him I was having trouble making some sense of this story, and I was trying to make it better. He said, `Good, you do that. Remember, kid, the easiest thing for the reader to do is quit reading.' I never forgot he said that."
F ROM GARTNER'S FIRST EDITORIAL IN 1993, readers knew the new Tribune was going to be very different from the old, says Doug Brown, program director of Iowa State University radio station WOI. ``I used to say Ames is the town without a soul. Without an editorial page a town has no soul, and the Tribune had no editorial page," Brown says. ``There was a kind of booster mentality, of not offending anybody, and I mean anybody. Michael was a breath of fresh air."
That breath has sometimes seemed like a frigid squall to leaders of Ames' largest institutions. Gartner directed beat reporters covering Iowa State to make use of state open records and open meetings laws. Readers in Ames learned for the first time that the school, whose student population of 25,000 is as large as the city's, preferred to operate behind closed doors.
When Iowa State blocked the circulation on campus of the Campus Reader, a free weekly published by the Tribune, the paper sued the school for violation of free speech rights. While reporters for some newspapers, including the New York Times and the Des Moines Register, had trouble deciding who was picking on whom, a federal judge in December 1997 approved a settlement increasing the availability of the Campus Reader at the school.
Until he left for the Chicago Bulls last July, Iowa State men's basketball coach Tim Floyd routinely ignored the Tribune's 23-year-old beat writer, Adam Thompson. Floyd had warned Thompson against printing stories about his penchant for berating certain players, sometimes driving them off the Cyclones' roster. After getting the Chicago job, Floyd took the opportunity to publicly upbraid Thompson at a local restaurant.
During Floyd's blackout, Gartner simply told Thompson to cultivate other sources and to deliver stories with or without Floyd's cooperation. ``I've got to say last winter, before he left, I was pretty stressed," the basketball writer says. ``All Michael would say is this would be good for me. I think it was. I'll never take what anybody tells me at face value. I'll ask anybody a question that needs to be asked. Basically, I've learned not to be afraid to go to war with anyone."
Going to war is easier when your commander is exposing himself to fire, Thompson says. Weeks seldom go by without a hard-hitting editorial directed at Iowa State. ``There is a tremendous rivalry with the president of Iowa State, Martin Jischke, and Michael," says the Iowa State radio station's Brown. ``Michael is a First Amendment freak, and Martin Jischke is a control freak. Michael is fond of saying, `Jischke thinks I'm an asshole, and I think he's an asshole, and perhaps we're both right.' "
While Jischke declined to respond to requests for an interview, former Ames Chamber of Commerce President Linda Dasher says Gartner's deliberately inflammatory newspaper style can be disruptive and destructive. Dasher once served on the board of the city-owned Mary Greeley Medical Center, perhaps the second most powerful institution in the city. Gartner has taken editorial delight in accusing the hospital of hoarding its considerable wealth.
Dasher would rather not do battle, as she says, with someone who owns the ink. But she can't help thinking that Gartner's pointed liberalism and skepticism are out of step with the Ames business community.
``I feel it's very important for the local paper to be a booster," she says. ``I think you have to be very positive about what happens in your community. They have to be aware that any money coming into the community is also coming into their pockets."
But there's little chance that a newspaper co-owned and run by Michael Gartner is going to be a booster.
When word circulated in Ames that Gartner had won a Pulitzer, Police Chief Dennis Ballantine was one of the first to go to the newsroom to congratulate the editor. Among his prize-winning editorials was a pointed and funny attack on Ballantine's decision to prohibit nude lap dancing at a local juice bar. In it, Gartner gently mocked Ballantine's conclusion that lap dancing led quite naturally to prostitution.
Ballantine and Gartner have disagreed, sometimes heatedly, on other issues. Gartner has conducted an editorial crusade to name rape victims, contending the practice would help remove the stigma for victims. Ballantine is steadfast in withholding names from reporters.
For a small-town Iowa boy who was the police chief in Ames long before Gartner arrived, there is perhaps a little too much ``city" in the Tribune, Ballantine says. But unlike some community leaders, the chief has never taken Gartner's criticism personally.
