Friday, September 28, 2001

How This Whole Idea Began on Sept. 28, 2001

Generally, newsrooms are not the source of much happiness these days. Many of the younger people who work at places like the Des Moines Register are desperately trying to get hired by bigger and/or better newspapers; older people are hoping there will be an early-retirement program so they can flee the place that way.

But now there’s reason for some workers in the Register’s newsroom to be at least temporarily upbeat.

Dennis Ryerson, the paper’s lightweight and unpopular editor, is finally heading out the door.

Hopefully, he won’t be back. It’s no secret that I had a problem with the guy before I retired in May, 1999, but now I rejoice every day that I no longer have to deal with him. However, I’d hate to see my friends at the paper have to put up with any more of his mismanagement.

Don’t forget, he did come back one other time. After being the Register’s editorial page editor for five years, he left for a while before returning as editor in 1995.

The place has been in chaos since.

In the event you missed it, Ryerson has taken a job as editorial page editor of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.

A common theme in the Register’s newsroom is this: Good riddance.

By the way, Ryerson is not going to be the editor at San Jose. He’s the editorial page editor. Those are much different jobs.

Some staffers at the Register consider it a lateral job move by Ryerson, at best. Others consider it much less than a lateral move.

Was Ryerson nudged toward the door at the Register? It’s anybody’s guess. Whatever the case, some staffers were surprised he wasn’t gone at about the time Barbara Henry left as publisher. Mary Stier is the new publisher, and when there’s a new boss at the top, there often are changes below.

With Ryerson gone, the exit of the Register’s top two editors is now complete.

As bad as Ryerson was, a man who worked in an office next to his was even worse. Beating Ryerson out the door by several months was Mike Townsend, who was the worst managing editor in my nearly 40 years at the Register. Newsroom sources tell me that if Townsend wasn’t pushed out the door, he at least had been told he wouldn’t progress any further than the job he had.

Let me tell you a little bit about Townsend. What a display he put on in the newsroom on Maury White’s last day in the office.

White was the longtime Register sports columnist who showed up in the office nearly every day after he retired. For some reason, he liked hanging around the paper. But, on a spring day in 1999, he collapsed in the newsroom and later died of a stroke.

While White was lying on the floor, Townsend was aroused enough to think of something to say. Obviously, he should have kept his mouth shut. That showed when he asked a veteran staffer a question.

“Who is that old guy laying on the floor?’’ Townsend asked.

That, my friends, is unbelievable.

Keep in mind that Townsend had been the paper’s managing editor for quite some time. White showed up at the office probably more days per week than Townsend. Yet Townsend didn’t know who White was.

It’s hard to figure how Townsend wouldn’t have made an effort to meet White somewhere along the line. No way. He was more interested in tacking newspaper pages to bulletin boards around the newsroom, with certain stories and certain headlines circled in red. That was his idea of managing.

I heard this recently from a writer who has been at the paper a number of years. Townsend called the writer into his office one day and asked, “Well, how do you think I’m doing?’’

Somehow, the poor guy never had a clue.

People like Townsend never stay anywhere very long, and certainly no one in the newsroom is hoping he’ll return anytime soon. Townsend has already been replaced at the Register. I don’t know the new guy, but I know one thing—there’s no way in hell he can be any worse than Townsend.

But back to Ryerson, a man with a history of making life miserable for people in the newsroom.

The destruction he left is still smoldering. The paper is a mere shadow of what it once was. Fortunately, I was able to work at the paper when it was a class operation. The sports pages were called the best in America. Now they’re not even the best in Iowa. The same goes for the rest of the paper since it was purchased by the penny-pinching Gannett Co.

Let’s take a look at sports. When I worked there, we covered Rose Bowls, Sugar Bowls, Orange Bowls, Super Bowls, the World Series, All-Star games, big collegiate games (and they didn’t have to involve Iowa State and Iowa) and big professional games.

Now they can’t even find a way to cover a high school game at a stadium less than 10 miles from the office. Believe it or not, West Des Moines Valley, a large school with a ranked team, did not have an account of its 2001 season opener in the paper the next morning. Or the morning after that.

An editor told me the paper depends on the home team to phone in the results of some games in the metro area—something I find hard to believe.

Evidently, there was no call from Valley that Friday night. Or even the next day. By the way, Valley won, 55-0, and the school honored members of the 1938 and 1939 Valley players at halftime. Journalists are taught that local news is the most important thing in the paper. Hah! Tell that to the people at Valley.

Obviously, if you hope to find out the results of some local games in the future, you’ll have to buy a ticket and sit in the stands.

Then there’s the important sports column job. The Register still hasn’t hired a replacement for Marc Hansen, the veteran columnist who was finally able to get out of the sports department after showing interest in newsside column jobs in earlier years.

