Stalberg for his storied 34-year newspapering career.
Not one syllabus could’ve clued him in to how to react when a friend and columnist at the “Philadelphia Daily News” was robbed of his life, or how to get Mayor Frank Rizzo to agree to a polygraph test he would later flunk, snatching for the paper, a hot story.But for someone who happened to “fall into” journalism, Stalberg has done OK.
While attending Temple in the late 60s, he was an aspiring cartoonist, penning
works for the student publication.
“I thought I was going to be a cartoonist so I was just coasting my way through college,” Stalberg said. “I did what was necessary to graduate, but I can’t say I got a lot from the experience.”
Stalberg, 59, is no slouch, however.
Take a quick glance at the historic Gadsden flag with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” draped on the wall of his 10th floor office at 8 Penn Center in Center City, and you know this man, the “Daily News” editor for more than 30 years, means business.
Joe Natoli, former publisher of the “Daily News” and the “Philadelphia Inquirer”
described Stalberg as so.
“Smart, funny, irreverent and a little cynical like most journalists,” Natoli said.But, “When we were dealing with budget issues, I wasn’t really catching him at his best,” Natoli continued.
“Zach was very much about the quality of the journalism that the ‘Daily News’ did and how it could improve lives in Philadelphia,” Natoli said in a phone interview.
According to former City Council member Michael Nutter and current mayoral candidate, Stalberg is easy to talk to. Not to mention he’s a “snazzy dresser,” Nutter said.
“He’s the kind of guy who I would enjoy going out to have a beer with or something.”
But after more than 30 years as a faithful tenant of the Fourth Estate, Stalberg
said he needed to do something different – the capability to be more influential
Because contrary to what most journalists believe, they’re not influencing
events, Stalberg said.
“When it comes down to it, it’s words and pictures most of the time and you’re not really influencing events.”
His role as executive director of the Committee of Seventy, a political watchdog
group, allows him to do that. He was tapped for the position in 2005.
Seventy is “… interested in fighting for [city] government that is honest and [city] government that works better,” according to Stalberg. But before he was keeping a hawk’s eye on city politicians, Stalberg was a young Philadelphian growing up near 50th and Pine streets in West Philly.
“I was trying to learn how to be a Philadelphian,” Stalberg said.”I developed those qualities that help you survive in this particular city … a combination of a willingness to do battle, warmth and accessibility at the same time.”
Then it was off to neighboring Bucks County, where he worked as reporter
and copy editor at the “Bucks County Courier Times.”
In 1971, when Knight Ridder purchased the “Daily News” and the “Philadelphia Inquirer,” Stalberg came on board as a rewrite man and then later became a city editor.
“I got a chance to experience the old era when people were smoking in the newsroom and there were copy boys at your beckon call and when you were finished with the cigarette you just stamped it on the floor … it was like being a part of a movie,” Stalberg said.
Those were the days, Stalberg said, when print was king, and there were three or four newspapers in each city.
Then came Stalberg’s encounter with Rizzo. At the time, if you looked up ‘controversial’ in Webster’s you’d probably see Rizzo’s mug. Well, not really.
“He portrayed himself as the toughest cop in America and said controversial stuff and did controversial stuff,” Stalberg said.
The mayor found himself in the middle of a bribery scandal. He denied those charges.
“We needed a way to catch up on the story and snatch it from the other papers so I offered him a lie detector test, believing that he would turn it down and that that would be the story that he refused to take the lie detector test,” Stalberg said.
But Rizzo wasn’t going to make it that easy. He agreed to take the test. He flunked.
“So it was a great story; it sold a lot of papers,” Stalberg said.”By the time the smoke cleared, it seemed to the city, that we, the ‘Daily News’ owned that story.”
Those were the high points in his career. But nothing could have prepared him for a low point – the death of Russell Beyers, a revered “Daily News” columnist who was killed during a robbery in Chestnut Hill in 1999.
“It happened on a Saturday evening,” Stalberg recalled.
“His wife called from the Roundhouse [police headquarters] and told me that Russell would have wanted the ‘Daily News’ to know first … so I went to the crime scene and then I went to the Roundhouse to pick her up and get her home and then started to call people to work the story for Monday,” Stalberg said.”… It was a little complicated, but that’s how you find out how good you are – those kinds of situations,” he said.
Stalberg said his goodbyes to the “Daily News” in February 2005. A father of three with a 14-year-old son and two daughters ages 30 and 35, he and his family reside just outside the city in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Charmie Snetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.