Big changes, worrying signs at Des Moines Register

High-profile departures from the Des Moines Register newsroom have happened too often over the last decade. A series of layoffs and buyouts left readers less informed about important topics. For instance, ever since the Register let its last Washington-based correspondent go, readers rarely hear about what our state’s members of Congress are doing, unless the story originated from a press release or comments during a conference call with journalists.

The recent turnover at Iowa’s most important agenda-setting news organization is worrying for heavy consumers of political coverage.

NEW FACES TO LEAD POLITICAL REPORTING

Let’s start with one positive development. Rachel Stassen-Berger moved to Des Moines last month and will serve as the Register’s politics editor. I don’t follow Minnesota happenings closely, but my contacts who do universally speak highly of Stassen-Berger’s work during sixteen years as a statehouse reporter in St. Paul. For the newspaper to land a journalist of that caliber is encouraging, especially since the politics editor position had been vacant for more a year. (Annah Backstrom moved up to news director in late 2016. She just left the Register to join Principal Financial Group’s marketing team.)

Stassen-Berger will soon have an opportunity to mentor a new chief politics reporter. Jason Noble announced on April 6 he’s leaving that job after a little less than two years. He will be the communications director for Jason Kander’s organization Let America Vote. Noble told Politico he believes in the group’s mission of protecting voting rights, “really important work for our political system and for our democracy right now.” I couldn’t agree more and wish him every success in the next stage of his career.

One big question mark is whether managers will implement another stealth downsizing when they replace Noble. After Jennifer Jacobs left the newspaper for a national job at Bloomberg in early 2016, the Register promoted Noble but did not bring on anyone new. So the paper had a net loss of one full-time staffer covering Iowa politics. A repeat of that experience would be terrible for all who rely on the newspaper to hold officials accountable. The talented reporters and investigators covering state government and the legislature are already spread too thin. UPDATE: According to executive editor Carol Hunter, the newspaper will maintain reporter levels. I added her comments at the end of this post.

On a related note, Stassen-Berger and whoever takes Noble’s place should make sure colleagues who normally cover other beats don’t get tripped up when they handle a political story. This MacKenzie Elmer piece from last August revealed an embarrassing level of ignorance about campaigns. “Push poll” has a specific meeting: disseminating negative information under the guise of a survey (see also here). A 30-second call blasting a candidate to tens of thousands of voters is a push poll. A lengthy survey reaching 250 respondents, conducted by a legitimate firm (Anzalone Liszt Grove Research), with demographic questions at the end to allow for analysis, is obviously a message-testing poll. Even if some people don’t care for the wording, such surveys are an accepted way for candidates to figure out how voters see them and their opponents.

Elmer’s a good metro reporter, but she was way off her beat and didn’t understand the context. Her colleagues with more experience covering campaigns needed to help her avoid getting played by allies of one candidate, instead of celebrating that she turned ill-informed “drama” into a full-length news feature.

Better internal communication could have improved this April 6 article by Kim Norvell: “Iowa mom takes on Medicaid to fight for her dying son — and wins.” Amerigroup, one of the corporations that now manages Medicaid, stalled for five months on approving heart surgery for a 5-year-old boy in West Burlington. The Register’s Clark Kauffman, Jason Clayworth, and Tony Leys have extensively covered disruptions associated with Medicaid privatization during the past two years. For whatever reason, someone assigned this story to Norvell, who usually reports on the Des Moines suburbs. In her rendering, Governor Kim Reynolds looks like a hero because her staff “immediately” contacted Amerigroup after receiving an e-mail from the sick child’s desperate mother. The surgery was scheduled quickly, and the boy is recovering well, fortunately.

But Norvell’s frame downplayed a big part of the story. This woman would never have had to fight an insurance company for her son’s life if Reynolds hadn’t stayed the course on Governor Terry Branstad’s decision to privatize Medicaid. Just last week, the state’s ombudsman confirmed what was already apparent from the Register’s solid reporting: managed care is failing many Iowans, and the Department of Human Services lacks adequate oversight of the program. Norvell linked to those reports lower down in her piece, but only after flattering descriptions of rapid intervention from the governor’s office. The reader has to make it all the way to the final paragraph to learn that this West Burlington mother had no trouble getting state-run Medicaid to cover her son’s first two heart surgeries.

Hundreds of Iowans with disabilities can’t get medical devices they need because private Medicaid providers “routinely refuse to pay for them,” Clayworth reported today. No word on whether Reynolds staffers will swoop in to rescue unfortunate children like the 4-year-old “who for nearly six months was forced to crawl” after an insurance company wouldn’t cover the cost of his customized walker.

BIG CHANGES ON THE OPINION PAGE

The Register scaled back its opinion page last summer. Michael Gartner wrote in Des Moines Cityview at the time,

The newspaper, under continued economic pressures from its owners at Gannett, is cutting back — again — and in this cutback editorial writer Clark Kauffman is being moved back to the reporting staff. He won’t be replaced, leaving the page with editor Lynn Hicks and part-time writer Andie Dominick.

