Monday, January 14, 2002

Register Boss: Business Section 'Weak,' Sports Not So Hot, Either

The red flags are out.

The publisher has done her talking.

The new editor is on board.

It’s time for the Des Moines Register—once a wonderful newspaper, but now a wounded, fairly ordinary newspaper—to prove there’s still something left in the tank.

Mary P. Stier, the publisher, is hoping that Paul Anger, the new editor, can provide some much-needed hope for the future.

Stier calls Anger, whose first day on the job was Monday, a "meat-and-potatoes’’ editor. Anger comes from a sports department background, and Stier said, "Sports guys have a different way of looking at things. They know what the problem is and go in and fix it.’’

First of all, let me say that I’m very happy that Stier has so much confidence in sports guys. It’s about time they got the respect they deserve in newsrooms.

But I also know that Anger has lots of problems waiting for him at the Register.

The encouraging thing is that Stier thinks he’s got what it takes to fix some of them.

The Register’s circulation is lousy, advertising revenue is lousy, newsroom morale is lousy and some of the writing and editing aren’t so good, either.

It’s the writing and editing that Stier is betting that Anger will correct.

Stier pulled no punches while discussing the state of the newspaper with people who attended the Register and Tribune Retirees’ Club luncheon and meeting the other day.

Judging by her refreshingly frank comments, some department heads had better be looking over their shoulders.

"From my standpoint, and what I’ve told Paul, we fundamentally want to improve the depth of our reporting,’’ Stier said. "That’s No. 1.

"With all due respect to Dave Elbert, I think our business section is weak. I think it doesn’t have a mission. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. That’s part of the issue there.’’

Elbert is a veteran newsroom staffer who has been the business editor for several years.

But business isn’t the only section that needs improvement, Stier said.

"We have a lot of people who ask us for more arts coverage, and a lot of people ask us for more literary coverage on books….those types of things,’’ she commented. "That’s kind of where the crying need is.’’

The paper’s arts coverage, book reviews and locally-written movie reviews have fallen to an all-time low since the retirement of Joan Bunke and the exit of Jane Burns. As usual, there wasn’t one locally-written book review in Sunday’s paper.

Burns, who was supposed to be the successor to Bunke as the long-term movie reviewer, decided she’d rather edit copy in the sports department of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Now, sadly, the Register depends on syndicated writers for its movie reviews.

Stier also talked about the Register’s sports department in her speech to the retirees.

"I think we can beef up sports,’’ Stier said. "That’s one reason I hired Paul. I would look at ways that we can also improve sports because sports gets more readers, when it’s all said and done.’’

Anger spent 18 years as executive sports editor at the Miami Herald. I obtained this scouting report on him from someone who has knowledge of the Miami newspaper scene.

"He was pretty well liked by the Herald sports staff, especially when compared with a couple of his successors,’’ the man said. "The Herald has been in a long, slow decline since the late 1980s, much like the Register. So he should feel right at home.’’

I’m guessing that Anger (whose name is pronounced just as it’s spelled) is going to get impatient in a hurry if he finds that the Register’s sports department bosses repeat very often what they did last fall—neglect to send a reporter or otherwise arrange coverage of Valley High School’s season football opener.

It’s still hard for me to believe that the city edition of the newspaper came out on Saturday morning with no story on the Valley game, which was played less than 10 miles from the newspaper’s offices in front of a capacity crowd at Valley Stadium.

For a preview of what staffers can likely expect from Anger, Stier made these additional comments about him:

"He has great news judgement. I believe he can improve the quality of our news reporting. The first time I met him, when he critiqued our paper over a Coke, he looked through it and cited five stories that had holes in them. He was right. He said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’d have run this story yet because these questions haven’t been answered for me.’

"That’s a guy with 25 or 30 years in the business, who knows news and how to correctly go after it from the reporting and editing side.’’

While considering Anger for the editor’s job, Stier said she "talked to a lot of people who have worked with him, and I couldn’t find one person who said anything bad about him.

