Des Moines Register downsizing worries sustainable food advocates

Advocates for more sustainable food and agriculture policies are alarmed by cutbacks Des Moines Register management announced last week. Closing the newspaper's Washington bureau and laying off agriculture correspondent Philip Brasher will leave the public less informed about decision-making in the capital, with implications far beyond the Register's circulation area in Iowa.

Paula Crossfield explained at the Civil Eats blog "Why Laying Off Ag Reporter Philip Brasher is Bad for Food." She noted that in the news industry, "the agriculture beat has been dying a slow death for five decades." Although some national news organizations still assign a reporter to cover agriculture and food issues, Brasher was unique because he

wrote for a Midwestern audience about food policy. It has become increasingly rare for a Midwestern paper to keep an agriculture reporter in Washington, and in fact he was one of the last reporters left reporting solely on national food and agriculture policy for a major media outlet.

Brasher was one of the only reporters who was not working for agriculture industry-sponsored outlets in the room at Senate and House Agriculture Committee hearings, and played a key role in informing the public about these as well as the inner workings of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For the most part, the agriculture industry will now have a free reign over coverage of national food policy issues in the Midwest.

Crossfield noted, "Twitter lit up when the news of Brasher's lay-off hit," and her post about Brasher's dismissal was widely linked on national food blogs. Many commenters were incredulous about the timing of the publisher's decision. Grist's Tom Philpott said the "absurd" move is "what you get when newspapers are owned by faceless corporations, not community members." Samuel Fromartz wrote at the ChewsWise blog,

Brasher amazingly was cut just as the jockeying ahead of the 2012 farm bill is getting underway. Conflicts over how to cut agricultural subsidies -- $262 billion between 2005-2010 -- are rising at a time of exploding budget deficits. Brasher was one of the few people around who could cut through the weeds of these issues, which was not only of interest in Iowa. He was also a must-read in food and ag circles.

The take away here: expect more decisions behind closed doors, with a lot more spin. Sure, papers will run a story when something big happens, but the majority of "news" will dribble out from agribusiness associations and farm organization web sites that have a big stake in the outcome -- and the public interest groups that try and counter them. With the ranks of ag reporters exceedingly thin, what you read won't be filtered with an independent set of skeptical eyes; that is, if you manage to read anything at all.

Des Moines Register publisher Laura Hollingsworth assured Crossfield that the newspaper is not abandoning the ag beat:

"While we made the difficult decision this week to close our Washington, D.C., office, we maintain a 45-year reporting veteran in Des Moines who covers the agricultural issues that affect Iowa and the Midwest. We also are augmenting his coverage with resources from Gannett's ContentOne team. Fully leveraging our resources in Iowa and Washington allows us to still provide comprehensive political and agricultural coverage for our readers in Des Moines and beyond."

With all due respect to Register reporter Dan Piller, who writes about agriculture and energy issues, he won't be able to cover federal policy-making in the same detail as Brasher. It remains to be seen whether "Gannett's ContentOne team" will assign a reporter to cover the nuts and bolts when Congress writes the next Farm Bill. I think Hollingsworth has irreparably harmed her newspaper's reputation. Core assets discarded won't easily be regained once the current "unpredictable and inconsistent" economic conditions subside.

Brasher told Crossfield, "This is a critical time for food and agricultural policy because of the deep budget cuts that are coming and the choices that Congress is going to have make... about what money there is available. It's vital that the public understands the impact of those policy choices and the tradeoffs they involve." He also observed that the Register had opened a Washington bureau to cover agriculture policy during the 1930s, when Iowan Henry A. Wallace became Secretary of Agriculture in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. It's ironic that the Register closed the bureau while Iowan Tom Vilsack holds the same cabinet position.

Many sustainable food advocates expressed hope that another media organization will hire Brasher. Although news budgets are tight, perhaps some executive will see Brasher's expertise as a valuable resource.

LATE UPDATE: Gannett rehired Brasher in mid-August 2011. His articles on food and agriculture policy appear in several newspapers, including the Des Moines Register.

Login or Join to comment and post.