Internet Poses Problems for Print Publications

It should come as no surprise to readers of this site that the internet is the best place to go for news. Print publications are having circulation problems as they can't compete with the timeliness of cyberspace. The Des Moines Register is a classic example. The paper that was second only to the New York Times in Pulitzer Prizes is now like a red-headed stepchild of giant Gannett, publisher of McPaper, USA Today. Register veteran Ron Maly exposes the decline of Iowa's leading paper.

Paul Anger isn't doing it. Rob Borsellino and Rekha Basu aren't doing it.

Tom Foster wasn't doing it, and he's already gone.

When those and others can't stop the bleeding, that means it's all but impossible for publisher Mary Stier to halt the Des Moines Register's circulation slide.

For the 18th consecutive year since the Gannett Co. bought the newspaper, the daily and Sunday circulation figures have fallen.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation report shows that, as of March 31, the Register had a daily circulation of 152,326 and a Sunday circulation of 243,752.

A year before that, the figures were 153,930 for the daily paper and 244,994 for the Sunday paper. Since the previous ABC audit in 2001, the daily circulation dropped 1, 604 and the Sunday circulation dropped 1,242.

For an eye-opening comparison to the 2002 figures, in 1985 the daily circulation was 233,036 and the daily circulation was 375,356. So, in that period, the Sunday circulation plummeted 141,094 and the daily circulation dropped 111,345.

There are former Register employees who recall when the Sunday Register circulation was well above 500,000.

The newsroom has undergone a number of personnel changes in recent months. Anger took over as editor Jan. 14. The husband-and-wife team of Borsellino and Basu was rehired from the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun-Sentinel to write columns. Shirley Ragsdale was dumped as an opinion page columnist and became the religion writer. After Stier said the business section was "weak'' and "doesn't have a mission,'' action was taken to move Dave Elbert from a hands-on editor to a reporter and business columnist.

Those are just some of the changes. But nothing has worked. Circulation continues to dive. In what appeared to be an act of desperation, the circulation department recently began giving away the Sunday paper on Tuesdays to people who subscribed only to the daily paper.

That project was announced by Foster, whose title was vice-president/circulation. Now Foster is no longer with the Register.

Sometimes it doesn't even pay for Anger and the circulation people to read what's in their own paper.

They couldn't have been in a very upbeat mood recently when reading what Alfredo Parrish, a Des Moines attorney, said.

Jury selection in the first-degree murder trial of one of Parrish's clients, Donald Piper, was taking place in Council Bluffs. The Register had reported the day before that Piper had been investigated in other deaths.

Parrish said the article would not taint the process. "Nobody reads it here,'' he said.


That's not good news at all to those who work at the place billed as "The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon.''

When Borsellino and Basu were hired, people who understand newspapers wondered what the Register would do with six newsside columnists and two sports columnists.

"Watch,'' Stier said.

That's what all of us did.

Basu's presence brought about some immediate changes. Her Sunday column runs on the opinion pages, and that caused Jane Norman's Potomac Fever to be moved to the Metro & Iowa section. Norman is a member of what's left of the paper's Washington News Bureau.

When the change came, an editor's note above Norman's column said, "Potomac Fever has moved from its longtime home on the editorial pages into the Metro & Iowa section. The column from the Register's Washington Bureau will be the same blend of analysis, humor and insights into Iowans' activities in the nation's capital.''

I don't know about you, but I'm still looking for whatever humor it is that Norman is supposed to be writing.

More recently, Anger told Ragsdale that the paper had too many columnists and that he wanted her to start writing about religion. Ragsdale balked, but to no avail. She now writes about religion, whether she wants to or not.

Obviously, the paper needed someone to report about religion. Whether Ragsdale is the right person remains to be seen.

Basu continues to write her bleeding-heart columns, which is why she lost so many readers in her first stint at the Register.

She is criticized often by readers. I had to listen to some of it several years ago in, of all places, the press box at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

A retired editor of an Iowa newspaper approached me and said, "I can't stand reading Basu's columns.''

Here's what I told the guy: "If what she writes bothers you that much, the only advice I can give you is to either cancel your subscription to the paper or not read what Basu writes.''

