Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: WSJ legend Bob Hagerty

July 14, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Bob Hagerty has left-full time work at the Wall Street Journal after nearly half a century in journalism, most of it spent there. But he’s hardly retired.


Not everyone who starts in journalism gets to retire there. It’s even rarer that someone stays at the same publication for most of their career.  James R. Hagerty – who goes by Bob – recently left the Wall Street Journal after a stunning 45 years, one of the longest runs you’ll see at the nation’s top financial newspaper.

I was lucky enough to work on the WSJ’s real estate team with Bob for a few years. He was an amazing writer who could easily sail onto the front page — but he also stood out to me as a true class act. In a cutthroat field, Bob didn’t need to step on or badmouth others to get ahead. He was humble and his work was always the star. I learned a lot by silently observing how he treated others.

Bob’s last role was writing obituaries, a job that doesn’t get enough respect. Think about it: You are asking people for quotes during what is quite possibly the most traumatic and trying time of their lives. Yet Bob was a natural for the role: He even wrote a book about the topic.

I chatted with Bob about why he retired, his career, what he does for fun — and my own obituary:

Dawn: You recently retired after 45 years at The Wall Street Journal. What made you decide it was time?

Bob: I had a great time working for more than four decades for the WSJ in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Now I’m taking an opportunity to have a bit more control over my schedule. I’m still writing on a freelance basis for the WSJ and other national papers. I’m also helping individuals write their life stories or family histories. So I haven’t retired.

Dawn: What story stands out to you the most?

Bob: The time I did a front-page story about my mom  (Editor’s note: Bob’s mom is Marilyn Hagerty, a journalist whose review of her local Olive Garden went viral.)

Dawn: Is there a story that you never got to tell?

Bob: I would’ve liked more time to explore and explain the many ways people can be hoodwinked into overpaying for home mortgages and services related to buying and selling homes.

Dawn: You are now writing obituaries, which might seem a bit sad to some. Why do you like writing them?

Bob: Because they are not about death. They are fascinating stories about lives and death is merely the pretext for telling them. After you read the daily news highlights, cheer yourself up by turning to the obituaries and finding out how people have survived worse times than most of us can imagine and found ways to thrive and contribute to society.

Dawn: Should I leave notes for those who will be tasked with writing my obituary someday?

Bob: Definitely. Tell your own story, in short or long form. Don’t leave it to friends or family members, who are almost certain to make a hash of it. In my recent book, “Yours Truly,” I explain why and how people should tell their stories while they still can. I like to think “Yours Truly” is the perfect gift for anyone with a story to tell. Including you.

Dawn: What got you started in journalism?

Bob: My parents were both journalists. Around age 5, I founded my first newspaper, Worm Killers. I later learned how to interview people and write stories. I never came up with a better idea.

Dawn: What kept you in the field?

Bob: I’m very curious and need an excuse for asking people lots of questions.

Dawn: You held several different jobs at the Journal. What was your favorite?

Bob: Writing obituaries for seven years.

Dawn: What was your least favorite?

Bob: My first job after college was very basic copy editing for the WSJ in New York. That wasn’t much fun, but it did help me start learning what editors want.

Dawn: Talk to me about the changes you witnessed during your time there. For example, you were at the WSJ when it added a website, a big deal back in the day.

Bob: When I started, we worked with pencils and typewriters. The WSJ never ran pictures and had only one section. So many things changed, but one thing didn’t: The WSJ remained devoted to accuracy and fairness. If we were going to criticize you, you got a full chance to respond. If there was another side to an argument, we presented it.

Dawn: What do you see for the future of journalism?

Bob: I hope many people will conclude it’s worth paying for news from organizations that care about accuracy and fairness and are not just fishing for cheap clicks and pandering to those who want more reasons to hate.

Dawn: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the field today?

Bob: Don’t believe everything you think. Go see things, talk to lots of people, keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to ask what may sound like a dumb question.

Dawn: The world fell in love with your mom. How is she doing today?

Bob: She is 97 years old and still writing two articles a week for the Grand Forks Herald.

[Editor’s note: While many Italian Americans took exception to her glowing review, this grandson of four Italian immigrants definitely did not. Yes, I’ve eaten at the Olive Garden. Go Marilyn!] 

Dawn: Finally, everybody’s favorite question: What do you do for fun?

Bob: I play softball with other old men.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn

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