Written by Colleen Bradford Krantz
Photos by Duane Tinkey
Former Des Moines Register reporter Tom Witosky has a different take than most when he considers how the world of journalism in general—and the newspaper industry in particular—is evolving in the digital age.
He likes to compare this period to the late 1800s.
Just as during the so-called Yellow Journalism era, when many newspapers became more sensationalistic and partisan as they fought for the public’s attention, Witosky believes the industry is being pressured to move that direction again during the modern digital age. Today’s journalists—as well as bloggers and other content providers—are posting to thousands of websites daily, all competing for readers.
“My point is that we are just sort of going through another period where you have a whole lot of people who want to be in the business,” Witosky, 61, said in an interview two weeks after his last day at the Register, where he reported for 33 years before taking an early-retirement offer.
“The question is: ‘Who is going to survive?’ Because just like happened back in the (late 1800s), as time went on, papers folded because they couldn’t make it. And I really do think the entire industry is going through that again because of the Internet,” Witosky said from the patio of Smokey Row Coffee Co. near his Des Moines home.
Across the United States, communities are watching as newspapers search for a profitable and sustainable business model, and as advertisers take advantage of a wider range of options. It’s no different in Des Moines, where the belt-tightening recently prompted the Register’s parent company, Gannett Co. Inc., to offer an early-retirement package to employees over age 56 with more than 20 years of experience. In the spring, 13 Register Media employees took the deal, walking out of the downtown Locust Street building and taking their collective 433 years of experience with them.
These early retirements follow repeated rounds of layoffs at the Register in recent years. Ten years ago, the newsroom staff included roughly 180 people. As of this magazine’s deadline, the Register’s newsroom staff list stood at about 80, though Gannett had another 36 “design studio” employees in the building who design pages for a handful of Gannett newspapers, including the Register. (By fall, more Gannett newspapers—an estimated 20—will be designed in Des Moines, and more Gannett employees are expected to be added to this consolidated Midwest team, one of five such U.S. regional design sites being built up by the company.)
Rick Green, who became the Register’s editor and vice president a year and a half ago, said the community is well aware of the newspaper’s history of doing high-quality journalism, and he isn’t about to abandon that tradition. “They also know that we’ve seen a transformational change. It’s been just a tsunami of change that’s unfolded, particularly in, say, the past five years. And in the entire media industry, not just the Register,” Green said during an interview at his office overlooking the newsroom. (In late June, the Register announced it was negotiating a move of its newsroom and other departments to downtown’s Capital Square.)
The question remains as to how well the community will stick with the Register through the transition. In 1970, statewide subscriptions peaked at 251,246 for the daily paper and 504,540 for the Sunday edition, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). By last summer, daily statewide circulation stood at 109,548 and Sunday statewide circulation at 214,196.
In a four-county area—Polk, Dallas, Warren and Story counties—daily circulation was 67,440 (Sunday was 121,203) in 2011, according to the ABC. Ten years earlier, in 2001, daily subscriptions in the four counties stood at 91,568 (Sunday 120,633).
A few years ago, however, an analysis for the company showed that DesMoinesRegister.com averaged more than 1.1 million unique visitors per month.
Yet even as the Register focuses on adjusting to the digital era—and dealing with the effects of the lingering recession—Gannett, as a publicly traded company, maintains its revenue and profit margin demands. Suku Radia, president and CEO of Bankers Trust Co., said these pressures have created a “perfect storm” for the newspaper industry.
“The Des Moines Register has always been a good performer but it is part of a much larger organization, and no matter how well the Register performs, the reality is you still have to look at the whole story in terms of Gannett,” said Radia, who previously worked in the publishing business as chief financial officer at Meredith Corp. “It is, after all, not a nonprofit organization, but part of a publicly held company whose shareholders want to see profits.”
Coverage of the Community
The changes within the industry and the resulting reduction in staff size at the Register have been noted around Central Iowa, inevitably raising the question of which stories vital to the community are simply not being reported or, when they are covered, lack the depth and insight needed to help readers understand their significance.
Brian Steffen, professor and chair of communication and media studies at Simpson College, wonders if, in letting that many experienced newspeople walk out the door, the Register is relinquishing the possibility of regularly producing the kind of nationally noted reporting that the newspaper once built its reputation upon. Instead, Steffen notes a strong emphasis on covering calendar-type events and social news for the under-40 set.
“When you were doing good, solid journalism and were the place in town where you could sort news from crap, you offered something that was hard for anyone else to provide,” Steffen said. “But when you say, ‘This weekend is the Des Moines Arts Festival and there will be 800 merchants there,’ I’m not saying that’s not news, but you can get that anyplace.”
Steffen, who used to report for the Associated Press and the Ames Tribune, remembers a Register house ad in the 1970s claiming that the newspaper was one of 10 dropped on the president’s desk each morning. He doubts that President Barack Obama is a regular reader of the Register. “I’ve seen the Register transition from being a nationally prominent newspaper to being really a locally prominent news source,” he said.
