This reporter stayed in the newsroom for 66 years because he couldn’t imagine doing anything else

Courtesy image

Bob Fallstrom believed unapologetically in good news. He spent more than half of his 66 years at the Decatur Herald & Review in Central Illinois writing about high school show choirs, employees of the year and school spelling bees.

The 88-year-old Fallstrom, who died July 9 about two weeks after he was laid off as the paper’s community news editor, relished writing about people who otherwise wouldn’t have made it into the 24,000-circulation paper. In a 2 ½ hour interview with a colleague shortly before his death, Fallstrom said his motto was always to answer the phone. “My theory is that if someone calls, I don’t care who it is, I will do the story if I possibly can,” said Fallstrom, who started working as a sportswriter at the Herald & Review in 1949 and later moved to the Lifestyle desk.

Although Fallstrom was a local celebrity in the agribusiness town of 74,000, he was not a big name in journalism. He didn’t write the kind of stories that brought down mayors or exposed wrongdoing or corruption. He didn’t write about the city’s high crime rate or its soaring unemployment. He liked a good yarn about a high school kid. People who raised money for good causes. He liked jazz and writing about bands like the Dixie Daredevils, which played at his funeral on July 14, bringing some of the mourners to their feet to dance with its rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” It was fitting, really. His send-off was the kind good news story he loved.

“He’s different from so many of your elite journalists,” said former sports journalist Scott Lambert, now a journalism professor and student newspaper adviser at Millikin University in Decatur. “He was the guy that wasn’t going to win a Pulitzer Prize award, but he also was going to be the guy to really affect a town.”

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

At a time when newspapers are struggling to find a way to monetize online content, engage readers through social media and boost metrics with leads and headlines crafted for web searches, Bob Fallstrom was a throwback to a time when hits and likes didn’t matter. His writing was punchy and abrupt, perhaps developed when he worked as an Army clerk at the Pentagon during World War II, but it worked for him—and his readers.

“I think Bob was always a reminder to the rest of us in the newsroom that at the base of everything we do, these are stories about people,” said Jan Touney, executive editor of the Quad City Times and former city and associate editor at the Decatur paper. “That’s one thing Bob understood so well.”

Touney, who worked at the Herald & Review from 1980 to 2003, said employees would gravitate to a table in the lunch room where Fallstrom would sit and tell stories. It was called the “Table of Knowledge.” Fallstrom, who quipped that most of his sources were dead, was the paper’s best resource on Decatur and the surrounding communities.

“I got a kick out of his being so curious about so many things,” said Steve Metsch, a reporter for the Daily Southtown who worked for Fallstrom from 1986 to 1990. “Guess that’s why he stuck at the paper for 66 years. He always had that twinkle in his eye, too.”

I grew up reading Bob Fallstrom. The Herald & Review was my hometown newspaper. Fallstrom wrote a column in 1992 about my twin sister and me when we both ended up the top scholars at our respective Illinois universities. “J is for Jacquelyn. J is for Jennifer. J is for joy, the joy of achievement.” I recited the lead to longtime Herald & Review editor Mark Tupper when we were talking about Fallstrom a few days after his funeral. He laughed. “I would have a guessed that Fallstrom wrote that even if you hadn’t told me,” said Tupper, the paper’s executive sports editor who has been at the paper since Fallstrom hired him in 1974. (I also worked as an intern at the newspaper in the mid-‘90s during one winter break when I was a graduate student in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.)

fallstromjisforinsert.jpg

Newspapers across the country—from Tuscon, Arizona, to Reading, Pennsylvania— picked up the story of Fallstrom’s death. It was notable, a man who stayed in the same newsroom for nearly seven decades because he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

In the eulogy at Fallstrom’s funeral, Orv Graham, a Decatur radio personality who sells insurance, recalled what made the newsman’s stories so special. “Now let me ask you something,” Graham told those gathered at the Riverside Baptist Church. “Do you care what kind of mustard some guy writing in whatever newspaper put on his hot dog? For the most part, probably not. But when Fallstrom wrote about those things in a story, his style drew us in. He kept the important stuff important, and he made un-important stuff interesting, colorful. That’s a quality in writing that’s hard to find.”

