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Register publisher says she’s fighting to protect paper’s ‘heart and soul’
It’s been a rough few months for the “Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon.”
Since August, Gannett Co. Inc., which owns The Des Moines Register, has eliminated 82 jobs at the paper. Names that had become familiar to Iowans, like Ken Fuson and Brian Duffy, and years of tradition were lost in the shadow of a national recession that exacerbated the woes of a newspaper industry already hurting from years of decline.
Overseeing the cuts locally was Laura Hollingsworth, who became president and publisher of the Register in September 2007. In June 2008, she was named group president of Gannett’s West Group, putting her in charge of 16 markets in the western region of the United States including Des Moines and Iowa City.
In an exclusive interview with the Iowa Independent, Hollingsworth discussed the recent layoffs, the Register’s future and the possibility of more painful choices in 2009.
Iowa Independent: Now that we’re a couple weeks away from the last round of layoffs, can you give me an idea of how you perceive the mood to be at the paper?
Laura Hollingsworth: Of course, like anywhere else right now, it’s really yucky. Everyone you talk to is nervous, is scared, is trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, and unfortunately a lot of the economic news we’re getting isn’t very promising. I would say like anywhere, people are just wondering what’s going to happen next and worrying about themselves, and I say that in a good way. The mood in our newsroom is no different than it is anywhere.
II: What’s your take on the immediate future of the newspaper industry as a whole?
LH: I’m not putting on my PR hat when I tell you that I’m very optimistic. That’s because one thing speaks to me very loudly, and that is the great need for credible local information, that local watchdog journalism. I know that to be the basis of yesterday and I know for a fact it will be a basis for tomorrow. There is not an audience issue. A lot of people think there is this tremendous fall in subscription levels, which is not so, particularly at The Des Moines Register. You can compare us to network television or magazines and see the whole media industry is changing and the consumption of news is changing. The fact that some of our major advertisers, real estate and automotive, are really feeling the hard economic times, then we are faced with a national recession, it’s hit newspapers particularly hard, no doubt about it. So the need for us is to manage very well and make tough decisions for the short and long term right now.
For me, a lot of this isn’t very pleasant some days and there have been a lot of tough decisions that I’ve hated that I had to make, but at the same time I’m very confident about our opportunity in the future.
II: In the recent layoffs, the big name that stuck out to most, understandably, was editorial cartoonist Brian Duffy. Can you tell me how the decision was made to end a century-long tradition at the Register of a front-page editorial cartoon?
LH: First of all, I’m glad you’re asking the question that way because a lot of people have made it about Brian Duffy, and certainly he was not the issue. Brian did a tremendous job here for 25 years. But that said, we’re facing huge economic obstacles like any other company, and when you sit down with those, you sit down with choices. Whenever you’re in a situation where you have to make decisions as opposed to wanting to, that’s already not a great place to start, but that’s where we begin at in a time like this.
This is where you have to have a vision for the future laying next to the tradition of the past and you have to say, “What is it we do at our very heart and soul that we have to protect?” I can just tell you that the editorial cartoon along with 40 other things that were part of our tradition, we had to make a lot of decisions that encompassed thinking through all of those things. I guess what I would say about it is the decision was made not easily but in the arena of looking to the future and figuring out what we know to be true about us and what we have to deliver. I’ve said to some people that being in the newspaper business I’ve learned that our readers don’t like us to change. They just don’t. There are pockets of readers that no matter what the change, whether it’s to comics or stock listings or the editorial cartoon, that was the reason for them to pick up the paper. But overall, readers don’t like us to change very much. But at the same time, it’s our readers who are changing so dramatically.
II: So what would you say is the “heart and soul” of the Register as it stands today?
LH: Broadly, it would be the dynamic of local information. But I would layer that with the credibility, sophistication and excellence of local journalism. I would put foremost to that effort not just the day-to-day stuff, but the storytelling of our lives, the watchdog investigative work that we do. It is to reflect and connect with our audiences and connect them to life all around us.
II: Isn’t there a fear, though, that the paper won’t be able to do that as well with a smaller staff?
LH: Certainly. I think it’s all about making choices at this point because my choice is not to just ignore the economic circumstances and deliver the same kind of thing. And even if we weren’t in the current economic circumstances, my audience as a newspaper company is already deciding what formats they want, where they want us to invest, how often they want to read, how they want to read. The audience is determining all those things already.
I think we’re responding and trying to be proactive more than people give us credit for, really, because the audience is already making those changes. We try to adjust for need and desire. Obviously, we’re trying to make those decisions to meet those demands, which leads to choices, and the economics of it leads to choices, but if we ever make the decision not to provide a high level of journalism, that would be a bad choice. I hope to not ever have to face making those choices. I would like to think we’re moving forward more than people realize.
II: So do you think the paper that prints today is as good as the one that printed before the layoffs or even many years ago?
