By Jacqui BanaszynskiMy heart goes out, along with favorite story moments, to all who knew, worked with and loved Bob Giles. It also goes out to those of you who were not so blessed. If you are part of the Storyboard community, you have been touched by Bob whether you knew it or not. He is a major part of the reason this community exists. His death earlier this week, at age 90, is our shared loss, just as his life and legacy is our shared gift.
Formal journalism would refer to him as Robert H. Giles on first reference; Giles on second. But he was, to the legions who knew him as a reporter, editor, publisher, leader and visionary, simply Bob. It’s what he preferred, and what always felt right.
That alone says a lot about Bob. My direct moments with him were limited: An interview when I was an ambitious reporter with one Knight-Ridder newspaper and he sat in the top chair at a few others, passing conversations at conferences and contest juries when our orbits overlapped, and at times I stopped in at Nieman’s Lippmann House on the Harvard campus to be part of a workshop. During those pop-ins, he never failed to ask me to stop in his office, and made even a brief chat seem relaxed, thoughtful and memorable.
I was a frequent presenter at the remarkable Nieman Narrative conferences in the early 2000s. Bob was curator at the Nieman Foundation by then. Somehow he and his wife, Nancy, managed to make 800-some edgy journalists feel welcome and at home. They often hosted dinners at their own home for speakers, and I was lucky enough to attend one, where I met some of the journalists whom I still count among my most important friends. At that dinner, Nancy, who died in 2021 (they were married 61 years), somehow got me to tell her about my mother’s heartbreaking journey into dementia. A few months later, I received a small package in the mail: A ceramic lapel pin of a cardinal. Nancy had found out that little bit about my mother too — her love of birds even as her memory failed. Nancy remembered. I found the pin among my mother’s few remaining personal possessions when she died.
Bob had a similar ability to listen, fully and thoughtfully. That despite being a standout journalist through tumultuous times. Read his obits to follow 70 years of his and the profession’s history: This from the Nieman Foundation, where he served as curator from 2000-2011, overseeing the foundation of Nieman Storyboard, Nieman Lab and several of the industries most respected awards. And this from The Detroit News, which he guided through a tough transition to partnership with the longtime rival Detroit Free Press, through an extended newspaper strike and to greater diversity of staff and coverage. Under his leadership, the News won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting. The New York Times obituary starts with Giles’ coverage of the shooting deaths of four Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War — and, in keeping with Times style, refers to him throughout as Mr. Giles.
As I read, I took note of the arc of Bob’s time. Coverage of civil rights. A pioneer in coverage of the gay rights movement. Working hard to diversify newsrooms. Making tough decisions and compromises that would help keep newspapers alive.
As the pre-Boomer and Boomer generations age and, yes, die, and as traditional news organizations contract, we are losing what I think of as a “master class” of journalists. I once had an aspiration, as part of Storyboard, to track and feature the deaths and obituaries of journalists, known and not. But that would be its own full-time-plus beat. (The idea is there for anyone who wants to run with it. I’ll subscribe.) I learned today in The Poynter Report newsletter of the death of Los Angeles Times reporter Diana Marcum, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and a 2018 Nieman Fellow; she was only 60. There are others I come across, and so many I don’t. But they all leave careers and lives for us to learn from and be inspired by.
If you know of a passing journalist who deserves our attention, do send it along. I won’t promise an all-inclusive list, but am happy to add a note in the newsletter or on the site as things come my way.
Meanwhile, a toast goes to Bob and his wife, Nancy, who quietly and thoughtfully gave so many of us so much, whether we knew them or not.