Turn an ear to Nashville

I sure hope what’s happening at The (Nashville) Tennessean doesn’t play out here in Des Moines. I wrote last week (http://bit.ly/XxGFcR) that Gannett Co. Inc., parent company of The Des Moines Register,  is beta testing a “newsroom of the future” change that will require newsroom personnel at six of its papers to reapply for positions that have been redefined.

The Tennessean is part of that beta test, and some believe similar changes eventually will be in store for the staff here in Des Moines. There is concern that the paper will reduce its editorial staff again and about whether the changes will affect how the paper covers the community.

But let’s put aside whether it will or won’t happen in Des Moines and instead take a look at what the impact has been so far in Nashville. The Nashville Scene, an alternative news publication similar to Cityview, wrote an interesting piece that explored how the situation is playing out. 

The article touches on some of the hindering factors that would prevent a local sale, looks at how the paper is betting its audience won’t miss some less-visible newsroom employees (editors and copy editors), shares concerns about the top three leaders having just five years combined experience in the market, and provides sobering hints at company morale. Here’s a taste:

“In off-the-record conversations — staffers would only talk anonymously for fear of jeopardizing their chances to get a job in the new newsroom — Tennessean personnel described the climate at 1100 Broadway as ‘horrific’ and ‘morose.’ ” Read the full article: http://bit.ly/1rbElFv

I have friends and former colleagues at the Register. I fully believe having a strong daily newspaper is essential for our city to function. And I certainly don’t like having to ask Register Publisher Rick Green if he is going to have to tell his team they need to reapply for jobs. 

His team tries hard, and does great work. It’s maddening to me as a journalist and a citizen, when I see the tough positions that Green and other leaders at the Register are being put in by Gannett.

I’ve always been immensely curious about the business model of news publications. And when I first began in journalism, I looked around at the doom and gloom of “newspapers are dying” and have always said quite frankly, “Why is this happening?” I even wrote a college paper that explored the demise of Knight Ridder, a media company that in 2000 that was the second largest newspaper company and had an operating profit margin of 20.8 percent. In 2000, Gannett’s operating profit margin was 28.6 percent. Printing money.

In an effort to produce better margins, Knight Ridder’s leader - affectionately nicknamed Darth Ridder - began slashing newsroom staff.

Yet by 2006, declining profits - they were at 16.4 percent - forced Knight Ridder to sell itself to McClatchy Co: http://nyti.ms/1AuRw5b

Here’s a fun fact, courtesy of popular media blogger Alan D. Mutter: The average 16 percent pre-tax profits of publicly held newspaper companies surpasses those of both Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. That does hide many of the issues for the industry, however, he writes (http://bit.ly/1AuRHO0).

There are not nearly enough words for me to detail every factor for the demise - and there are plenty - but the crux of the issue always comes down to this question for me.

If newspapers are still profitable (and many are), why are expenses (staff), and by extension quality/quantity of coverage, being cut?  

Put beautifully in this The New York Times piece (http://nyti.ms/1pmAwKG), “The persistent financial demands of Wall Street have trumped the informational needs of Main Street.”

In other words, newspapers are failing to meet Wall Street’s demands for growth.

I believe there is a sustainable model for journalism - one not hell bent on profit growth for the sake of growth. I work at a publishing business that has a working model, and it’s one of the reasons I am here - to understand how and why Business Publications Corp. Inc. has continued to be profitable even during the recession and amid all the changes impacting the journalism field.

We are still a business, and our owner expects us to be profitable. But we are beholden to her. Not to past profit margins, and not stockholders. In the battle between serving the reader and serving the stockholder, the stockholder wins every time.

I hope the Register doesn’t need to follow suit with staffing changes, and if it does, I hope the “newsroom of the future” enables Gannett papers to better cover the community as its leaders promise.

How stories are made

The question I’m most frequently asked is “How do I get in the Business Record?” I wrote a post for our new company blog on this exact topic and wanted to share it: http://bit.ly/VCrRaV. It’s a goal of mine to help every one of our readers know the best way to ultimately get featured in the Business Record. We are more successful covering Des Moines business when our readers are sharing with us what they are interested in and we are always looking for stories to explore.

Take, for example, Hubbell Realty Co. CEO Rick Tollakson. During a meeting with him a few months ago, I asked him what was piquing his interest, and he mentioned that he wondered how the new LifeTime Fitness was going to affect fitness centers in Des Moines. That gave us the seed for reporter Joe Gardyasz to help grow into an eventual story on that very topic: http://bit.ly/1pFG4zM

Speaking of Rick…

His son TJ won the Subaru Ironman North American Championship: http://bit.ly/1th7JXD. TJ is the founder of Ruster Sports LLC, which manufactures the highly aerodynamic Dimond bike, which TJ was riding. That should be a nice bump for the company. Maybe he can get legendary BMX biker Dave Mirra to ride one now. Back in April, I emailed Ruster Sports Chief Operating Officer Ethan Davidson after I saw Mirra favorite one of TJ’s tweets. Turns out one of the athletes on the Dimond team is close friends with Mirra, and Davidson said at the time Mirra was a sponsorship candidate whom they’d love to have riding Dimond bikes.