NJSPJ remembers Wilson Barto

Former Times of Trenton city editor Wilson Barto‚ 83‚ whose lifelong career in news spanned more than 59 years and jobs at five newspapers‚ died Monday‚ November 1‚ 2010. Barto was the first president of the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Each year‚ awards are given to first year journalists in his honor. Find his obituary here at nj.com.

Former NJSPJ board member Seth Mandel remembers:

In his 50 years since helping to found the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists‚ there are two moments of pride that stand out to Wilson Barto involving a debate with an empty chair and a telegram gone perfectly wrong.

The latter incident took place when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the U.S. in 1960‚ and the editor of the Perth Amboy Evening News was fired for running a front-page wire photo of Khrushchev’s plane taking off from Moscow. The editor‚ Nicholas O’Dea Lederer‚ was hired back and then almost immediately fired again this time for not running a photo of Khrushchev’s arrival.

Barto‚ the first president of the NJSPJ‚ called the other officers of the chapter and they all agreed it would be appropriate to immediately send a telegram to the paper’s owner‚ John Barnhart‚ and register their disapproval.

“I sent this telegram to Mr. Barnhart in Florida: ‘Local management unfamiliar with editorial responsibilities wrecking a good daily’‚” Barto recalled.

Soon after that‚ the executive director of the New Jersey Press Association‚ Lloyd Burns‚ called Barto and said that Barnhart was “fit to be tied.”

Concerned about that reaction‚ Barto asked Burns what the telegram actually said.

Burns responded‚ “Local management unfamiliar with editorial responsibilities wrecking a dog daily.”

“Western Union‚ instead of telegramming ‘good daily’ had changed the word and mistakenly ran ‘dog daily’. And it settled the case of Nicholas O’Dea Lederer; he came back and he was there long enough to retire‚” Barto said.

Barto’s other point of pride concerns the 1961 New Jersey gubernatorial election between Richard Hughes‚ a former judge‚ and James Mitchell‚ President Eisenhower’s secretary of labor. The New Jersey chapter of the SPJ then still known as Sigma Delta Chi (SDX) arranged to host a debate between the candidates. Mitchell balked‚ however‚ and the chapter’s membership was split over whether to go ahead with the debate.

Barto called the officers and they agreed they should hold the debate even if Mitchell persisted in his refusal to join Hughes on stage.

“It was one of our proudest moments‚ because Richard Hughes never forgot Sigma Delta Chi‚ ” Barto said. “What we did was gave him good exposure before the press of New Jersey.”

Barto was the first secretary of an SDX chapter in central Pennsylvania centered on Pennsylvania State University‚ in 1954‚ while he was editor of a daily paper in the area. The following year‚ Barto came to New Jersey to edit the Daily Home News and wanted to open an SDX chapter in the state. At the time‚ New Jersey-based journalists would participate in the SDX New York chapter.

“And for young reporters that was pretty expensive stuff‚” Barto said of the cost to travel into the city regularly on a reporter’s salary.

So Barto wrote to the national office of the SDX and asked for a list of SDX members in New Jersey. He and another active New Jersey journalist took the lead‚ and after Princeton Packet owner Barney Kilgore paid the group’s $81 initiation fee‚ the chapter started meeting at North Brunswick’s Flagpost Inn. The chapter began with 29 members (though SDX was not yet admitting women or public relations professionals).

Barto was pleased with the amount of interest in the chapter but not surprised.

“The newspaper business was swingin’ at that time‚” he said. “I came through in the golden years.”

Under Barto’s leadership the chapter even inaugurated a “talented typewriter” award to encourage the young journalists’ talent; the chapter currently has an award named for Barto‚ which rewards the work of outstanding first-year reporters.

Barto has also watched the altering of the industry’s landscape from those “golden years” to much leaner times. He sees the consolidation of print media in New Jersey and elsewhere by large companies resulting in a less independent crop of newspapers as one of the side effects of the expense of owning a newspaper. He remembers when the New York Sun closed in 1950‚ the Associated Press columnist Harold V. “Hal” Boyle responded by noting that “the sad thing about newspapers is that the people who love them don’t have the money to own them.”

While he admits that he “fears” for journalists‚ he tells them to stick it out. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper man‚” he said.

True to that characterization‚ Barto only two weeks ago retired from journalism. He had been covering local news for a paper in Montgomery County‚ Penn. outside of Philadelphia. It’s technically his second retirement‚ since he once retired as the editor of the Trentonian. In fact‚ he was the only person to serve as an editor of both the Trentonian and the Trenton Times.

“It’s a wonder I’m not cross-eyed‚” he quipped.

To add to his list of “firsts‚ ” Barto was also New Jersey’s first newspaper ombudsman‚ while he was working at the Trenton Times “a fantastic assignment‚” he said.

As ombudsman‚ he was not an editorial authority at the paper‚ but rather handled complaints and gave a daily report on what the paper was doing right and wrong.

“And my old journalism professor at Penn State‚ when I wrote to him about it‚ he said‚ ‘just make sure that you spend as much time congratulating reporters as you do criticizing them.’ I always remembered that‚” Barto said.

Barto is happy to impart some advice to the next generation though that piece of advice won’t surprise those who have followed his career.

“This is easy for me to say‚ ” Barto said. “But I would say for God’s sake hang on. It takes commitment from the day you step into the first newsroom. You have to hang on; you’ve got the commitment if you can hang on.”

Still‚ in exhorting journalists to stick it out‚ Barto freely acknowledges that the tide he swam against wasn’t quite as daunting as what young reporters face today.

“I got my tail feathers over the fence just in time‚” he said.

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