"They said he’s a great coach, a great mentor, and people got better under him. I heard people say, ‘He’s the best editor I ever worked with.’ One person said, ‘People in Des Moines will know Paul within six months, not because his name was in the newspaper, but because they sat next to him at a breakfast or a lunch.’’’

Many of the Register’s present newsroom problems came about, of course, while Dennis Ryerson was editor and Mike Townsend was managing editor. They were unpopular both inside and outside the paper’s offices, and the strength of the Register’s reporting and editing reached new lows while they were on board.

Typical of what has happened to the Register’s reputation is illustrated in the comments of George Wine, a native Iowan who has spent most of his life in and around Iowa City. Wine is a former longtime sports information director at the University of Iowa,studied journalism, knows newspapers and was co-author of the book, "Hayden Fry—A High-Porch Picnic.’’

Says Wine of the Register:

"As a person who started reading the Register more than 60 years ago, the decline of the paper saddens me. For years, it prided itself on being one of the best dailies in the USA, and it was. Now it’s not even close.

"The writers and photographers who used to cover Hawkeye sports were obviously proud to be a part of an outstanding newspaper. In talking to them now, I sense there is a serious morale problem at the Register.

"For more than a half-century, I started my day by reading "the paper Iowa depends upon." I couldn’t imagine the Register not being part of my morning ritual. But I dropped my subscription several years ago when the news in the Register was the same I had seen in other papers the day before

"As I said, it’s very sad. And you can quote me.’’

Specifically, Wine’s comments have to do with the pitiful product the Register is sending into Iowa City these days. More on that later in this essay.

Stier waited four months before settling on Anger as her editor. Richard
Tapscott succeeded Townsend as managing editor. He is generally well-liked by the newsroom staff, but hasn’t been in the managing editor job long enough for people to be able to draw conclusions on his effectiveness.

People who arrange the speakers for the Register’s retirees’ meetings had been trying to get Stier to appear for quite a while. After listening to her, I have decided she should display her public speaking more often. She handled herself very well in the first such luncheon I attended.

Her appearance included a question-and-answer session. That’s always my favorite time whenever someone makes a public appearance.

When Stier opened the session up for questions, the first came from Drake Mabry, a longtime editor and reporter with the old Des Moines Tribune. Before asking his question, Mabry told Stier that he was seated at a table that included a number of retired newsroom veterans.

Mabry’s question: "What are you going to do with six newsside columnists and two sports columnists?’’

Stier’s reply: "Watch.’’

That prompted laughter in the room.

Stier continued: "Do you think I’m going to tell you that in this public place?’’

Mabry replied: "Why not?’’

Mabry’s question obviously concerned the return of husband-and-wife columnists Rob Borsellino and Rekha Basu. They are being added to a news and editorial department columnist corps that already includes Marc Hansen, John Carlson, Shirley Ragsdale and David Yepsen.

Sports columnist Sean Keeler, who has been working at the Cincinnati Post, joins the staff soon. The paper has had only one sports columnist (Nancy Clark) since before the football season. And Clark still has to devote two nights a week to working on the sports copy desk in addition to writing two or three columns a week.

Borsellino and Basu had been working for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in Florida after leaving column jobs at the Register in 2000. Rumors that they wanted to come back to the Register began surfacing shortly after they left.

Mabry had more questions for Stier about Borsellino and Basu at the retirees’ meeting.

"The word on the street was that you initially said no (to hiring them back),’’ Mabry said.

"That’s not true,’’ Stier countered.

"Then the peer pressure…." Mabry said.

Stier interrupted that comment.

When she heard the words "peer pressure,’’ her voice went higher. She said, "Oh! Oh! Oh! I was so scared when all those people called me!’’

Obviously, Stier wanted everyone to know she didn’t buckle under any sort of pressure.

