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Michael Gartner's long road home; The former president of NBC News has traded that prestige post for what he sees as an even higher journalistic calling : editor of his hometown paper.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AMES, Iowa -- To some, Michael Gartner's job, lifestyle and address change 5 1/2 years ago might have seemed dramatic, abrupt, even sad. Before: He sits at a big desk in a big NBC headquarters office in New York's Rockefeller Center, looking down on the famed ice rink, dining upstairs in the Rainbow Room; Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel work for him; he's one of the most powerful, well-paid men in television.

After: He sits at a desk -- no office -- in the middle of the cramped newsroom of a small central Iowa newspaper, helping 20-year-old reporters write city council stories as Union Pacific trains rumble and toot along tracks 100 yards from his desk.

But there's a cyclical logic to Gartner's journey. It's a return to his journalistic roots. And Gartner, far from feeling like he's tumbled from the mountaintop, sees his current job as the evolution, not the resurrection, of a career.

Because for all the turbulence of rising to become president of NBC News -- and then resigning in the wake of some falsified journalism -- his two loves have remained constant: Iowa and writing. As editor and co-owner of Ames' Daily Tribune, he's knee-deep in both.

"Love of place. Love of job," he says. "And third is love of family."

Michael Gartner is home. He lives not far from the house where he grew up. He drives streets that once carried him on a streetcar to visit his father at the Des Moines Register.

Where he once supervised hundreds, he now oversees a news staff of 20. His audience, once in the millions, is about 10,000. His newsroom's annual budget is less than it cost to make one episode of NBC's "Dateline." Today, the man once described as arrogant and unapproachable will sit down with any local official or reader who walks through the door.

"I'm the only editor in the country with his back to the door," he says. "But it's great because people think it's their newspaper."

Far from the intense scrutiny of New York, Gartner is still getting recognized for his commitment to journalism and for his skills. Large papers are hiring his reporters. Magazines and newspapers still write about what he's doing.

And in 1997 -- at age 58, after four decades of journalism -- he became the recipient of American journalism's ultimate award. Thanks to his editorials, Gartner's paper is now "Mid-Iowa's Pulitzer Prize-winning daily."

"I really have more impact writing editorials here than I did as president of NBC news," Gartner says. Pulitzer judges called his writing "deeply affecting [to] the lives of the people in his community."

Another source of inspiration these days is the picture of a round-faced boy on his desk. A face that reminds him: No matter how rough things get, you can survive.

Ink in his blood

Michael Gartner's storybook rise to journalism's top tiers was legendary. So was his descent.

He had started at age 15 working in the sports department of the Des Moines Register, where his father spent 40 years as an editor.

In 1960, he was hired at the Wall Street Journal. At first, he was a fish out of water. He once drove into the middle of Washington Square, thinking its wide sidewalks were a road. But he grew to love New York, which would become his second home. At the Journal, he rose to become the editor responsible for the front page. It was also where he met his wife, Barbara McCoy, who later left journalism to raise their family.

Paul Martin, now an assistant managing editor at the Journal, was hired there the same day as Gartner. "I remember him as very confident for someone right out of college," Martin said. "So whatever success he had after he left here came as no surprise."

Gartner left New York in 1974 and returned to Iowa to become executive editor and, later, president and CEO of his first employer, the Register, from which his father had just retired.

When the paper's owners wanted to sell in 1985, Gartner and two friends offered to buy. They were outbid by the Gannett Co., the force behind the then-fledgling USA Today.

Gartner then went to work for Gannett, and for a year was editor of its Louisville paper. But in 1988, he made a leap from newspapers to the big-money world of television, becoming president of NBC News and overseeing Tom Brokaw, "Dateline" and the "Today" show.

Five rough years there came to an end when, in 1993, Gartner resigned. He says he learned at a Super Bowl party that "Dateline," in a story about the safety of General Motors trucks, had rigged a truck so that it would explode when struck by another vehicle.

"They wanted blood. I gave them mine," he says. "What seemed to get everybody's nose out of joint was not that we made a mistake, but that we admitted it."

Of course, it's more complicated than that. Detractors said at the time that Gartner had not served NBC well. That his manner was too brusque and he was too concerned with cost cutting.

Having detractors came with the high-profile job, he says, but he considers that old news. He still keeps an apartment in New York, and visits his vacation house in Maui, but Iowa is now home. Always has been. "I never left," he says. "I started out here and I'll die here."

'He expects a lot'

Troy McCullough feels like a benefactor of Gartner's brief reign at NBC. Two-and-a-half years ago, Gartner hired him out of Iowa State University. He's now the Tribune's news editor. He's 25.

"A lot of us are just fresh out of school, and we're really learning a lot from Michael's guidance," McCullough said. "He expects a lot from us" -- reporters must write at least two stories a day -- "and that gives reporters lots of headaches."

Also suffering headaches have been local officials, who were unaccustomed to the aggressive coverage and cut-to-the-chase editorials Gartner has produced.

Former Mayor Larry Curtis says the paper had been a cheerleader, afraid to be critical of government or the biggest local employer, Iowa State University.

"I believe when he took over, the newspaper became an opinion leader in the community," he said. "I didn't always agree with him, but at least he went out on a limb and took a stand."

Gartner had bought the century-old paper, and others across Iowa, in 1986, along with two partners: Gary Gerlach, former publisher of the Des Moines Register, now the Tribune's publisher; and David Belin, a Des Moines lawyer.

Belin's recent death at age 70, from head injuries suffered in a fall, cast a pall over the otherwise cheery newsroom, which has inspirational thoughts painted in big, black letters on its white walls, including: "The only security of all is in a free press" -- Thomas Jefferson.

"We just wanted to put out a good newspaper," Gartner says of the partners' investment.

Gartner tries to instill "passion for the First Amendment" in his reporters, who work hard for not quite $20,000-a-year salaries. But his top goal is to teach what Bill Kreger, the Buddha-like mentor to a generation of Wall Street Journal writers, taught him: appreciation of the facts.

Former Tribune reporter Stephanie Armour, now at USA Today, said she also learned this from Gartner: "Don't get daunted in the process of getting the facts." It's a lesson he taught by example, every day, with rolled-up sleeves and a phone stuck to his ear.

"I think it was hard for people to believe he was down there thriving," Armour said. "I think he's having the time of his life."

The return to Iowa hasn't been all fun, though.

On June 29, 1994, Gartner's 17-year-old, Christopher, became suddenly ill. He was admitted to the hospital, where doctors found he had diabetes. He died the next day.

Gartner can recite how many years, months and days it's been since Christopher's death. He still chokes up when speaking of him. He still writes about him. He helped name a new park in Ames the Christopher Gartner Memorial Park. Christopher's photograph sits in a frame, center stage on Gartner's desk.

"I think it's made my thinking sharper," Gartner says of the influence Christopher's death has had on him. "But the main thing is, it's made me unafraid to say what I think. Unafraid because nothing worse can happen to me than what already has."

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