Gannett continues to cut the heart out of the Des Moines Register

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.

From the latest Civic Skinny column:

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.

  • It is a shame

    We’ve done this to ourselves.  People typically want to read stuff that they agree with, anything else they just want to plug their ears and ignore it.  If they don’t like an editorial, they cancel their subscription.

    Try and have a discussion with a conservative about what Ezra Klein writes.  Try and have a discussion with a liberal about what David Brooks brings to the table, both sides “hate” the writers they disagree with.  Have they read their column?  Of course not.

    The internet, cable news just allows us to run over in our own little corner of the world, ignoring what goes on around us, IMO.  

    • I don't think that's the problem

      It may be part of the problem, but I think the bigger issue is Gannett’s management decisions. Civic Skinny has periodically pointed out that Gannett makes newsroom cuts even in years when the newspaper division is profitable–if profits don’t hit the company targets. In the old days of family-owned newspapers, the expectations for monthly or quarterly profits were often lower. They weren’t concerned about what Wall St investors would say about the quarterly report. Local influence and prestige was often more important to the owners, so they were less likely to let talented reporters go, even in lean years.

      • Very true

        I agree, but I wish there was more family owned everything, but that isn’t going to happen no matter who gets elected.  Even if the DPUDSA swept into prominence, people would still be trying to raise capital from large, often far away entities.  I wish we could go back to the area of family owned, small everything though.  (:  

  • Slouching toward Irrelevance

    I’ll begin with a recent anecdote. My mom just turned 94. She lives in DM. For her birthday I was going to buy her a subscription to the DMR (paper version). I got online and lo and behold, there was a special offer of 3 months for the price of one. Great! Mom will love this. Instead of putting my card numbers online though I called from CA. to customer service. Wrong decision. Long story short..they were clueless about the special offer and since they hadn’t heard about it (in Louisville where the phone-answerers live) she flat told me I wasn’t going to be able to get that deal. Now this was a deal posted on the Gannett/Register website. Rude, condescending and wrong. I told mom and she said “it’s ok son, they always throw it in the wrong yard anyway.” (facepalm)

    Newspapers have certainly been gouged massively by the Internet and its disruptions. No doubt.

    That said, Gannett’s rape (yeah, I said it) of the Iowa news and information space would qualify as an information-war crime IMHO. Their crippling of DMRegister started long before the Internet was a factor.  These guys do not care if Iowa knows anything meaningful about itself. Gannett does care that the political clusterf known as the Iowa caucuses continue to reap massive Citizens United-fueled campaign and media spending. You have to realize by now that’s the real motivator behind Gannett (and Fox/WHO) and any other media clowns still left standing in your market. I read the CR gazette online and it is still very good.

    You will find yourself with the Des Moines Press Release soon. In the future, Gannett will only need stenographers to run out to UnityPoint, Wells Fargo, Monsanto, and Farm Bureau and dutifully record the “news we need to know.”

    I’ve been interviewed by some of their “community section” reporters and I now avoid them like the plague. When Gannett goes for the cheapest writers they can, you often end up with creatures who can’t spell, frame a proper question, or understand the local implications of what they’re writing about. (Lord help us if its a story about minority concerns..)

    (Late disclaimer: I was a police beat/general assignment/sports reporter beginning in 1967 until 1975. My friend Bill Bryson Jr. and I came on at the same time. He kept writing words, I started writing music in ’70 and never looked back.)

    The current crop of so-called political reporters are the new breed that know not to ask the wrong question lest they lose “access” to the objects of their fawning desire.

    Clark Kaufmann, indeed a writer who would have made it in the Des Moines Registers of the late 60’s and 70’s. Why hasn’t his writing made a difference in the reign of Terry Badstache? (That actually says more about Iowans than it does about TB)

    The bottom line here is that Gannett cares about profit. They do not care about journalistic quality, they do not care about local nuance or culture, they don’t care about giving people great information on which to base political or social decisions.

    They care about the ad dollars they care wrest from you bacon lovers and if for a few months they have to act like they care about Iowa politics, the advertising dollars make that goal the prime directive.

    You know, now that I think of it, it looks as if Gannett might eventually just make the Register a free online edition kinda like sfgate.com where you get a digest of the day, the horoscopes, some sports and picture of blonds smiling.

    This superlative blog doesn’t seem to get a lot of comments. That leads me to believe that there are not a lot of Iowans who, how can I say this delicately…give a shit. (That is not directed to anyone on this blog)

    One last nit to pick: Comments at the end of news stories are often rambunctious but also yield a lot of insights from readers. That Gannett restricts comments to members of Facebook is another insult to those who don’t choose to be on that service.

    Truth be told though, IMHO the rot began with Michael Gartner….but that’s another story.  

    • agree

      The Cedar Rapids Gazette has been able to maintain a higher level of reporting, but they have never tried to be a statewide paper, and obviously they’re not covering central Iowa issues much. I largely agree with your assessment of the trends in the Register’s news-gathering.

      As for blog comments, a general rule of thumb is that blogs will have 100 readers for every registered user and 100 users for every comment posted. One issue many political blogs have had in recent years is conversations migrating to Facebook and twitter. So someone might share a post on social media, and then they and their friends will discuss in that venue rather than on the original site.

  • The slow demise of local newspapers is sad

    I had really hoped a business model would emerge by now, even if it was a non-profit one (like ProPublica), because someone needs to to do the investigative journalism at the state and local level, and the bloggers and TV stations aren’t going to be able to cover it all. There’s so little left to the Register anymore anyway, that a subscription feels like a charity donation already. I’d prefer to see a bit more meat on the bones, instead of more “streamlining.”  But I don’t think they really have this figured out yet.

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