The rumor was that friends of Borsellino and Basu called Stier in their behalf, trying to use their "influence’’ to get Stier to rehire them. More of the rumor says that those trying to use their influence with Stier were people who mistakenly have themselves convinced they should have decision-making powers at the paper.

Stier acted as though she had heard the stuff about peer pressure as it applied to Borsellino and Basu before.

"That’s not right,’’ she said. "Here’s the story. When Rob and Rekha left, we didn’t want them to leave. Both (Ryerson) and I had conversations with them. We said, ‘Do you really want to go and do this?’ And they did.’’

But things changed quickly, Stier explained.

"It wasn’t two months after they left that they began to call and say, ‘We’re miserable.’ Let me just say they missed what they had here. They realized the mistake they had made, so conversations (about returning to Des Moines) started."

"Mainly, those conversations were with (Ryerson). At no point in time did he come in and say, ‘Can we bring them back?’ and I said no.’’

Stier thinks she knows what she’s getting in Basu and Borsellino.

"You know Rob and Rekha,’’ Stier said. "You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em—one or the other. Half of my e-mails say, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ and the other half say, ‘I cried when I read in the paper (that they are returning),’ Those e-mailers are happy they’re coming back.

"When the opportunity came to bring them back, we did.’’

Make no mistake. Basu and Borsellino are being brought back to be "stars’’ of the newsroom. Naturally, their return has caused some nervousness among the other columnists, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

I asked Stier when the first columns by Basu and Borsellino will appear in the paper.

"They join the newsroom Jan. 24, and I anticipate that their first columns will probably run a week later,’’ she said. "They have their first columns written, from what I understand.’’

By the way, when Stier was asked by retiree Walt Shotwell what she knew about new sports columnist Keeler, the publisher said, "You know, I shouldn’t answer that question right now. I don’t know much about him.’’

Stier had said early in her talk to retirees that the Register "is selling the heck out of newspapers’’ despite huge losses in advertising revenue since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It’s the first time in quite a while that we’ve seen an uptick on the circulation side,’’ she said.

Later, I asked Stier to be more specific about what the paper’s circulation figures are. In her answer, she sounded apologetic.

"I’m going to tell you and you’re going to groan because you can remember when it was much higher,’’ Stier said. "Circulation is about 170,000 daily and 252,000 on Sunday.’’

She was right about the groaning. There was some of that after she mentioned those figures. Longtime veterans of the newsroom can recall when the Sunday circulation—featuring the "Big Peach’’ sports section--was well over 500,000.

Now the "Big Peach’’ is gone and so is more than half of the circulation.

Part of the circulation problem is that the Register sends a very poor product to such cities as Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Davenport. The night before Stier spoke to the retirees, the Iowa-Northwestern basketball game had been played, and I mentioned to Stier that the account of that game was not in the Register that was sold in Iowa City that morning.

So, with no Iowa-Northwestern basketball story in the Register, which newspaper are people in Iowa City going to buy--the Register, which has an 8:30 p.m. weeknight deadline and a 7:30 p.m. deadline for the Sunday paper, or the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, the Quad City Times or even the Daily Iowan—the university’s student paper?

All papers other than the Register had accounts of the Iowa-Northwestern game in them. Even USA Today, published by the Gannett Co., parent of the Register, puts a later edition than the Register into Iowa City.

Stier knows there are serious circulation problems.

"We’ve struggled with that a lot,’’ she said. "What I struggle with is that we’re still distributing newspapers in a very old model. If we keep doing that, we’re going to become the ‘Newspaper Des Moines Depends Upon’’’

That, of course, is in reference to what it says on the front page of the paper today—that the Register is "The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon.’’

My solution to getting a decent paper into Iowa City is simple. I’d hire a guy who owns a pickup truck, load it up with city editions of the Register at 2 a.m., have him drive to Iowa City and drop off the papers. That way, the results of Iowa basketball games and a lot more news would be there for Iowa City readers.

