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In Des Moines, Gannett’s cuts are devastating

COMMENTARY | June 25, 2011

For those who depend on the Register to tell them what is going on in Iowa, writes former editor and NBC News president Michael Gartner, 'what matters is all the news that we won't know. And, of course, we don't know what we won't know.'

(Editor's note: This was submitted as an op ed to The Des Moines Register, which declined it. It is appearing in Cityview, an alternate weekly in Des Moines. The cuts at the Register are part of a Gannett-wide layoff of some 700 people.)

By Michael Gartner

DES MOINES The latest round of layoffs at The Register is devastating.

The layoffs are devastating for those involved, of course – for those whose lives have been jolted by sudden joblessness, for those who survived but now have new uncertainties about their own futures, and for those who had to make the excruciating decisions about who would stay and who would go.

But they are devastating, or at least disheartening, for the rest of us, too – for those of us who depend on the newspaper to tell us what is going on in this state.

With 13 to 15 fewer people to cover and edit the news, there will be more events great and small that pass without notice, without scrutiny, without comment. We’ll never know what those events are. Is there a scandal in the making that will go uncovered, a solution to a problem that will go unnoticed, a personal accomplishment that will go unheralded?

Or, perhaps, uncovered, unnoticed or unheralded until it’s too late?

For what isn’t covered in a newspaper is every bit as important as what is covered.

This state went for a generation or two without a scandal, in large part because The Register reporters were the state’s hounddogs sniffing out wrongdoers and the editorial writers were the watchdogs snuffing out wrongdoings. With every “downsizing,” with every “right-sizing,” with every layoff, more wrong-doers –  self-serving politicians, self-dealing officials, self-centered businesses – were given a pass.

Now, there will be even more passes.

The closing of the Washington bureau is especially sad. In its day, it was famous for its reporting on agriculture and the environment – its reporters won five Pulitzer Prizes – and it was feared and admired throughout government.

But that was then, and now is now. Now, the choices that editors and reporters must make at The Register will become vastly more difficult – what should be covered, what can be ignored? Now, the burden on Iowa Public Radio and Iowa Public Television has just gotten greater; they are the two remaining ties that bind this state together, that ensure that the teacher in Plymouth County and the mayor in Lee County and the veterinarian in Page County are as well and equally informed as the legislator in Des Moines. It’s a heavy burden on them as well as on those at the newspaper who must cover an ever-more complicated state with ever-fewer resources.

The layoffs at The Register may be the result of changing economics of the newspaper business or shareholder demands or absentee ownership. Or a combination of all that. But it’s foolish to point fingers and folly to assign blame. That matters not to the reader. What matters is all the news that we won’t know. And, of course, we don’t know what we won’t know.

Michael Gartner worked his way through high school and college in the sports department of The Register in the 1950s and from 1974 to 1984 was successively executive editor, editor, president and chief operating officer of the newspaper. In 1997 he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials he wrote for the Ames Tribune. He is a former president of NBC News.

(Correction: Earlier, an editor's note incorrectly said this item had been sent to the Des Moines Register as a letter to the editor. It wasn't; it was submitted as an op ed.)

Posted by kathleen carlson
06/28/2011, 09:44 PM

So, Mike, what can we do about it? What are you doing about it, other than complain?

the Des Moines Register
Posted by J.D.Reno
07/11/2011, 02:03 PM

I am sorry to hear of the present situation of the Des Moines Register.
One might questions, What would the late Register Reporter Clark Mollenhoff do?

I suspect he would suggest the use of a web site to inform people using his autobiography/text book Investigative Reporting (Macmillian, 1980) as a guide. This is speculation of course.

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