John Rumbach · 2015
When John Rumbach became the co-publisher of The Herald in Jasper in 1993, he added his signature to the third-generation family business.
His passion remains as strong today as it was 42 years ago when he started there as a reporter.
“I'm having too much fun trying to figure out the Internet and new platforms for delivering the news,” the 65-year-old Rumbach said from his desk after a day of filling in for a vacationing editor. “Everything is changing so fast. I don't know what the next five years will bring.”
Part of the answer, he suspects, may lie in the same tool he found to improve the quality of community journalism – the pairing of good photography and words.
“The industry has made a huge mistake in shedding a higher percentage of visual people than writers,” Rumbach said. Publications know they “need a visual with that,” and too often they use stock or file pictures, he added.
Rumbach was born July 30, 1950, to Anna Marie and John T. “Jack” Rumbach. He took a year off after high school to travel the world as a stagehand for Up With People. After graduating in 1973 from Notre Dame with an English degree, Rumbach came home to be a reporter on the newspaper owned by his father's family.
At the time he thought he would work there a few years, go on to larger newspapers and eventually return to The Herald.
“But once I was here, there was no return,” he said. “I was enmeshed in the news and business.”
Three years after arriving as a reporter, John Rumbach succeeded his father as managing editor.
He maintained the commitment to community journalism that had driven his father and grandfather, Albert, but he added an element. Where his father had turned a weekly into a daily newspaper, Rumbach's contribution was understanding that photojournalism could have the same dramatic impact on community journalism as it had on larger publications.
When he first began working in Jasper, reporters and other staffers took the pictures. Yet Rumbach noticed there were more requests from readers to photograph than to write about their events. He recalls a request from the Kiwanis, which was having a guest speaker. When Rumbach tried to explain that he couldn't spare a photographer to shoot a head shot when words would be an appropriate approach, the caller said “people won't read a story without pictures.”
Suspecting photography could have an even greater impact, Rumbach began attending Hoosier State Press Association, Indiana News Photographers, National News Photographers and Inland Press Association workshops on photography and studying outstanding “picture papers” such as the Courier-Journal in Louisville and Seattle Times, as well as Life and National Geographic magazines, according to Randy West, retired editor of the Corydon Democrat. Soon Rumbach hired a full-time photographer, Alan Petersime, from the Wabash (Ind.) Plain Dealer, in 1979.
Petersime recalls Rumbach's vision: “Let's take the chicken dinners, the check passings, the first communions and the largest vegetables and turn them into storytelling opportunities.”
They added the in-depth Saturday Feature: “Words and pictures, both telling stories, each with unique insight. Stories of friends and neighbors, real people doing real things reflecting their community,” said Petersime, who retired as picture editor/photographer for The Indianapolis Star.
The ideas not only impacted the community but also Petersime and other staff. “I became a visual storyteller, a picture editor and most of all a member of the community,” Petersime said.
“We talked a lot about knowing the community and becoming a part of it. Like before your foot was even through the door at Heichelbech's, the cold beer was on the bar. The high school baseball team that knocks on your window in the middle of the night and moons you. Heck, I even managed to marry a Jasper girl.”
Rumbach said connections built during day-to-day coverage “build a currency” with sources and readers. Former photographer Dave Pierini had taken a picture of a Jasper basketball player cutting down the nets at the end of a championship. When that boy later died as a Marine overseas, his family refused any media attention, until they realized Pierini had taken the basketball picture. “It was our entry to the story,” Rumbach said.
While the community began to trust the newspaper, and sources allowed them time to develop stories, nationally The Herald, its photographers and Rumbach were winning scores of awards for best use of pictures, photography and editing in National Press Photographers Association and Pictures of the Year competitions.
Rumbach's portfolio earned him the POY Picture Editor of the Year award six times between 1987 and 2008. He was named NPPA Editor of the Year in 1988.
In 2008, The Herald won the NPPA first place for Best of Photojournalism, beating out The New York Times (second) and the Los Angeles Times (third). When it placed second three years later, judges wrote “The Jasper Herald got us closer to the human condition and more pictures with emotive moments than The New York Times” (third).
Circulation grew and still stands at just under 10,000 with nearly 55 percent community penetration.
With the national awards came job offers for Rumbach. “But he was rooted in Jasper, and although the grass might look greener, he knew the only way to have true control was to stay in Jasper,” said Rumbach's son, Justin. “And I'm glad he did. I'm afraid had he left (the community of), Jasper would not be what it is today.”
Rumbach, who is co-publisher with his cousin, Dan Rumbach, has been involved in other ways in Jasper, including helping to establish a literacy coalition and a chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and serving with Kiwanis, Lions International and others.
He and his wife, Susan, have four children – Jennifer, Justin, Andrew and Peter. And they have three grandchildren from Justin and his wife, Abbie – Hadley, Cameron and Jack.
As much as Rumbach loves work, he understands when it is time for family, Justin Rumbach said. His father is a child at heart, playing for hours with his youngest grandson, Jack.
Maybe now he can relax with the fourth generation, Justin, as managing editor.
By Linda Negro, researcher and former managing editor of the Evansville Courier & Press