As one of the shrinking number of Iowans who still subscribe to the Des Moines Register, I'm used to being disappointed by management decisions. The redesign to incorporate more daily content from USA Today leaves me cold. The website looks more slick but is less user-friendly than it was a few years ago. The Sunday opinion section is only four pages long. The talented Lee Rood could be exposing real dirt, but too many of her "Reader's Watchdog" columns focus on individual grievances with no public policy relevance.
As if that weren't bad enough, yet another round of newsroom layoffs is coming soon. Since the "Great Recession" set in, the Register has been cutting news staff almost every year, either through buyouts or (more frequently) pink slips. It's been nearly six years since the Register employed its own political cartoonist. Managers let a Pulitzer Prize winner go. Perhaps the biggest mistake, in terms of news value, was closing the Washington bureau and sending Philip Brasher away, along with his wealth of knowledge on agriculture and the federal government.
The Register put a good spin on changes to its political reporting by announcing this week a "new partnership" with Bloomberg politics "on polling, content and events heading into the midterm and 2016 elections." After the jump I've posted an excerpt from the paper's story on the move. I am skeptical the change will add any value for politically-minded Iowans. The emphasis seems to be on format. I don't need "an updated caucuses app so readers can follow up-to-the-minute coverage on their mobile devices." I would rather see a larger team of political reporters dig in with more background and analysis. If it's true that "There will be just one 'metro government' reporter and just two state government reporters," good luck figuring out what's going on at the statehouse during the Iowa legislative session, or within state agencies at any time of year.
The Des Moines-based weekly Cityview reports regularly on the Register's declining circulation and layoffs prompted by disappointing revenue numbers for Gannett's newspaper division. I don't share the feeling of Schadenfreude that comes through in Civic Skinny's columns, but I share the sense of outrage that newspaper veterans are being forced to reapply for their positions, with the threat of losing severance payments if they turn down a new job offer. I've enclosed details on the process below. What a horrible way to treat employees. By the end of this year, the already lean Register newsroom will have lost 16 percent of its positions.
Please share any comments about changes at the Des Moines Register, or in the newspaper business generally.
From the Des Moines Register on September 22, "Register, Bloomberg team up on politics coverage":
The two outlets will jointly produce the Iowa Poll [...]. The Register and Bloomberg Politics will produce deep and frequent survey research from the midterm election straight through the first voting in the presidential race in the state's caucuses in early 2016.
The new joint Iowa Poll will continue to be conducted by J. Ann Selzer of Selzer & Co., who has been the pollster for both the Register and Bloomberg News. [...]
The Bloomberg partnership is part of the Register's broader plan for expanded political coverage, which also includes more staffing and an updated caucuses app so readers can follow up-to-the-minute coverage on their mobile devices. [...]
The Register's current political team is overseen by Executive News Director Carol Hunter and deputy politics editor Jeffrey Kummer and includes political columnist Kathie Obradovich, chief politics reporter Jennifer Jacobs and Statehouse reporters Bill Petroski and Jason Noble.
Note: In light of this announcement, I assume none of those people will be losing their jobs in the upcoming reshuffle.
From the "Civic Skinny" column in the September 3 edition of Cityview:
First, everyone in the news department except Amilie Nash, the young new "vice president for reader engagement," must re-apply for a job, probably in early October. Each person will get two choices.
Second, if the person is offered neither choice, that person is out of a job and will get a limited form of severance.
Third, if the person is offered either of his choices but decides to turn down the offer, that person is out of a job with no severance.
Fourth, if the person is not offered either of her choices but is offered something else, and if that person turns down the something else, that person also is out of a job, but with the limited severance.
The keep-or-fire decisions will be made by Nash, who is new to Iowa and the Register and thus knows little of who's who there, by an undisclosed editor from another Gannett newspaper, who could know less about the place than Nash knows, and by a human-resources worker at the Register. That line-up doesn't thrill old-timers whose jobs are on the line.
The restructured Des Moines Register newsroom will "deliver much more," Amalie Nash told the newspaper's readers Tuesday, but the newspaper will be delivering that "much more" with much less.
The staff is being cut by 16 percent - 18 positions.
Nash, the top news executive at the newspaper, told Cityview that an "apples to apples comparison" of before-and-after employment levels is hard to say because the Register is combining more operations with its sister paper in Iowa City [the Press-Citizen]. But she said the combined newsrooms currently have 113 positions. After the restructuring is completed next month, she said, the total will be 95. Of those, 11 to 14 will be in Iowa City, the organization chart indicates. [...]
It's hard to see how the paper will "deliver much more" in some areas. There will be just one "metro government" reporter and just two state government reporters. There will be two "breaking news" reporters.