Sports staffers were at first told that a new columnist would be on board by the start of the college football season. The season began for some teams in late-August, for others in early-September. Now it’s nearly October. Still no replacement for Hansen, who now writes a local newsside column.

One veteran staffer told me he figured it would be at least a year before a new sports columnist would be hired.

I’m betting it will be longer than that. Maybe Hansen won’t EVER be replaced. That’s the Register Way. Don’t hire someone and save the money you’d have to pay the new columnist.

Meanwhile, Nancy Clark continues to write occasional columns. But she’s in a difficult situation. She also is a sports copy editor—in other words, she works on the desk a couple of nights each week, and that prevents her from being out in the field to do column-writing the way it should be done. I can’t think of any other metropolitan newspaper that operates that way.

An editor victimized by Ryerson’s squeeze-play techniques was Dave Witke, who has a long history of being a loyal employee. Witke had a number of other important newsroom jobs before finally becoming sports editor. There never was a fairer department chief anywhere.

But, after a few years, Ryerson found a way to demote him, complete with cutting his salary. Witke is filling out his final years at the newspaper as a newsside copy editor.

Talented young newsside reporters have headed for the exits in recent years after finding out what it’s like at the Register. They build a clip file, then head out of town.

The Register likes to say it’s big on entertainment news. True? Well, certainly Joan Bunke was a workhorse in her movie and book coverage for years. Indeed, she went to so many movies that they should have made one about her, or at least named a movie theater after her.

When Bunke retired, Jane Burns did the bulk of the movie reviews. For a while, I think management wanted to make her a star. Then Burns decided to go back to sportswriting—but in Minneapolis, not Des Moines. Ryerson might have been shocked, but I wasn’t.

Burns is a smart woman. She saw the paper collapsing around her. So now the embarrassed Register uses a syndicated movie critic.

If you want to give a thumbs-down vote to that move, take a number. It’s a long, long line.

Books? There wasn’t one book review in last Sunday’s paper that was written by a staffer.

The Register is also a newspaper with a travel section, but I use those words with caution. It’s a section with advertising and mostly syndicated and wire-service stories. Rarely is there anything written by a staffer.

Hey, it’s all about saving money, isn’t it? That’s the Register Way.

Other casualties? How about the former newsroom administrator and assistant? They were told a few years ago that their jobs were being redefined and they could--get this--apply for them, but that there was no guarantee they’d get them back. They said no thanks. The administrator retired, the assistant got another job. Just what management wanted. Saved a lot of money.

I can’t let this end without mentioning the sad situation involving photographer Harry Baumert and how Ryerson left him hanging out to dry a few weeks ago by writing a Page One story about how Baumert “staged’’ a photograph of some fish. That was classic Ryerson. He constantly wanted to pat himself on the back, even if it was at someone else’s expense, undoubtedly because he felt no one else was patting him on the back.

What he wound up doing was embarrassing a good photographer and a good man with that horrible story. In addition, Baumert was told a letter of reprimand was being placed in his personal file and he was warned to never let something like that happen again.

What a day. I hope Harry didn’t have a flat tire on the drive back home.

Maybe Baumert didn’t use the greatest judgement in his staging of the fish photo, but staging pictures is something he and other photographers have done for years.

If you’ve ever seen Baumert at a football or basketball media photo shoot, he’s trying to set up an entertaining, newsworthy shot.

Too bad Baumert wasn’t with me one day in the office a number of years ago. I was talking with the woman who had just resigned as Ryerson’s administrative assistant.

“Why did you quit?’’ I asked.

“Because Ryerson is a prick,’’ she said.

Sorry, Harry. I should have warned you.

THE AUTHOR Ron Maly worked at the Des Moines Register for 39 years and 9 months. He somehow kept most of his sanity and some of his health during that time. He was voted Iowa’s Sportswriter of the Year four times, won lots of Associated Press writing awards and a number of other writing awards that he can no longer remember. He liked covering Rose Bowls and NCAA basketball tournaments, Woody Hayes and Hayden Fry, Dan McCarney and Johnny Orr, Maury John and Larry Eustachy, Bo Schembechler and Bobby Knight, Chuck Long and Fred Hoiberg, Willie McCarter and Dolph Pulliam. But he also found time to write stories about Donnybrook, Ireland, churches in Russia and the home he grew up in at Cedar Rapids. He had fun doing what he did and he liked most of the people he worked with. But he has no plans to have a beer with Dennis Ryerson or Mike Townsend anytime soon. He plans to continue writing occasional essays about anything that interests him. To receive them, send your e-mail address to malyr@juno.

Vol. 1, No. 1
Sept. 28, 2001

[EDITOR'S NOTE: More of Ron Maly's columns can be found at]