After 41 Years in Local Journalism, Heather Ziegler Calls It a Career
WHEELING — For 41 years, Heather Ziegler spent her days — and more often than not, her nights — reporting on the latest news and happenings in the Ohio Valley.
Today, as her column on the front of the Life section indicates, she brings to an end her full-time career as a community newspaper reporter and editor.
Ziegler will continue to write a weekly column that will appear in the Sunday News-Register, but her time mentoring young reporters and serving as the newsroom’s in-house ambassador to the public has come to its end.
“There is no other job that I’m aware of that would have allowed me to work with the caliber of people I have to this day, to meet the hundreds of people who have entrusted my words or to establish friendships in so many areas of this community,” she said.
“It’s been a whirlwind career … some days it feels like I just started. I want to thank everyone who has been on this journey with me, and I look forward to continuing my connection to the newspapers and helping them serve our readers.”
Ziegler has served as a mentor, friend, a surrogate mother and trusted partner to many in the newsroom over four-plus decades.
John McCabe, editor of the newspapers, said he learned much over the years from Ziegler. They both covered the Wheeling city government beat for a time — Ziegler for the Wheeling News-Register, McCabe for The Intelligencer — and McCabe said he often, as a young reporter, would be amazed at the wealth of information she could extract from otherwise tight-lipped public officials.
“It always frustrated me when someone like former Wheeling Mayor Jack Lipphardt would brush aside my questions, and then open up to Heather on the same topic like he was talking to a lifelong friend,” McCabe said.
“It was a great learning tool for me as a young reporter on the importance of building and maintaining personal credibility in our business, and of always remembering that the people we reported on also were our neighbors. Heather had all the traits of an exceptional community journalist; everyone trusted her to report the news as it happened, and to provide accurate context on the topic. She always was professional and approachable, and did her job extremely well. In our business, that says it all.
“Her time as an editor was just as remarkable. We could always count on Heather to consider an angle of a story that may have otherwise gone unpursued, and to help us find just the right words particularly on sensitive topics. And her columns? Outstanding. Simply outstanding.”
Ziegler came to the news business the old-fashioned way — she was born into it. Her father was the late Harry Hamm, who for a half-century served as editor of the Wheeling News-Register.
Her late mother, Mary Hamm, worked in the business as well, as prior to her marriage to Harry Hamm she worked at The Journal office in Moundsville. Ziegler also had two siblings who spent time as reporters.
It seems logical that being around that level of commitment to community news would have encouraged Ziegler to seek her chosen career path. However, while it gave her that first exposure to the news business, once she started full-time at the newspapers in 1979, she was hooked.
“I didn’t choose this career. It chose me. Many people think because my father was editor of the News-Register, I just walked into the job and that was that. I worked 10 years with my father in the newsroom before he retired, but it was former editor Bob Kelly, who led The Intelligencer at that time, who pushed me off the obit desk and into reporting,” Ziegler recalled. “I was scared to death but he said, ‘Ziegler, you were born with ink in your veins. You’ll be fine.’
“I never looked back.”
Her career included stints on the obituary desk, filing clippings in the newspapers’ library, being a reporter and then, for the past 22 years, an editor. Her time in the library also allowed her to serve as the unofficial newsroom historian, as Ziegler was able to find old stories and photographs on just about any Ohio Valley person or topic that has been in the news over the past half-century.
Perry Nardo, general manager of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, noted Ziegler’s contributions to the newspapers. “Heather was cut from the same mold as her father, but was able to take those shared traits and build a career that was uniquely her own. She was a great role model for many young women who wanted to pursue a career in journalism, and her contributions to their success is tribute to her dedication to her craft. She was an outstanding editor and reporter, and we wish her the best in her retirement.”
So, after 41 years — that’s more than 15,000 days of covering local news, and reporting on local people — what stands out to Ziegler? What stories did she cover that remain important to her?
“Some of my favorite stories have been those with this valley’s military and veterans,” she said. “My favorite story was when I flew on a Navy DC-9 to Las Cruces, New Mexico, with then-Gov. Joe Manchin and Maj. General Allen Tackett. I was invited to join them as they visited West Virginia National Guard troops assigned there with Operation Jump Start along the New Mexico-Mexico border. It was three days before Christmas, and the troops were happy to talk with someone from back home.
“From the inside of a Black Hawk helicopter I saw firsthand how troops were guarding the border. I was so glad to be able to bring their stories home to our readers.
“There were other stories, some that haunt me to this day. The unsolved murders, the tragic floods and fires … they stick with you.”
Forty-one years also has brought much change to how the newspaper is published each day.
“It’s amazing to think that when I started at the newspaper, computers had only been on desks for about a year, replacing typewriters. We used 35 mm film cameras, had a darkroom where we developed and printed the photos, and a composing room that used paste-up pages. There was no internet, no Google or Facebook. We gathered and reported news by going out into the community, to the meetings, to people’s homes and businesses,” she said. “Of course, this pandemic changed everything once again.”
But as with everything, there is a time and season, and for Ziegler, a new season of life is ready to begin. “I feel blessed to have been able to do the things I have done through this career. I have met, worked for and with so many wonderful, everyday people. This job has afforded me opportunities to visit places that I otherwise would have never seen — such as the inside of a factory or the beautiful Victorian homes or a farmer’s dairy barn. Every day has been different.”