``He will walk down here, not infrequently, pop his head in the door and we'll sit down and talk about whatever we disagree about," Ballantine says. ``He doesn't soft-soap it. He'll tell me I'm an idiot when he thinks I deserve it. But I'll tell you, I've never lied to Michael Gartner and I don't know that he's been anything less than truthful with me."
Steve Schainker, who has been the city manager since 1982, believes Gartner performs the highest public service by refusing to be a cheerleader.
``We've disagreed on issues, but it is never done in a personal way," Schainker says. ``He is a staunch supporter of open and honest government. He's very consistent with those values. That is probably the reason we get along so well, because we share those values. I think those are Ames values."
W HILE THE AMES TRIBUNE MAY NOT BE your typical small daily, it does share some characteristics with its counterparts throughout the country. Staffers are going to work hard, and they aren't going to get rich doing it. ###
The eight reporters on the 19-member editorial staff (a ninth reporting position is temporarily vacant) are expected to pump out two stories a day. Starting salaries, in the upper teens when Gartner came back, are still under $20,000. Yet, reporters and editors clamor to work for Gartner, who inspires something closer to devotion than loyalty, says Managing Editor Jeff Bruner.
A 1991 graduate of Des Moines' Drake University, Bruner came to the Tribune as a reporter after a year at Mississippi's Natchez Democrat. When Gartner searched the staff for a confidant who could help him carry out his vision for the paper, he singled out Bruner. Bruner and his wife have since bought a house, and they are staying put.
``I have the perfect job. Who wouldn't want their editor to be Michael Gartner?" he says. Gartner and Gerlach, he adds, ``have made a tremendous investment since they bought the paper, and they run it as a newspaper, not just another business. Neither of them ever had to do any of what they have done. I get the impression they do it because they love it."
Basketball writer Thompson went to Cornell University with Ann Marimow, daughter of Bill Marimow, the managing editor of the Baltimore Sun. When Thompson asked Marimow for advice about applying for his first daily newspaper job, the editor recommended the Ames Tribune, which he said was one of the nation's best small newspapers.
``I knew I had a lot to learn, and it sounded like this was a guy who would teach me, not just expect me to churn out copy," Thompson says of Gartner. ``He's got a desk in the middle of the newsroom. He's not some guy you have to walk up a flight of stairs to see. And he said to me, `You put in two solid years with me and I will help you get to the next level.' I feel like I hit the lottery."
Gartner returned Marimow's favor. He recommended that the Sun hire Alice Lukens, a 26-year-old Princeton graduate who went to work in Ames after coming upon and admiring several editorials of Gartner's in an anthology of outstanding newspaper writing. Gartner's letter to Sun Editor John Carroll was detailed and effusive. Gartner has written similar recommendations for reporters and copy editors who got jobs at the Detroit Free Press, the St. Petersburg Times and USA Today.
Lukens, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, expected to find Ames hewn from a cornfield and patrolled by hogs. She figured she would be bored. After 18 months she graduated from the Campus Reader to general assignment reporter on the Tribune. Gartner granted her a rare exception to the two-story-a-day quota to afford the newspaper the luxury of her prose.
Lukens knew she would return to the East Coast, but she misses Ames. ``What I had there was unique," Lukens says. ``When I was with the Campus Reader and I wasn't in the newsroom, he [Gartner] would write one- and two-page letters with comments about how to make my stories better. He sees the whole story. But maybe his greatest skill is in knowing how to be really critical without crushing you."
While interviewing for jobs at major papers, Stephanie Armour says she was not surprised to find editors curious about what it was like to work for Gartner. Armour's job covering the workplace for USA Today's Money section is rewarding and demanding--and because of Gartner, not quite as difficult.
``He never failed to amaze me with his zeal for journalism as a craft," Armour says. ``I recall his encouragement and his support, his great pride in my success. I don't know anyone who didn't think it was an incredible gift to work with him. When I sit down to write, I still hear his voice in my head and I wonder, `What would Michael do?' "