Borsellino, who has modeled himself after New Yorker Jimmy Breslin [it's really not a good idea to do something like that] and wants to come across as an aggressive columnist who jumps into every local news situation, has written some good columns and some that aren't so good.

He has missed the boat at least a couple of times. A while back, he wrote very briefly about the 28-year-old Des Moines female news anchor who was planning her marriage to a 53-year-old plastic surgeon.

It so happened that they met when the news anchor went to the plastic surgeon in search of a boob job.

But Borsellino wasn't up to the reporting task.

It was a classic case of a guy being smacked in the face with a big story and not knowing what to do with it. It was left to Mike Kilen, an outstanding feature writer at the paper, to do the story the right way.

Earlier, Borsellino, again in a note that was buried in a column, wrote about the "interesting reaction'' he had gotten regarding the return of he and his wife to Des Moines.

If it was so interesting, Borsellino should have developed it into a separate column. Lots of people are still wondering why he and Basu wanted to leave Florida and come back here, and that was a perfect opportunity for Borsellino to explain the reasons.

After all, not all readers welcomed them back with open arms. It was Stier who said in January, "You know Rob and Rekha. You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em—one or the other.''

When Stier spoke to a meeting of Register retirees, she came down hard on the paper's business section.

You knew something would happen after that. Sure enough, in a classic example of musical chairs, newsroom veteran Randy Evans was tabbed to take over "day-to-day management of the business desk.''

The jury is still out on whether the business section has a mission or knows what it wants to be. The paper continues to show weaknesses in other areas. Syndicated writer Roger Ebert shouldn't be the Register's prime movie critic. Someone who works at the Des Moines newspaper, or at least someone from Greater Des Moines, should handle that job.

There's rarely a locally-written book review or travel story. "Datebook'' has become a joke. The food critic, apparently old and tired, has been on the job far too long and is no longer a critic. If a restaurant is lousy, say it's lousy. And there needs to be news of restaurant openings and closings, plus food trends.

Even though Anger hasn't had a positive effect on the Register's circulation, he apparently is doing something right.

A veteran Register newsroom employee made this comment to me recently: "I think I at least can trust Anger. I never felt I could trust Ryerson.''

That's Ryerson as in Dennis Ryerson, who preceded Anger as editor.

Now, I just can't imagine someone at the paper saying something like that about Ryerson.

Stier said she thought the Register's sports section could also be beefed up.

It hasn't happened. Things are going in reverse.

The paper continues to miss sports stories that should be in it. Notable was the one involving Sonny Franck, a member of the Sunday Register Hall of Fame, who was recently named to the College Football Hall of Fame. There was no mention of it in the Register.

The Register is also beaten consistently other papers on major sports stories involving Iowa State and Iowa.

The Register was scooped not once, but twice, by the Ames Tribune on the story involving Laird Veatch being named Iowa State's senior associate athletic director. The Ames paper had stories on Veatch's appointment on two successive days. The Register, in a horrible display of newspapering, had nothing until the third day.

Tim Dwight, the former Iowa football player from Iowa City who now is a National Football League standout, was in West Des Moines for a recent two-day instructional camp. But there was no story on one of the biggest names in Iowa sports in the Register.

Sean Keeler succeeded Marc Hansen as the No. 1 sports columnist, and he is a pleasant, intelligent young man who tries to do a good job. Maybe he's trying too hard. His columns are too long, sometimes too complicated, sometimes too gimmicky.

It often takes him six or seven paragraphs to get into what he's trying to say.

He needs to be told by an editor to limit his columns to lengths of 18 to 20 inches. [Hey, they didn't call it a "column'' for nothing]. He's losing too many readers with lengthy efforts that jump from page one to the inside pages. I think, and hope, he'll get better.

Rick Brown, Randy Peterson and Tom Witosky are veteran reporters. However, they're limited by shrinking space for sports news, tight budgets and old-fashioned thinking.

Brown and Peterson have been around long enough that they should be allowed to write commentary before and after the games they're covering, not just the usual nuts-and-bolts stuff. With strong competition from the Internet, TV and sports radio, the day is gone when nuts-and-bolts sportswriting is going to sell many, if any, papers.

Twenty-five years ago or so, Buck Turnbull and I were permitted by our bosses to write what were called "Register Reports'' and "Register Commentary'' when we had something worthwhile to say. That gave the section a different dimension. It provided readers with something to sink their teeth into, whether they agreed with us or not.

