On Nov. 30, 2020, Robert "Bob" Bortel is set to retire, leaving a lasting legacy on more than 5,000 students through various forms of student media and publication.
His key to success is, “just understanding students and understanding the rhythms of what they're doing, but understanding good journalism and then trying to bring people in and listen to the students,” he said.
According to Bortel, understanding each generation and its changes is crucial in order for students to see the possibilities that lie ahead. Over the past 39 years, students have become lifelong friends.
2013-14 BG News Editor-in-Chief Danae King has a memorable relationship with Bortel, including advice that she uses while writing stories today.
“He told me he wants me to write a news lead as if you're telling your best friend what the story is about,” King said. “So, I always think about that.”
Their relationship grew when King started working for The BG News as a first-year student and her student media involvement grew from reporter to editor-in-chief.
Now, as an alumna, she considers Bortel a friend.
“It's weird, not in a bad way. I kind of always felt like we were friends when he was the student news advisor,” King said. “But now I'm not a student anymore. So it's kind of nice, because I feel like we can relate over more things.”
Teaching was always something Bortel excelled at, as he had a way of communicating with students that would stick with them.
“What he taught me is just how to be a good journalist. And I think that a big part of our job is really public-facing in what a lot of journalists do,” King said. “Especially as editors, but also as reporters, is to explain their role to the public in their sources. And that's really what he taught me to do.”
Bortel keeps close ties with alumni as they share their love for what is now Falcon Media. Alumni outreach is important to him because those are the people who he watched grow. With this, Bortel co-founded the BG News Alumni Society with 1977 graduate Bill Estep.
Estep says he and Bortel have been best friends since college, and his time at BGSU is admirable.
“I can appreciate the number, the amount of time he worked in university administration, and the amount of time he worked at one university. That's pretty much unheard of anymore,” Estep said. “That in itself is quite an accomplishment and to have been so well respected over those years.”
Bortel’s passion for The BG News doesn’t stop with alumni outreach, his retirement letter stated, “. . . my retirement will create savings that will benefit the University as it strategically reimagines how BG Falcon Media operates and best serves our students.”
Financially, he always put forth effort to help The BG News grow even when it came to personal expense.
“There's been fundamental macro challenges starting out, to try and bring financial solvency and put student media on sound footing,” Bortel said. “And we never ever got a cent from the university. For over 20 some years, we made all our own money, I paid for all the salaries, the printing and we spent everything.”
Bortel has established an everlasting legacy through his years on campus and while Estep has watched him lead numerous students, he still finds himself impressed with his longtime friend.
“The thing that has always impressed me is that journalism always came first with him,” Estep said. “And no matter how controversial a story may have been on campus, and how much pressure he may have been getting from the administration or from other areas of campus to not run a story, he always stood up for the ideals of student journalism.”
With the support and respect from alums, Bortel’s retirement poses questions for the future. Estep asks, “What are the journalism department’s plans to replace Bob? I think those are questions that need to be asked,” Estep said.
Former BG News staff member Mizell Stewart III acknowledges the loss that the community as a whole will face upon Bortel’s retirement.
“Just that institutional knowledge, you know, when you have someone who has been a part of the community at Bowling Green State University for so long, who has so many relationships on campus and within the community,” Stewart said. “Bob's longevity really has provided an environment where student journalists can continually learn and I think someone new coming in . . . it takes time to establish those relations.”
Stewart is one of many that can say they have held onto their friendship with Bortel after leaving BGSU. He says Bortel taught him responsibility in no way he had experienced before.
“He lets you know that as a student editor, you had responsibility. And you had authority, you could make decisions. But here's the thing, if you made a decision that cut corners, or otherwise fell short, somehow that decision was going to be called out,” Stewart said. “And that trust is the most important asset that any news organization has.”
1988-89 editor of The Obsidian, BGSU’s multicultural student publication, Jared Wadley tried to emulate the same responsibility and leadership Stewart saw in Bortel.
Wadley considers his career successful due in part to Bortel. Wadley is currently the senior public relations representative at the University of Michigan.
"I wouldn't have made it to this career point without Bob's help and sage advice as a mentor," Wadley said.
2011 BG News copy editor and reporter, Alissa Wildman Neese says The BG News is lucky to have someone like Bortel.
“It's honestly hard to imagine The BG News and its newsroom without Bob. Though it's a news operation that is student-led, I always felt like Bob was the glue that held everything together,” Neese said. “He's the exact kind of person an aspiring journalist needs by their side; friendly and nurturing, but also very knowledgeable and constructive in his criticism.”
Neese says one of the most important things Bortel taught her is that there was always room for improvement, meaning no news story is perfect. The use of a red pen is something only students of Bortel’s would understand.
“Bob made that clear every time he edited our newspapers with his now-infamous red pen. Sometimes it looked like the pages were bleeding. But his feedback always had us thinking about how to do better next time,” Neese said.
The red pen is something Bortel uses during one-on-one meetings with his students. Sometimes the pen could be seen as harsh criticism; but looking back, students are grateful for it.
“He would edit the papers with a red pen and go over individual articles. And he'd sit down with me one-on-one and explain the different ways I could have written an article to make it better, and put red notes in the margins, and then he gives you the paper,” King said. “ . . . it was really odd at the different ways that he had thought up to approach a story that I hadn't.”
King says at the end of the day, Bortel helped her to get where she is in her career. “He perfectly summed up why I wanted to, and why I want to, be a journalist, which is to educate people, to do good. and be a public service and to be a watchdog of authority,” King said.
Bortel says he never expected to be at BGSU for as long as he has, but ultimately he accomplished what he first dreamt of when going to college.
“My initial idea of going to school was I was going to own my own newspaper, run my own newspaper,” Bortel said. “In essence, I do, but in an academic setting, so that was kind of satisfying in that.”