Thursday, July 28, 2005

Talent Leaves, Paper Crumbles, But Be Glad Marc Hansen Is Still There

We all know the problems.

Well, some of them anyway.

After Gannett bought the Des Moines Register, things went to hell in a hurry. The travel budget dried up. Hell, they wouldn’t even pay for a lunch in Ames when a guy was up there for 10 hours to write about a coach who was being canned. They brought in creeps with names like Townsend and Ryerson. A sports section that once was called the world’s greatest suddenly wouldn’t even send photographers to Iowa and Iowa State football games on the road. A guy who ran the department didn’t have enough sense to assign a reporter to the Valley High School season football opener.

An editor and a managing editor—evidently finding out that they liked going to more places with each other than afternoon news meetings--had already skipped town together, each leaving a spouse behind. Gene Raffensperger, Joan Bunke and Walt Shotwell retired. Bernie Owens went to law school. Newsside reporters broke each other’s ribs while hurrying out the door to jobs at the Chicago Tribune. People in Des Moines did what people everywhere else were doing. They quit buying the paper. Instead, they watched Bachman and Murphy on Channel 13, and they read the Internet.

But Marc Hansen stayed.

That says something about stability in the newspaper business. What it says I’m not sure, but it says something.

Intelligent. Dependable. Fine writer. Nice guy.

That’s Marc Hansen.

Hansen showed up at the Register retirees’ lunch the other day at Baker’s Cafeteria in Windsor Heights, and talked about the newspaper business. He came to the local paper in 1978 when he was 25, and he’s 52 now.

I don’t know if that means he tried to get a lot of other jobs, and failed, or if he likes Des Moines so much that he can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather write columns.

Whatever, it’s good to have him around. I enjoyed his style, his wit and his friendship when I worked with him for more than 20 years, and I still like to get his take on what’s going on in the world around him.

Hansen told the 70- and 80-something retirees [well, at least one of them wasn’t 70 yet!] what they wanted to hear—stuff like, “I sit among all those interns in the office, so it’s really great to be here. I feel like an intern today,” and, “I notice there’s an emergency exit door right behind me here,” meaning he could make a quick getaway if needed.

No getaway was necessary. Hansen did a nice job of summarizing his career and covering what some people who have been out of the loop wanted to know about the Register. He did what he said he’d do—he talked for a few minutes, then fielded questions.

I was particularly happy that he talked a lot about me. And even my desk.

“Looking at Maly’s desk, I often wondered if Johnny Gosch was lost in there,” Hansen said.

Smart-ass comment, yes, but it showed that Hansen was a pretty observant guy.

I think he meant my desk for more than 39 years had the appearance of the city dump. That’s what a hard-working guy’s desk is supposed to look like. What I’d like to know, though, is how the hell Hansen knew what my desk looked like. In those days, he wrote his sports columns at home, and some people thought he was actually Jim Murray’s illegitimate son.

“Turnbull, your desk was the neatest,” Hansen said of Buck Turnbull’s work area, which looked like it belonged in an insurance company that still hadn’t hired any employees.

When Jim Gannon was the paper’s managing editor a number of years ago, one of the two good things he did was ban smoking in the newsroom. For some reason, I can’t think of what the other good thing was.

“I was talking to [columnist] John Carlson the other day,” Hansen said. “Not only was smoking permitted, but you could do anything with your cigarettes. One day Carlson, who was a smoker, was looking for an ashtray.

“Laddie Paul came up to him and ripped the cigarette out of Carlson’s mouth and threw it on the floor, saying, ‘Here’s the ashtray.’”

Laddie Paul is gone now, and so are the cigarettes. Laddie works at the New York Times, where they maybe call him Laurence Paul now.

In the old days, Hansen said Register people even – excuse the expression – drank.

Occasionally, even in the office.

But those who did that had bigger problems than what Hansen talked about.

“When I worked on the sports copy desk, I quickly learned that plugging your meter didn’t mean plugging your meter,” he said.

In other words, plugging your meter sometimes took a couple of hours at places called “The Office” and “T&T.”

Yes, they were bars.

“Raff, you remember this one,” Hansen said to Gene Raffensperger, a multi-talented, longtime Register employee who included sports editor, city editor and Eastern Iowa Bureau chief among the jobs he held.

Raff wasn’t sure he wanted to remember what Hansen had to say.