Radia said he believes the paper has done a “pretty decent job of trying to report with integrity” while having fewer reporters.
Radia was one of at least 10 Greater Des Moines community leaders dsm contacted to ask what they thought the changes at the Register mean for how the community is covered. Radia was the only one who agreed to an interview. The other city government, state government, and business leaders either ignored multiple messages or said they were too busy for a short interview (perhaps a sign that the Register still has enough clout that discussing its performance publicly is considered too risky?).
Radia, however, was happy to share his viewpoint. He said he respects Publisher Laura Hollingsworth and how she has tried to navigate difficult financial demands. “I applaud what The Des Moines Register has been able to do in terms of remaining profitable and continuing to try very, very hard to (provide) good coverage,” he said. “You know, when they (lost) some of the senior folks, undeniably, that is very hard. … But if you called Laura Hollingsworth and asked her one wish, her wish would be to have more journalists.”
Green said the paper may fill some of the positions left vacant by the early retirements and that the paper also plans to use more freelancers.
New Business Model
Readers need to remember, Green said, that the current financial struggles have “never been a journalism problem” but instead a business model problem.
Many days, he said, it felt as if he was on a runaway train, particularly during the tough financial times of 2008, when he was at his previous post as executive editor of The Desert Sun, a Gannett paper in Palm Springs, Calif.
“You are dealing with furloughs; you are dealing with reductions in force; you are dealing with all these crazy things and you start wondering, ‘Where the hell am I going with this train? It’s out of control,’” Green said. “For the first time, I actually feel like, you know what, I’m actually back in control of this train. This new business model, this new subscription model, puts a high value on the content we produce.”
In June, the Register implemented its new “metered model,” in which users of its website have free access to a certain number of articles, after which they need to pay for some content. The New York Times moved to a similar metered system, as have other papers. Some early numbers suggest good results at the Times, but it is too early to know whether the new approach will pay off.
Currently, the digital version of the Register generates 20 percent of the company’s revenue, compared with 1.9 percent 10 years ago.
The morning after she announced plans to charge for some content, Hollingsworth heard from some readers who weren’t crazy about the change. “Whenever you are having to make those kinds of moves, people are nervous,” she said. “I think we have to stand up in front of people and tell them what’s happening instead of having them be scared.” (One of the readers who complained, a self-described non-computer user, sent the note via email, Hollingsworth said. It included an automatic signature indicating it was sent from an iPad.)
Will readers be willing to pay for online content they’re accustomed to getting for free? Radia said the pay-for-content model’s success may depend largely on what happens in other areas and whether readers feel they must pay to get quality news.
Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media for New York-based Digital First Media Inc., believes that too many in the newspaper industry have tried to make a few small changes rather than completely rebuild their business model. “They were facing the tsunami, and they thought finding a different spot on the beach was the solution,” said Buttry, who formerly worked as a reporter and editor at the Register.
“I don’t single the Register out on this, but … they were kind of trying to prop up the old model and make it work better rather than working on innovations that would change the workplace and be something truly new,” Buttry said.
Within the newsroom, a shrinking staff and the search for solid business solutions mean that reporters are working harder than they ever have as they incorporate social media and other digital tools into their work.
“I don’t think people who left even five years ago would recognize how we operate today,” said Lee Rood, 45, a readers’ watchdog columnist and investigative reporter at the Register. “It’s the combination of downsizing with much greater emphasis on technology and online video. We just have a lot more responsibilities now.”
Former reporter Tom Alex, who spent 33 years covering police, sheriff and fire departments for the paper before taking the early-retirement offer in the spring, said he enjoyed shooting video as he went about his reporting. That wasn’t part of his job a half-dozen years ago. Alex began each day at 5:30 a.m. in the small Register office within the Des Moines Police Department building. In the last few years, Alex filed four or five stories for the paper’s website during the day, the first usually by 6:30 a.m., before working on something for the print edition.
This kind of work made sense to him, but it also took time he might have used in earlier years developing more in-depth stories, following up on tips or cultivating sources. “All of that was really fun,” Alex said. “If we just would have had more reporters, and I could spend all day on one story, it just would have been a blast.”
Adam Belz, a Register business reporter who earlier this summer accepted a job reporting for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said the reductions in staffing mean constantly making choices. “You can’t report everything. You choose what matters and write about it engagingly,” said Belz, 29. “That challenge is still the same. If you have a newsroom the Register’s size, you can do a pretty dang good job if everyone is working hard and doing a good job of it. I think the Register does.”
Green said that some of the lessons he picked up as a 15-year-old kid learning the ropes at his hometown Ohio newspaper are the same ones that remain important to him in his role as the editor of what he calls “the greatest media site in Iowa and one of the best in the entire country.”