The paper sorely misses the Sports Opinion Page, in which writers [and readers] could author commentary, and letters to the editor could be printed. Now there is no sports avenue for readers to have their say.

Witosky is the sports pages' best investigative reporter, but needs to be in the paper more often. There's plenty of stuff out there to investigate.

Andrew Logue has done a good job writing about high school sports and the Drake Relays, and this fall will cover Iowa's football team. I predict he'll do well.

And finally....

If they can just get those Valley High School football games covered this fall. Heck, all they have to do is get a story about the Tigers' season opener in the paper and they'll be one jump ahead of last year.

Reader: Sex Toy Parties and Lousy Journalism

I hear from a number of people who read both this column and the paper. Obviously, not everyone is happy with the paper. The never-ending decrease in circulation tells us that.

But even some people who do subscribe to the paper are disillusioned.

Take Roy, not his real name, from Runnells, not his real hometown. Roy knows his way around a newsroom. He knows good journalism. He knows bad journalism.

He's seeing too much of the bad stuff these days.

"A story a while back in the Register should provide the opportunity to really pound the newspaper,'' Roy wrote in an e-mail to me. "In case you missed it, which I doubt, how did you feel about the feature adorning the front page of the Iowa Life section touting the wonderful world of sex toys for women?

"I'm not a prude, but that was too much. I makes me wonder about the motivation of the new publisher or anyone else in news or editorial management. Do they really think that kind of crap will sell newspapers?

"I wonder how many Register readers with grade school kids have been asked, ‘Mommy, what's a vibrator?'

"On another subject, I'm not impressed with the new sports editor. I don't like his style....too cute....and convoluted.''

[NOTE: In that last sentence, I'm guessing Roy meant Keeler, the new columnist, and not Randy Brubaker, the sports editor. But maybe not. And, on the subject of the story on sex toys, I could have done without both—the party and the story].

They Gave Papers Away in San Antonio, Too.

Then there's this e-mail I received from Bob Kolarik, a former Des Moines newspaperman who now works in San Antonio, Texas: "I read with great amusement your column about the Sunday Register giveaway program. For years in San Antonio, literally thousands of papers were thrown free every day by both the Express-News and the now-closed Light.

"A popular target of those giveaways were massive apartment complexes, where every apartment received free papers for years. I knew a couple people who were shocked when I told them that people are supposed to pay for the papers—like I did for my subscription to the old San Antonio News (I worked at the Light at the time and obviously read that paper each night at work). "What was better, however, was the use of ‘dumping grounds' by both newspaper companies. In this, extra copies of the papers were run off during each press run, so the counters on the presses showed X number of papers were printed each edition. These numbers, of course, couldn't be used at ABC audit time. However, they were useful on the periodic ‘publisher's statement' that newspapers are required by the post office to run. If you ver look at one of these statements, you'll note that they include places to show the counts of the ‘actual press run' closest to the date of publication.

"Hence, one time the Express-News was able to show its ‘actual press run' for the Sunday paper was something amazing—675,000, as I recall. Probably the Express-News Sunday circulation at the time was 175,000 or so. They did this by leaving the presses running all night and then carting off the extras to a dumping ground. Also, the advertising departments could use the press counts when convincing advertisers that they indeed were getting good deals for their advertising dollars.

"Even with the papers being thrown for free, there simply were too many copies for each company to get rid of door-to-door. So what would happen was the extra bundles were loaded into trucks, which hauled them to a convenient, but secluded, open field where they were simply thrown away.

"Apparently this practice dated back to at least the 1920s. Legend has it in my part of town [San Antonio's northeast side] that when houses were being built there in the 1950s, it was discovered that one entire development—‘Camelot,' I believe it was called—was being built over nothing but piles and piles of newspapers.

"Apparently, the newspapers have proven to be an adequate base. The neighborhood doesn't seem to have any more than the usual structural complaints.

"It's amazing what you learn hanging around newspaper bars.''

Kolarik stressed that "the circulation antics in San Antonio were done during the newspaper war. Undoubtedly, everything is as honest as the day is long now.''

Ronald Wesley Maly

Vol. 2, No. 33

June 21, 2002

[Maly's e-mail address is ]

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