“Raff thought it was a good idea when he was sports editor to see what was going on with the copy desk at night,” Hansen explained. “Everyone on the desk liked that. Raff would come in and help us all out.

“Then, after the first edition closed, there would be a break and we would go to lunch.”

[Lots of laughs among the retirees now. Lunch meant the liquid variety. In those days, pastrami-on-rye often was spelled and tasted like Bud Light].

“When we’d go to The Office or T&T, I don’t think Raff ever came back,” Hansen said. “Other people from the desk kept going over there, but never returned. Finally, Bernie Owens, who was the sports news editor that night, was the only one left to put out the paper.

“Bernie was upset, but we said, ‘Hey, the boss is here.’

“I doubt that would happen these days.”

No wonder Owens became a lawyer.

Hansen’s appearance was only the second such retirees’ meeting I have attended. The first was in January, 2002, when local paper publisher Mary P. Stier spoke.

It was then that Stier admitted there were problem areas in the newsroom. Among them were the business and sports departments.

“With all due respect to Dave Elbert, I think our business section is weak,” Stier said. “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 was called the business editor then, and is still called the business editor, He also writes columns, but I hear that he is no longer involved in editorial decisions. Figure that one out. Whether the business page has more of a mission now than it did when Stier talked to the retirees, I’m not sure. Actually, I doubt it.

“I think we can beef up sports,” Stier told the retirees in 2002.

One of the reasons she made that comment was because the sports section occasionally went to press without stories on some of the local high school football games. That was pretty embarrassing stuff, especially when the bosses were ready to put on a big push to publish new sections that included the “West Des Moines Register” so they could try to sell a few papers in the suburbs.

Sadly, the “beefing up of sports” that Stier said needed to happen still hasn’t. Randy Brubaker, who was out of touch with what was going on at both the local and national levels, was dumped as the paper’s sports editor a few months ago. So it’s obvious the bosses still aren’t happy with a department that continues to have the appearance of a sinking ship.

Losing Hansen as the No. 1 sports columnist sure didn’t help matters.

Since moving from the sports copy desk and writing sports columns, Hansen now writes for the Metro & Iowa section of the paper. He has made the transition smoothly to newsside columnist.

So smoothly that he said he finished No. 1 in a readership survey of those who read the paper’s columnists.

“You were named the No. 1 columnist,” Buck Turnbull blurted during the retirees’ question-and-answer session. “Did you get a raise out of that?”

Said Hansen: “Buck, would you repeat that question! Yes, I was the No. 1-read columnist in a readership survey. A number of editors told me that. The upper echelon would rather I forget it. I’m not quite sure if I got a raise out of that. Maybe I’ll put it on my headstone.”

Hansen was asked if he sometimes regrets moving from sports columnist to newsside columnist.

“I sometimes miss the camaraderie of sports,” he said. “But I don’t miss those Tuesday press conferences [during the football season at Iowa and Iowa State]. I get kind of antsy during the football season and the NCAA basketball tournament. That’s when I miss sports. But I enjoy what I’m doing.

“In sports, I thought my knowledge was as good as anybody’s. Ron and Raff, you know that [about yourselves]. Now every time I write something, somebody calls. A respiratory therapist calls to say he knows more about what I’m writing about than I do. People will say, ‘You didn’t consider this or that.’ I say, ‘Why didn’t you call me before I wrote it?’”

Hansen was writing his columns when the husband-and-wife team of Rob Borsellino and Rekha Basu were hired a second time by the paper a few years ago. Borsellino is now slowed by the horrible effects of Lou Gehrig Disease, and he has cut back on his writing to one, or no, columns per week because of it.

I asked Hansen if he and the other columnists have been asked by their bosses to handle some of Borsellino’s responsibilities.

“No, they haven’t said a word about it,” Hansen said. “I was doing a notes column on Saturdays before Rob came back, and I was doing a damn poor job with it. I didn’t care about how the TV anchors were wearing their hair. I know some people do. I was glad to relinquish that notes column to Rob, but now he doesn’t do it, either. I think he was glad to drop it.”

Someone asked Hansen why he and business editor Dave Elbert “look so much alike.”

Hansen was stunned. Somehow, I don’t think he cared for the “separated-at-birth” question.

