Tuesday, September 13, 2005

'Register Brass Is Gnashing Its Teeth' Over This Critical Essay

A reader from eastern Iowa had a question and some comments.

"Do you know a man named Ralph Gross, who is a 'wealth management adviser' in Des Moines?" he asked in an e-mail.

"I subscribe to the Columbia Journalism Review, which has a two-page piece by Gross in its current edition. Gross is currently serving on the Register's Reader Advisory Board and is highly critical of the paper, which he says he's been reading regularly since 1962.

"It is a well-written and thoughtful piece by a man who claims to have once admired a paper he now says puts profits ahead of quality [which I know will surprise you].

"I'm sure the Register brass is gnashing its teeth over a highly critical piece in a well-respected national publication."

Here's Gross's essay:

The (Educated) Reader

The editor’s invitation read, “Help us put out a better newspaper . . . . The Des Moines Register is your paper and ours . . . . that’s why we have the Reader Advisory Board.” The editor said he wanted to be held “accountable for being the best paper we can be. Critique us. Question us.”

The offer sounded perfect. I have read the Register since I moved to Des Moines in 1962 to go to college, and had always liked the paper. But in recent years I had become a critic, driven by a belief that the paper wasn’t as good as it used to be.

Impressions are subjective, but having been the subject of several stories over the years I believed that the paper always took great care to be fair and accurate. Its reporting reflected not only a working knowledge of the subject but often an understanding of sometimes-subtle historic relationships. It took its watchdog function seriously, and I also relied on it to provide a variety of well-thought-out opinions on issues that affected my quality of life.

In some ways the Register, purchased by Gannett in 1985, remains a good paper. It has always been, and continues to be, a champion of open public meetings and public records, and it ran a great exposé on local law enforcement and county attorneys, which was a finalist for a 2005 Pulitzer. But the paper whose motto is “The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon” no longer has daily statewide distribution, and circulation has declined. Its local coverage lacks the depth and breadth of not so long ago. The Register was once a destination paper for journalists; now it’s a stepping-stone.

So, in July, 2003 I applied for an appointment to the Register's Reader Advisory Board.

There were thirty of us on the board, from all walks of life — an FBI agent, two pork producers, a lawyer, a journalism student, a retired school superintendent, a surgeon, a union representative, a bus driver, a manufacturing executive. At our first meeting in September, 2003, new members were asked why they had volunteered. Paul Anger, the paper’s editor and vice president, offered to answer questions. When my turn came, I said, “Thirty years ago I would pass in front of the Register building and with great pride read a display that said: ‘The Des Moines Register has won more Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting than any other newspaper except one. Congratulations, New York Times.’” Then, addressing Anger and Richard Tapscott, the paper’s managing editor, I asked, “Would you describe what plan is in place to re-establish the Register to the level of excellence it once enjoyed?”

Without hesitation, Tapscott replied, “We have a list of the Pulitzer Prizes and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons on display in the newsroom to serve as inspiration.” Anger added, “You can’t run a newspaper to win Pulitzers,” which effectively ended the discussion. Thus began my two-year odyssey on the advisory board.

The monthly meetings consisted of an announced agenda, usually a Register employee describing his or her job and answering questions, with time for board members’ comments, suggestions, and story ideas. I liked being on the board. But I also wanted answers to questions that had nagged me for the last fifteen or so years.

For instance, I was disappointed when the Register discontinued subscribing to the New York Times wire service. When I said so, Anger acknowledged that the paper’s content had suffered as a result, and said that the paper was trying to get “just the editorial stuff back,” but as of this writing nothing has happened on that front.

And what was the thinking when, on October 27, 2004, the Register endorsed a congressional candidate whom the editorial page had described less than a month earlier as “a national embarrassment”? Anger said the rationale was to “move the editorial page more to the center.”

When the paper created Community Publications in October, 2003 — basically zoned editions — it told its readers that the new editions would be practicing “be there” journalism. “‘Be there’ means we’re not just reading city council minutes on the Web,” said the editors, “we’re sending a reporter, someone who’ll look deep into the minutes and dig for what is happening down to the neighborhood level.” But in one of the meetings I asked why there was no dateline on the political columnist’s coverage of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. I was flabbergasted to learn that he had covered it from his home. (The Register did send two reporters to the convention.)

In still another instance, when a regional mall opened in suburban Des Moines last year, I was embarrassed by the Register's fawning coverage. At least one of the paper’s columnists took note: “The place hasn’t opened yet and people already roll their eyes when you mention Jordan Creek Mall. One guy wanted to know if the Register is going to open a Jordan Creek bureau and have a staff covering nothing but the mall. I started to laugh, but I held off until I checked it out.”

