Dark days ahead for Iowa journalism

Old-timers often reminisce about how much better the Des Moines Register used to be, before Gannett arrived on the scene in 1985. The newspaper employed dozens more reporters and editors, had stringers in every Iowa county, top-tier journalists working in Washington, DC, and a powerful voice on the editorial page.

After several rounds of buyouts and layoffs, the Register has a much smaller newsroom, with no reporters on the ground in DC since 2011 and almost no stringers for more than a decade. The cutbacks have affected every aspect of coverage. The opinion page stopped running daily unsigned editorials in 2017. Last year, the Register “dropped the daily Business Page,” stopped running high school football scores in Saturday editions, and didn’t publish the midterm election results in print until Thursday, November 8.

Things are about to get worse at Iowa’s most important news organization.

GateHouse Media will acquire the Register’s owner Gannett, the companies announced on August 5. A news release touted “Anticipated run-rate cost synergies of $275 – $300 million annually, unlocking meaningful shareholder value.”

The corporate statement promised a “stronger future for journalism” as the new entity invests in newsrooms, and an internal memo assured Gannett employees GateHouse would be a “strong partner and cultural fit,” with a “shared focus on providing impactful journalism to the communities we serve.”

Don’t be fooled. Those “synergies” will derive from a “significantly enhanced scale of operations.” In other words, fewer reporters and editors working in places like Des Moines and Iowa City–though there’s less to cut at the Press-Citizen, since Gannett already reduced its Iowa City-based reporting staff to almost nothing. Rick Edmonds wrote at Poynter that the CEO of GateHouse’s parent company “has told me and other financial journalists that he is trying to preserve feet on the street to do significant reporting, while eliminating layers of editing to realize comparable expense reductions.”

Like most newspapers, the Register has experienced a rapid decline in circulation. So the combined company, which will operate under the Gannett brand, is looking to “accelerate the ongoing digital transformations and drive growth.”

Aside from the New York Times and Washington Post, the newspaper industry has few digital success stories. Although the owner of the Los Angeles Times spent heavily to add newsroom staff, digital subscriptions are increasing at a “disappointing” rate, far below what the company needs to be profitable. Nor is that newspaper retaining enough of its existing online subscribers. What chance does the Register have? Digital subscriptions have grown by only about 2,000 over the last three years, according to figures Des Moines Cityview’s Civic Skinny cited in June.

One newspaper in Des Moines doesn’t encompass the whole Iowa media landscape, of course. Many talented journalists work for other outlets. But the Register has long set the agenda for Iowa’s journalism community, especially when it comes to political reporting. As much as I hate getting scooped by the Register on a regular basis, we all need a robust newspaper in the capital, aggressively covering state government.

How much wrongdoing already flourishes while a skeleton reporting staff is mostly occupied with chasing presidential candidates around the state? What’s going to happen when the ax falls again–I mean, when “cost synergies” are realized?

I’m dreading the answer.

A Russian joke says a pessimist thinks things are so bad, they couldn’t possibly get worse. An optimist thinks they could! In that spirit, I will acknowledge that the Register could be facing more desperate circumstances. Gannett’s not going to lay off the entire staff, as happened to the New Orleans Times-Picayune a few months ago.

More good news: in February, Gannett “rejected a hostile takeover bid from a hedge fund-backed newspaper group” known as either Digital First Media or MediaNews Group. The following month, Gannett beat back a second attempt by the entity, which is notorious for imposing “savage” layoffs at its publications. After the group acquired the Boston Herald last year, a local commentator wrote, “Just short of setting the place on fire, being bought by Digital First is about the worst outcome possible.”

So let the record reflect, “The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon” isn’t being burned to the ground. As Gannett and GateHouse finalize their merger in the coming months, I’ll keep another Russian saying in mind: hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

  • I think at least a few Iowa newspapers are owned by GateHouse Media....

    …and will this merger affect them? Somehow I think it would be hard for this story to be objectively covered by any of the newspapers affected.

    And thank you to any Iowa newspaper journalists who read this. Your work is appreciated. I subscribe to four Iowa newspapers now, and if a long-lost relative left me a bundle, I’d subscribe to more. Dark days indeed.

  • Clintons

    Many on the left see the Clinton years as a golden time. I look at it as the key moment in history when Democrats abandoned workers and embraced corporate money. Clinton, like Reagan lead the way in deregulating media ownership rules in place since the Communication Act of 1934. Our government at the time of Roosevelt believed concentrated media power did not serve the interests of the people. Clinton just saw the money. We’ve suffered and will continue to suffer as a result. Local papers, radio stations, tv stations are finished.
    What is it called when government serves only the wealthy?

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