However, he recognizes that the way reporters and editors do their jobs is changing dramatically. For example, he said, the editors spend more time deciding how and when to release a story—for smartphone users first thing in the morning? for tablet users in the evening?—than thinking about what other niche print publications the company might need.
“The only thing that would bother me about working here and the only times where I’ve had some tension with folks is when I have them say, ‘Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it’ or ‘We’ve never done it that way.’ There’s that degree of skepticism,” Green said. “I am absolutely committed to maintaining the high standards … and doing the work that really makes a difference here. That is my one commitment to the traditions of the Register. But the structure, the way it’s done, the emergence of digital and how we’ve got to play that to our advantage to fully leverage that, I’ll write new rules. We’ll blow things up; we’ll do it the way things need to be done in response to readers’ expectations.”
And the main reason for that, Green said, is because readers’ habits have changed, and they demand more from their news sources. “We are in this golden age of storytelling where you can use a vast array of social media channels to tell your story, distribute your story and have a broader impact on such a larger audience, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t have a great story,” Green said, before giving a tour of the newsroom, which managers now prefer to call an “information center.” (In another telling move, the Register in recent years shifted from using the slogan “the newspaper Iowa depends upon” to “the news Iowa depends upon.”)
The mood within the Register seems to have moved a bit more toward one of determination under its current leadership, after several years of what newsroom employees described as poor morale following so many rounds of layoffs. Some of those who took the early-retirement deal—which former reporters and Green describe as generous—are among the most supportive of the newspaper and its current leaders, Green and Hollingsworth.
The week after Register business editor and columnist David Elbert left the paper following his acceptance of the early-retirement offer, metro area business leaders held a farewell event for him. As the toasting and roasting wrapped up, Elbert took a few minutes to thank the 40-some people who had gathered at Hotel Fort Des Moines’ Chequers Lounge and to answer a question that was certainly on many minds.
“I want to tell you one of the reasons I feel good about leaving right now is that I think the Register is in as good a hands as it has been my whole career. And Laura (Hollingsworth) and Rick Green are two of the reasons for that,” said Elbert, who left after 36 years. (Elbert, like many of the others who took the early-retirement deal, doesn’t plan to stop reporting and writing; in fact, he contributed a story to this issue of dsm.)
Green, who was overseeing a breaking story that night, didn’t attend the event but heard later that Elbert had described him as being the second-best editor he’d ever worked for—the first being Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Gartner, who was the Register’s editor from 1974 to 1985. (Gartner, now majority owner of the Iowa Cubs, didn’t return dsm’s calls for an interview request.) Green was flattered.
“It’s easy to be a leader when you are living in the days of high cotton: when revenue is up and competitive pressures are down, when the resources are great and no one is asking you to do more and more with less and less,” Green said. “To me, true leadership really emerges when the great challenges are in front of you.”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
The Register’s long and proud history is one many in the community remember fondly, going back to the days when the Cowles family owned it. When it was sold to Gannett in 1985, only The New York Times had won more Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting, and the paper had bureaus across the state and in Washington, D.C. Charles C. Edwards Jr., great-grandson of Register founder Gardner Cowles, continued to run the paper as publisher until he left in 1996. (Edwards, now dean of Drake University’s journalism school and business college, declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Today, the Register faces the challenge of convincing consumers who remember the Cowles-owned years that its products are different, but still strong.
“Back in the day when the Cowles family spread the circulation of the Register throughout all corners of the state, the newspaper itself had a very powerful role in creating a statewide conversation,” said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Richardson, who worked in the Register’s newsroom for 20 years, didn’t feel that her home state of Missouri had that same kind of statewide connection. She believes the Register also helped Iowans be more internationally aware and outward looking, particularly through its coverage of international agricultural and political issues. Eventually, the Register’s Iowa bureaus disappeared and state coverage was reduced.
“As the Register has shrunk back to being primarily a Des Moines institution, it’ll be interesting for me to see going forward if that is going to have some kind of impact on the state,” Richardson said. “I still think the Register has a very powerful voice being in the state capital—being the largest and most influential media operation in the state still, especially with its coverage of presidential politics.”
Richardson, director of Drake University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said journalism students keep her optimistic about the future of news reporting: “I often say that journalism schools are one of the few places in the world that are still optimistic about the future of journalism because we are teaching our students all the basics of excellence and (ethics), and sending them off into the world to create the journalism of the future.”
Those who’ve been in the field for decades also are learning to stay focused on the future. Rood, whose journalist father won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, said she doesn’t plan to leave the newspaper industry since she decided long ago it was the one thing she wanted to do.
That isn’t to say that the layoffs and early retirements haven’t been hard on everyone. “I think everybody was sort of mystified in the beginning, and it hurt a lot if you loved journalism,” Rood said. “Now we know that this is just something we need to go through. … (and) a lot of us are waiting to see the other side. We all hopefully know by now that we are going through a transition—a big transition—and it’s not for sissies.”