LH: I do. In the end, perception is up to the reader. I try to manage what we put out there and the product we deliver, but I do think we do a good job. We’re still doing the stories that no one else is going to do. I mean, the high quality storytelling of Reid Forgrave, the high quality investigative work of Clark Kauffman, the wonderful columnists like John Carlson and Rehka Basu. There is a lot of PR at work about the state of the media and people are hearing things like papers are getting thinner. We just looked back at the post Clinton election [in 1992] and our paper is no thinner than it was then.
We have got to be dynamic in our coverage, we have to be responsive, we have to be relevant and we have to make good decisions every day to be the best product that we can. That’s what we’re trying to do.
II: The big news in the industry, besides recent layoffs, is the move by the two daily papers in Detroit [one of which is owned by Gannett] to limit home delivery of the paper to three days a week and focus more on the digital product. Is that a model you see becoming more widespread, and what are the chances of something like that happening in Iowa?
LH: That’s hard to say. I will say that efficiency will always prevail. I think the audience will drive that first. How efficient is it to deliver a newspaper to the far corners of the state when we can just turn on a computer? I think it’s a fascinating model. You can do some pretty cool things. Now they are able to do that because they exist in a totally different marketing condition — two newspapers in a joint operating agreement, a much more stark economy. So they have all kinds of conditions that Des Moines doesn’t face today and certainly [limiting delivery] is not something we’re talking about today in Iowa. But it’s possible we could.
II: Do you see a day when the printed Register doesn’t exist?
LH: I don’t think so at all. I would say that there is going to be a much more broad portfolio of choices of whether you want to subscribe to the traditional paper, electronically, on you mobile phone, what have you.
I always think it’s very interesting when you look at our youth publication, which is a tabloid printed here in Des Moines called Juice. It’s very successful and has very high brand awareness and loyalty. Although generally speaking, people over 40 seem to prefer their print product and just couldn’t dream of not having the newspaper in the morning with their cup of coffee, when you get to 25 they begin to say they are fine with the Web and getting information on their phone. But for Juice, they want the print edition. There is a demand for it. It’s about being relevant, so it’s not that young people won’t read a print product; it just may not be in the format or design people are accustomed to. The one thing we’re certain about is that there isn’t one model for everyone anymore.
II: The Register has invested a lot of time and resources of late on stories like the education series, where a writer was sent to Finland and Canada, and an immigration piece where a writer and photographer were sent to Guatemala, among others. In light of the recent layoffs, though, people look at that and wonder if not sending staff oversees might have saved someone’s job. What is your response to that?
LH: I understand how people think of a lot of the choices we’ve made, and believe me I think about every one of them myself. But I think if we’re true to our vision and understand what we’re going to do or achieve or bring to Iowa, whether it’s our study of global education or what have you, we’re not going to give that up because we believe in the work. I can assure you that the travel money spent on these projects was nowhere near a job. Let’s just dispel that.
On the flip side, I’m an acting group president with Gannett and am doing as much as I can by conference call and won’t be traveling a lot of places because it’s prudent. We’re going to limit wherever we can to save jobs, but the quality of our journalism is something we will continue to commit ourselves to.
II: Were you personally surprised when word came down from Gannett about the layoffs?
LH: I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but I think the surprise for everybody was how fast everything fell. I don’t think anybody saw the fall happening so fast. As far as the level of changes we’ve made in the last few months, they’ve certainly been more than any of us wanted, but the economy continues to get worse. So, I wouldn’t call it a surprise, it certainly was faster and harder than anyone expected.
II: So what about 2009? Will we see more layoffs?
LH: I don’t see much relief in the first half of 2009. The second half of the year may be better. We’re all going to be in a position to tightly manage every resource for the first half of ’09. It looks like status quo right now, at least in the near term, with things not really getting much better.
II: But in the near term, do you see any more job losses at the Register?
LH: I don’t know the answer to that. I just don’t.
II: Whenever people talk about the newspaper industry’s decline they always point to the Web. Are newspapers actually losing advertising dollars to the Internet? Where is the money going?
LH: There clearly is no question that a portion of revenue that used to be exclusively for traditional media, that is moving to the Web. I’ve seen indicators that show that is anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of revenue, and that has moved away permanently to places like craigslist. The rest of it, which is what’s interesting, when you look at real estate, automotive and employment, for example, right now, the competitor is people’s pocket. The money isn’t there anymore. Businesses close. You’re not seeing market share loss to other media; it’s just gone away. So, the question is how much comes back after the recession is over? Nothing comes back like it used to be. But this idea that it’s all about the Web is just factually inaccurate.
II: Lastly, to all the readers of the Register who are hearing so much about the demise of the newspaper and read about the recent layoffs, what message would you like to pass along to them?
LH: We will be here and are working very hard to be as good as we have been and hopefully better in the future. We’re managing through a period, just like every other business, and we have to make hard choices. That said, we’re also looking at our loyal reader and watching them move and change, which makes us change going forward and get ahead of that. To be relevant tomorrow, sometimes traditions are broken. In the end, The Des Moines Register is all about the credibility and the quality and the excellence of our journalism.