However, I also sometimes ask myself if maybe Gannett doesn’t really want to put a strong Register into Iowa City. That might have a negative influence on sales of the Press-Citizen, another Gannett product. That theory couldn’t be true, could it?

"We’re still doing the same things and we’re losing circulation in the state,’’ Stier confessed. One thing we’re experimenting with is—starting in February—in counties where we don’t have home delivery, we are going to produce a weekly called ‘The Best of the Register.’

"A subscriber in that area can receive it by first class mail once a week. It will give the best of the Register for that week, and it will allow us to count that as paid circulation. It’s an experiment. We don’t want to lose that reader, but we can’t deliver (the paper) in the way we used to, so let’s look at different products and different modes of transportation"

"If you look at the state, what’s amazing is that there are probably six centers of future population growth that I call ‘hot spots.’ I’m sorry, but the rest of the state is not going to grow, but we are still tied to the state.’’

Stier said she, indeed, is often asked if the Register is "going to pull out of the state’’ and concentrate on the Des Moines metropolitan area.

"Gosh, no,’’ she said. "That’s our relationship. That’s our franchise. How stupid (it would be) for us to do that. We just have to ook at it in a different way on being able to satisfy that reader out in the state.’’

After Stier responded to my question about the early deadlines for the Register that is sent to Iowa City, retiree Joe Patrick had a question.

"To bounce off of Ron’s question, you pipe the paper from 8th and Locust down to the south side to have it printed. Why don’t you hire the Press-Citizen to print the Register over there in Iowa City and be right up to date with the papers that go to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids?’’ he asked

"Actually, they don’t have the press capacity,’’ Stier said of the Iowa City operation. "That doesn’t mean they can’t in the future, and we’ve talked about that. Do you know what we’re doing on Sundays with the Press-Citizen? The Press-Citizen didn’t have a Sunday paper and they’re in a battle with the Cedar Rapids Gazette (for circulation).

"So, what we do is ship the Register to Iowa City. The Press-Citizen edition has about 24 pages. They wrap the Register around the Press-Citizen, and that counts as Register subscriptions. It’s about 10,000 copies.

"It’s a partnership we’ve built, and it’s something we’ve looked at (in other places). Are there newspapers in Iowa that don’t have a Sunday paper that we can build a relationship with and satisfy the need for a Sunday paper?’’

Stier then turned to Patrick and said, "Does that answer your question?’’

Said Patrick: "Sort of. Just increase the press capacity in Iowa City.’’

The hard truth at newspapers and other media companies is this: The bottom line has taken a big hit since Sept. 11.

"It’s been tough,’’ Stier said. "It was a soft year even before Sept. 11, quite frankly. Within a period of about four days, we probably lost a quarter of a million dollars in cancelled advertising immediately, between airlines and travel.

"Every day was different. Then came the anthrax scare.’’

Stier said "employment advertising at the Register is about 25 percent of our business. It’s down 39 percent. Because of the soft advertising market, my biggest job is to manage the resources of the Register and save as many jobs as we can. I’m darn proud of that.

"We read about the Omaha World Herald laying off people, we read about Milwaukee laying off people. We have had no layoffs, and I’m doing my damndest to keep it that way. That’s what I’m focusing on right now.’’

The paper is looking for ways to both earn more money and save more money. All out-of-state travel by newsroom employees must be approved in advance by Tapscott. And Tapscott has been calling veterans from the newsroom into his office one by one to tell them about an early-retirement package.

The paper hopes to get five or six people to retire. They are being offered financial considerations.

Stier talked about "new revenue streams’’ for the Register.

"An example is that we started printing Investors Business Daily for the Denver market,’’ she explained. "That’s about a million dollars in revenue. Our circulation department said, ‘Hey, let’s try to get the Wall Street Journal to let us deliver their newspapers in this area.’ Sure enough, we got the contract. That’s another $200,000 in revenue for this year.’’

Well, at least not all of the news is bad.

Vol. 2, No. 3
Jan. 14, 2002