A look to the Des Moines Register's future

Dale Alison was managing editor at The Hawk Eye for 27 years before being laid off in 2017, shortly after GateHouse Media bought the Burlington newspaper. -promoted by Laura Belin

Iowans should be concerned that Gannett, owner of the newspaper they’re supposed to depend upon, has been swallowed by the smaller, lesser-known GateHouse Media.

Though the new company will adopt the Gannett brand (let’s call it new Gannett, compared to old Gannett), its DNA is certain to be GateHouse through and through. Despite what’s stated in company press releases, the company’s lineage is littered with bankruptcies, antiquated technology and deep staff cuts, particularly on the news side. The old Gannett had its own reputation for cost-cutting, but it was founded by a newspaperman, Frank Gannett, interested in covering his Upstate New York community. GateHouse was created by a Wall Street private equity fund only to make money.

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Ax falls on Register's political cartoonist

Across the country, newspapers are trying to save money by cutting experienced staff and relying more on syndicated material. The Des Moines Register continued the trend by announcing dozens of layoffs this week. Brian Duffy, who has been the newspaper’s political cartoonist for 25 years, was among those let go.

A brief story in the Register’s business section on Thursday noted,

The Register was said to be the only newspaper in the United States with an editorial cartoon on the front page. The tradition extended back to at least the early 20th century, according to Register archives. Ted Rall, the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, estimated that about 20 editorial cartoonists have been laid off or retired in the last three years without being replaced.

Meanwhile, the Register’s chief political columnist, David Yepsen, interviewed this week for the position of director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. You can’t blame him for looking around. After several rounds of layoffs, the atmosphere in the Register’s newsroom must be quite depressing.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen also announced job cuts today.

My sympathies go out to all those whose jobs were eliminated. I was “downsized” myself once (two days before Thanksgiving), and even with a good severance package it is a very demoralizing experience.

UPDATE: I was with friends tonight who were outraged that the Register turned its back on a long history of featuring political cartoons prominently. They are old enough to remember the work of “Ding” Darling, who drew cartoons for the Register for much of the first half of the 20th century, and Frank Miller, who was the Register’s cartoonist from 1953 to 1983.

SECOND UPDATE: Blogger Ron Maly, who worked at the Register during the 1980s, lists others who got laid off this week at the Register. They include outdoor writer Julie Probasco-Sowers. Maly agrees with an unnamed acquaintance who predicts that firing Duffy “will cost the Register a lot more than they’ll save with his salary.”

THIRD UPDATE: Jason Hancock reports that the Register will also reduce or eliminate various special sections. The annual RAGBRAI preview will be among the discontinued publications.

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Why you should worry about the newsroom cuts at Des Moines Register

Jason Hancock has a story up about the latest round of cuts in the Des Moines Register newsroom. The people who have lost their jobs after working hard for years have my sympathy.

I was downsized during the 1990s. It was lousy to feel that far-off management did not respect the value of my work, or indeed the work of anyone around me, since my whole department was cut.

If you don’t read the Register much, you might not care about the story. Gannett had already damaged newsgathering and investigative reporting so much over the past 20-odd years, what difference could this make?

However, the political elite of this state still read the Register, as do reporters for other media. The newspaper still has the power to set the agenda for political debate and political coverage, only it will be doing so with a more skeletal staff.

I’m not optimistic about what coverage of next year’s legislative session will look like. I don’t know whether someone else will cover the Iowa delegation in Congress the way Jane Norman did, or whether we’ll just hear less about what our representatives are doing.

Even before this round of layoffs, the Register was slow to pick up on wrongdoing at the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium. Will the Register have the flexibility to assign anyone to investigative work, or will the next CIETC scandal, or the the failure to fix the Birdland levee in Des Moines, never be properly researched?

The Cityview weekly in Des Moines publishes some good investigative reporting, but that is no substitute for a strong daily newspaper in Iowa’s capital city.

Hancock says the mood in the Register’s newsroom is gloomy. Even without being directly affected by these layoffs, I’m feeling downbeat too.

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