Amy Chiligiris, who landed her first job in journalism at the Herald & Review in 1997, remembered when Fallstrom sent her out on to cover a new public housing project for seniors. She found a couple in one of the units to talk to her. Overall, they were happy, but they had some issues with maintenance, she recalled.

“Bob spiked it, and told me to take out the content about the repairs the residents had been waiting on,” she said. He wanted good news, telling her that in the Lifestyle section, his Lifestyle section, “we do just good news here.”

Her journalism professor at Indiana University would have told her to include the good and the bad, but Fallstrom saw it differently.

“Bob saw that our community, which has been through so much as far as strikes and corporations moving away needed good news,” said Chiligiris, who worked in corporate communications for 13 years after leaving the news business. “He had a legion of seniors that knew there was someone their age who cared about Decatur.”

Fallstrom wrote his final column about his retirement, which the paper published Sunday along with a tribute it had been working on about him before he died. “I’ve needed to work in order to give me purpose, recognizing the good newsmakers,” he wrote. “The newspaper industry maintains that bad news is what people want to read. I’ve always disagreed. We need good news on every page of the newspaper, not just once a week.”

Fallstrom did not mention that he was one of three people laid off on June 24 in the latest round of cuts at the Lee Enterprises paper. The paper also laid off a reporter and a copy editor. That detail would have spoiled the story. “I’m not complaining,” he wrote. “I had a great run.” Because he wasn’t on social media, he missed the outcry over his departure from a community that held him up as a native son, even though he was a transplant from Dixon, Illinois, the birthplace of Ronald Reagan. One Facebook post accused Herald & Review editors of locking him out of the building. (That was not true.)

Fallstrom had been ill for years and twice left the newsroom he loved by ambulance, colleagues said. In his own words, he was a physical “mess,” no longer drove and had a hard time seeing. When editors told him they were eliminating his position, Fallstrom said he would retire, said Herald & Review Managing Editor Dave Dawson, who was at the meeting. “He stayed all day,” Dawson said. “He had lunch with people and talked to people around the building and called people on the phone.” He came in several times after that, and the paper was planning a retirement party for him. Editors also planned to ask him to write a weekly column, whatever he might be able to handle given his declining health. Fallstrom started thinking about buying a home computer, his first.

“He had his ways,” Dawson said. “You end up managing around him a little bit.”

For 30 years, Fallstrom covered sports in Central Illinois. He saw his role differently once he moved to the Lifestyle desk in 1982, finding good stories that showed the best in people and leaving the sordid details to the City desk.

His good news mantra came after he got out of sports. “I don’t really know how it came about, but I heard him tell plenty of people that he didn’t write negative stories,” Dawson said. “It was a part of his interest in writing about people, but he only wanted to tell the good news parts.”

Dawson said the paper does not plan to fill his position. But he said that doesn’t mean the legacy of its longtime employee will be forgotten. “We’ve got a culture in the newsroom anyway of talking about storytelling and getting people in their stories,” he said. “We’ve really tried to push people to think that way about their beats.”

At his 65th anniversary celebration at the paper last year, Fallstrom remarked on his long career, challenging his younger colleagues to beat his record. He hoped to put in another 10 years, he said to laughs and applause.

Former Herald & Review videographer Hugh Sullivan video of the party. Sullivan, who started the paper’s video program in 2006 after graduating from Millikin University, was laid off in March. It wasn’t just the good news guy who was forced out. Like so many newspapers, the Decatur paper is trying to survive on fewer readers and declining ad revenue. Does it need a position devoted to telling good stories? Is there a long-term audience for that? Maybe not. But it is nonetheless hard to imagine the H&R without Fallstrom.

“If I learned anything from him, it was about dedication,” Sullivan said. “He would make it to the office no matter what. It really is sad to see such a cornerstone of local news gone.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.