“Dave Elbert?” he said. “I think you’re thinking of that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie when he was twins with Danny DeVito. Is that what you’re talking about? I never heard that before. Some people tell me I look like [New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick.”

I asked Hansen if he misses the 7 p.m. deadlines on Saturdays.

That was an inside joke because three of us from the local paper—me along with Hansen, and Dave Stockdale—were covering an Iowa-Michigan football game at Ann Arbor, Mich., a few years ago that began at 11 a.m. [Central Time]. It finished at about 3 p.m., which meant Hansen had 4 hours or so to produce a column.

He didn’t.

“That was the only deadline I ever missed,” he said. “That was really bad. It was plain awful.”

Perfectionist that he is, Hansen kept writing, editing, rewriting, editing, adding to, editing the column to the point where he blew the deadline on one of the biggest collegiate games of the entire season. Not until the second edition was there a Hansen column.

Asked if he gets “hate mail” these days, he said he does.

“I also get ‘hate’ phone calls,” Hansen said. Sometimes they’re at 3 o’clock in the morning—like I’m going to be there at 3 in the morning! But we have caller-ID, so I know who’s making those calls.”

I asked Hansen if he thought he and others would eventually be asked to write more for the Internet version of the paper. Newspaper executives, with their worried eyes on dwindling circulation, are scared to death of competition from the Internet. Consequently, they’re doing what they can to bolster what they put on the Internet themselves.

“I think that might be coming,” Hansen said. “More and more papers have bloggers who write every day. The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn was among the first to do that. It’s picking up steam. Still, there’s not near the readers on the website as with the paper. But they’re finding that the website can be very profitable.”

Blogs? That’s a term used for “web logs.” To me, it’s strange that people at the local paper are giving any thought to blogs. It sounds like a case of “follow the leader” to me.

Imagine this. Some guy who has just finished lunch, and still has mustard on his face, walks into the building and says, “Hey, I think we need a blog.” The editor he’s talking to in the elevator says, “Yeah, let’s have a blog! That’ll solve all of our problems. Maybe then the business section will have a mission, the sports section will be beefed up and Mary Stier won’t be pissed off so often!”

Asked if putting the paper on the web for free is hurting circulation of the printed version, Hansen said, “I doubt [the bosses] will admit it. But common sense tells me that if you’re going to get something for free, you’re not going to pay for it. But I think—and I might be in the minority—that reading a newspaper online is work. You can’t turn pages and you can’t take a computer into the men’s room.”

At least not a desk-top computer.

A laptop? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Asked if he thinks the weekly “Juice” publication will take the place of “Datebook,” Hansen said, "It sure looks that way. Probably not many people in this room relate to ‘Juice.’"

Just then, someone asked, “What is ‘Juice?'"

“They’ll be happy to hear that,” Hansen said with a laugh. “Don’t take offense, but you may not be in the target audience [for ‘Juice’]. ‘Juice’ is a publication for 18-to-34-year-olds. When you get to be 35, there’s nothing for you.”

Hansen talked about the heavyweight stuff in “Juice,” a free tabloid.

“A recent 'Question of the Week' was, 'What kind of condiment should I use?'" he said. [Hey, maybe they’d have been better off using, “What kind of condom should I use?” instead. After all, a recent front cover to “Juice” had this message: “Suck for a Buck.” Now, if "Suck for a Buck" doesn't attract that 18-to-34 crowd to "Juice," nothing will].

“Ken Fuson [the paper’s new once-a-week humor columnist] says we spend too much time asking what young people want to do,” Hansen said. “People who buy the paper are you [older] guys. Fuson thinks we should put out a publication called ‘Prune Juice.’”

[Laughs, lots of ‘em, after that Hansen line].

Maybe they should also put out a publication listing where all the departed editors and reporters are now. Another editor just bailed out. Paul Anger, who had been at the paper just three years or so, is moving to godawful Detroit. Try to call that an upgrade and I'll commit you to the nearest funny farm. No new editor has yet been named in Des Moines. That shows you how bad things have gotten at a once-proud Iowa paper.

All in all, though, Hansen's appearance made for a very entertaining lunch meeting. And he didn’t have to use the emergency exit when he left.

It was great to see you, coach. Come back soon, and come to those Wednesday lunches at the Chinese place with us, too. By the way, my desk at home looks like the city dump, too.

Vol. 4, No. 359
Aug. 5, 2005