More newsroom layoffs at the Des Moines Register

Five months into Rick Green’s tenure as editor of The Des Moines Register, the newspaper is culling its newsroom staff again. The sad details are after the jump.

The 13 employees laid off this week include senior reporter Jane Schorer Meisner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1991. I vividly remember her series of reports about a rape victim who agreed to let the Register publish her name.

Award-winning photographer John Gaps III lost his job too and told KCCI-TV, “I was being paid very well. And I earned that pay. I earned every dollar of it. But when it comes down to it, there comes a point where they can’t afford you any more.”

According to WHO-TV, Washington bureau reporter Philip Brasher is also getting the ax. That will hurt the Register’s coverage of Congress and federal government news affecting Iowa. Coverage from the capital suffered when Jane Norman was laid off in 2008 after 20 years of working for the Register.

I’m surprised the Register let go sports columnist Sean Keeler. I would think his column is one of the more widely-read parts of the paper. Mike Hlas wrote in the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

Keeler is a supremely talented writer who proved that time after time in his work for the Register. It sure looked like he embraced the changes to our business as much as anyone at his paper. He blogged on the Register’s website, held live chats with readers every week, hosted webcasts, reached out to readers via social media, and continued to write essays and features that required a lot of thought and commitment and skill. He added genuine value to his company.

A lot of companies still reciprocate when that happens. Gannett clearly isn’t among them, unless the value an employee brings comes from reducing the rest of the work force.

Horse racing reporter Dan Johnson was also laid off. KCCI reported a few other job cuts: Assistant Photo Editor Arturo Fernandez, Community Publications Editor Deb Belt, and Assistant Managing Editor Vickie Ashwill.

The layoffs are part of 700 job cuts nationwide at newspapers owned by the Register’s parent company, Gannett. A memo from Gannett to employees noted,

“As we reach the mid-point of the year, the economic recovery is not happening as quickly or favorably as we had hoped and continues to impact our U.S. community media organizations. […] While we are seeing improved circulation results and audience growth, weakness in the real estate sector, slow job creation and now softer auto ad demand continue to challenge revenue growth in the division.

“National advertising remains soft and with many of our local advertisers reducing their overall budgets, we need to take further steps to align our costs with the current revenue trends. Each of our local media organizations faces its own market conditions, challenges and opportunities. Therefore, it has been up to each local publisher to determine his or her unique course of action.

The Register’s publisher Laura Hollingsworth said, “The economic conditions are not nearly as good as we had hoped as we hit the midpoint of the year, and they are unpredictable and inconsistent.” By the times conditions become predictable and consistent, she will barely have a newspaper left. Former Register columnist Ken Fuson told WHO,

“It has nothing to do with work or productivity or talent,” Fuson said. “If they can lay off (popular cartoonist) Brian Duffy, they can lay off anybody, but this really surprised me.” […]

“Are you going to let Clark Coffman [sic], one of the best investigative reporters in the country spend eight months on a project that produces real news, or is he going to have to be out covering spot news somewhere or a local politician’s speech because they don’t have anybody else to cover it? Those are the kind of questions that they’re going to have to face.”

That’s Clark Kauffman, who has been the lead Register reporter on high-profile stories such as flawed oversight of Iowa nursing homes and the abuse of mentally challenged workers in an Atalissa facility.

WHO noted that Gannett’s “CEO Craig Dubow was paid $4.9 million in 2010, double his 2009 pay. He also received a cash bonus of $1.75 million for implementing cost-cutting measures, including company-wide layoffs in 2010.” What a disgrace to reward the top boss while Gannett newsrooms across the country have been decimated.

This economy is tough on newspapers and other media outlets that depend on advertising, but the Register’s news coverage has already been thin thanks to repeated rounds of layoffs during the past few years. More people are bound to conclude the paper doesn’t have enough added value to be worth the subscription cost.  

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