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A bittersweet farewell


Last week was bittersweet. I said goodbye to both a former publisher, who provided an important springboard for my career, and a tradition.

Burl Tiedemann, who owned the Dallas County News in Adel from 1965 to 1992, was an unlikely mentor. Many saw only his idiosyncrasies. From the corner of his mind reserved for facts mined in a lifelong fascination with history and politics, he could recite every last nuance behind the Continental Congress, but couldn’t remember where he’d parked his car.

He’d catch a ride home from an away football game with a friend, and then awake the next morning to the unsettling fact that his car was 50 miles away. His late wife, Ruth, surely was a saint. He absentmindedly drove off and left her at rest stops more times than anyone could count, always driving several miles out of his way before realizing she wasn’t in the car.

I hadn’t worked at the Dallas County News for a month when I found him trying to put the keys to his bright yellow Volkswagen Rabbit into the ignition of my blue Subaru.

“Burl,” I said, “that’s my car.”

“Oh, so it is,” he replied, as if it were a mistake anyone would have made.

For all appearances that he ambled happily through life with his head touching the clouds, he was a deep intellectual who respected intellectuals, a wise philosopher who looked beyond the surface for deeper meanings. And he had a plan, though the success of the paper may have appeared to some to be a lucky accident.

We weren’t experienced journalists when he set us loose to lead the transformation of a newspaper that put chicken-dinner news on the front page to one that would look, for example, into the sweetheart deals put together by local government officials. He gave us the freedom to make mistakes and listened patiently as we talked through the humiliation of having stumbled in front of a few thousand people, guiding the discussion to that “what did you learn?” stage without ever having asked the question. He loved watching us succeed. It was, I believe, one of his great loves. I’ve had a nice career since leaving the Dallas County News in 1995, a full 12 years after I started. But if I’ve had any roses thrown at my feet, it’s because Burl built a stage and told me to sing my heart out.

When Burl died, it brought some finality to a decision he made in 1992 to sell the newspaper to new, out-of-town owners who made inevitable and necessary changes. They launched new products, beefed up advertising sales and made other smart business decisions, but the newspaper lost what had been its soul. It was an accidental and unintended consequence, the result of product expansion without a corresponding increase in staff, and a need to keep investors happy. Even if they’re not publicly traded behemoths like Gannett, newspaper groups are accountable to their investors first and the communities they serve second.

I can’t help thinking that journalism and, more important, readers lose with the changing of the guard occurring in small-newspaper towns across Iowa. Publishers who are true stewards of a newspaper nurture and improve it while it is in their trust. Corporations and groups may strive for that, but fall short because they’re not stakeholders and they’re not part of the community fabric. They’ve got no history. It’s important for them to run into sources and readers in the grocery store and meet them on their terms, not in safe inside the buffer zone provided by corporate offices. Otherwise, it’s like writing to distant cousins you’ve never met.

Beth Dalbey, editorial director for Business Publications Corp., can be reached by e-mail at bethdalbey@bpcdm.com.

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