Upon hearing of my appointment to the advisory board, a journalist friend gave me a copy of The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Turns out that many of the same issues that had piqued my curiosity about journalism and the Register have been debated among professional journalists for the last two decades. One of these, I discovered, is the effect that the pressure for ever-higher profits has on the quality of the journalism: less news, less investigative reporting, less state and judiciary coverage. All things I had noticed in the Register over the years. All this is surely familiar to CJR readers, but it isn’t to most news consumers.

I felt energized. I gave each board member a copy of the book, noting that it might serve as a baseline from which to judge the Register. And at each meeting I raised the same concern with the editors — address the tradeoffs you make between keeping your readership informed and increasing corporate profit margins. But no one seemed to want to discuss it.

So, in January, 2005 I wrote a letter to the editor laying out my concerns about the Register, and asking the paper to discuss the issue of quality-versus-profits with readers. I hand-delivered my letter fifteen minutes before the next board meeting. After reading the first few lines, though, Paul Anger said, “I don’t agree with this.”

“I didn’t know that was a prerequisite for publication,” I said.

We smiled politely at each other.

The letter was not published. But I was serious about what had happened to my hometown newspaper and decided to take out four quarter-page ads asking readers to communicate their concerns about diminished quality directly to the editor. Friends had offered to help pay for the ads, which I was told would cost $10,000.

I thought the ads would carry more clout if I could get some board members to sign on, so I e-mailed each member a copy of the ad and asked if they would allow me to use their names.

Some said they liked the paper, citing among other things the short summaries of complex issues and the generous use of photos throughout. One replied with an emphatic “no” and copied his response to the editor. Some board members agreed to have their names appear in the ad. Others indicated support but wanted to remain anonymous.

At the next board meeting, the Register's cartoonist was scheduled to speak. Instead, Anger brought the editorial page editor, the managing editor for staff development, and the political columnist. In lieu of the cartoonist, Anger said, he was “prepared to spend the next two hours addressing Ralph’s concerns.”

Anger denied that the paper had declined. It had just changed, he said. To support his contention, out came a copy of the Register's most recent Pulitzer Prize entry, a list of new hires over the last few years, internal Gannett awards as well as external ones. A lot of work had gone into preparing for the meeting. In a way, I was pleased that the editor had taken my concerns seriously.

My letter to the editor and the advertisement were disemboweled almost line by line with an explanation as to why both were unworthy of publication.

I was given five minutes for rebuttal. I said what I could, but realized it was a losing battle.

The next morning I submitted the ad. Within four hours the advertising manager called to say the Register would not print it. He gave me no reason other than it was the Register's prerogative.

My tenure on the board ends this September. I’ve learned a great deal, but not what I expected to learn. It should have been the perfect place to begin a discussion of the tradeoffs made between quality and profits, but what was put forward as a forum to hold the newspaper accountable became something else. All the editors really wanted, I’m convinced, was a feel-good focus group with an important-sounding title. Particularly when there’s only one newspaper in town, readers have little clout.

While I am not a journalist, I am a consumer of journalism and I care deeply about newspapers. Good newspapers help create open and constructive dialogue, and this is integral to the democratic process. Perhaps because of that, I find it incredible that the press won’t discuss what is arguably the central journalistic issue of our time with those who have the most at stake — we, the people.

Readers like me are unaware of the underlying reasons for the degenerative changes we perceive every day. And worse, we aren’t being asked how much we value reliable, accurate, thorough, and fair reporting. We might, for instance, be willing to pay more for the newspaper if we understood the problems and what was at stake.

To CJR readers I pose this question: Who will embrace their civic responsibility to raise awareness on this issue? In markets with no competition, like Des Moines, what are the options for doing so? And if the answer is no one and none, say so and let’s move on to create a new information delivery system for this democracy, because the current one is dying.

[RON MALY'S COMMENTS: Good for Ralph Gross. The local paper got exactly what it deserved by putting him on the Reader Advisory Board, which I'm sure started as a Gannett Co. idea. Such boards are what newspapers regard as reader participation vehicles. Anything to get some feedback from the reader. Obviously, there are limits. I'm sure Paul Anger didn't figure he'd get the type of feedback he received from Gross. Now Anger has moved his act to the Detroit Free Press, and he probably won't be sending any letters to Gross that say, "Next time you're in the neighborhood, Ralph, drop by and we'll have a cold one and go to a Lions game together." It will be interesting to see how long it takes Anger to put together a Reader Advisory Board in Detroit, or how long he lasts there before being told by Gannett that both he and Dennis Ryerson will be assigned to drive company-owned pickup trucks so they can deliver papers to college campuses throughout the midwest. The papers will be free to students. Even if they're just left unread on a pile in the street, they'll be counted in Gannett's paid circulation totals].