And no one else.

“That is an incredible, inexcusable, tragic mistake,” former editorial writer Bill Leonard says.

And that’s an understatement. […]

At one time, the Register had an editorial-page staff of up to 10 people — writers, editors, assistants — and it stationed an editorial writer in Washington for awhile to keep a closer eye on national issues of importance to Register readers.

Now, it is a staff of one-and-a-half.

In March, Hicks left the Register to become communications director for the Iowa Attorney General’s office. The newspaper announced on April 4 that Kathie Obradovich will take his place as opinion editor. By some accounts, the Register may be looking for a new political columnist, but that’s not the impression I got from this news story.

As opinion editor, Obradovich will continue writing columns that express her own opinion as well as joining with editorial writer Andie Dominick in writing the Register’s editorials, which represent the consensus viewpoint of the editorial board. Other board members are [Executive Editor Carol] Hunter and Register President and Publisher David Chivers.

A major part of the job also will be to seek out the voices of Iowans who are working to uplift lives in their community or across the state.

“A well-told, personal story has the power to change hearts and minds,” Obradovich said. “I’m looking forward to helping Iowans tell their stories.”

Hunter elaborated on Obradovich’s new role in a separate piece.

For the next few weeks, until this session of the Legislature wraps up, Kathie will continue to focus primarily on column writing.

After that, expect to see her devote a good deal of her time to seeking out the voices of Iowans who are working to uplift lives in their community or across the state. After all, she’s seen the difference that authentic stories and involved citizens can make.

I’ve never heard of a major newspaper combining the jobs of political columnist and opinion page editor. I see the appeal for Gannett–they fill two positions with one salary. But how will Obradovich manage to write most of the Register’s unsigned editorials (assuming Dominick remains part-time) while churning out her own columns and devoting “a good deal of her time” looking for community activists to profile?

Speaking of stories from around the state, one of the Register’s most popular writers is moving on as well. Kyle Munson worked for the paper for 24 years, the last eight as Iowa columnist. Here’s how he described his future plans in a Facebook post.

I’ve accepted a new job with Principal Financial. And I’m excited about the new gig: I get to work with more friends there to help build a new “content studio” from the ground up. I’ll get to flex my news, storytelling and multimedia muscles and experiment in a lot of different ways.

Forgive my cynicism. This concept sounds like a plan to create newsy-looking advertising for Principal and its clients or business partners. Here’s hoping Munson proves me wrong with lots of newsworthy original content that isn’t getting covered anywhere else.

Any thoughts about the changing Iowa journalism landscape are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: On April 8, Hunter replied to my earlier inquiry to clarify,

We are not planning to combine the opinion editor and political columnist job.

We plan to fill the political columnist job vacated by Kathie Obradovich as she moves into the opinion editor job, as well as hire replacements for the string of other important openings we have, including chief politics reporter (vacated by Jason Noble), news director (Annah Backstrom) and Iowa columnist (Kyle Munson).

I am seeking further comment on whether managers will commit to making another journalist hire if a current staffer moves into Noble’s former job, or whether the paper may suffer another net loss in reporters covering Iowa politics. SECOND UPDATE: Hunter replied, “The plans are to maintain reporter levels. If it’s filled from within, we’d then fill behind that reporter.”

SECOND UPDATE: From the job listing for chief politics reporter, which Gannett posted on April 10:

This reporter covers the waterfront of the best political stories in Iowa, whether from the state Capitol, the congressional delegation or the presidential campaign trail. He or she is expected to break exclusive news ahead of the state and national media packs, shift quickly to cover trending news and produce deeply reported enterprise and investigations.

We’re looking for someone who can develop a deep network of sources and has a skill for storytelling across platforms. We want someone who makes sharp news judgments independently but also enjoys working with a team, reporting to a politics editor and collaborating with two statehouse reporters, a political columnist and other staffers across the room.

This reporter should be comfortable taking photos, producing video as needed and using live chats, social media and other digital tools to present news in novel ways. He or she will use metrics to understand what’s resonating with readers and will shape coverage to steadily increase target audiences.

A minimum of a bachelor’s degree and five years of professional journalism experience is required. Previous state capitol and national political reporting experience preferred. Submit at least five samples of political coverage.

  • Please

    Please, Carol! Hire some editors. The grammatical errors and lack of syntax is becoming too much.

    • Errors

      I certainly agree that there are far more grammatical errors and other language mistakes in the REGISTER than there were thirty years ago. But I try not to wince too hard and to overlook them now because frankly, I’m grateful that the REGISTER still exists. At this point, given what I read about newspaper financial problems, my real fear is that I will outlive newspapers altogether and will have to get good objective state and local reporting and analysis from…where? The PRINCIPAL FINANCIAL TIMES?

  • Awesome column

    I’ve worked at The Register and this article is one fine summary of what’s going on there.

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