My tenure began shortly before The Register's owners killed off our sister paper, The Des Moines Tribune. Despite the claim of many faithful subscribers that the owners killed the wrong paper, The Register survived. About three years later, Gannett, a profitable chain of relatively small papers, won a bidding war to buy The Register. Although many of my fellow staffers grumbled about the change in ownership, some saw it as a possible opportunity. After all, Gannett needed a prestigious paper like The Register to improve on its reputation as a mediocre news organization intent on only sucking dollars out of the communities its operations "served."
And, for a few years, Gannett did adopt sort of a hands off stance. I attribute much of that to editor Geneva Overholser, who had guided The Register to a Pulitzer in 1990. But after Overholser left in 1995, the wheels started wobbling on The Register's wagon. Gannett started sending a parade of managers from outside The Register family into Des Moines, whose marching orders apparently included ridding the newsroom of its most veteran (and highest paid) impediments to improved corporate profitability.
When staff grumbling in Des Moines reached the suits in the Gannett corporate suites in Reston, Va., the company instituted a series of "Change Management" initiatives along the lines of: We know you've enjoyed a pretty good run out there in Des Moines, but times have changed and you'll need to step up. Fortunately, we can help. Change is coming, folks. Embrace it, or get off the train.
But what Gannett managers were peddling as "change" 20 years ago was just the initial rumbling of something far more seismic. Change is when coffee rises $1 a pound, or a few cents per cup. But when coffee is repackaged into single-cup servings at 75 cents a cup, that's something much different. It's a disruption. To be sure, there have been many disruptors over the last 20 years.
Like the Internet. It stole advertising from newspapers right off the bat, sending the industry into a financial tailspin from which it's never recovered. The Internet also spawned Amazon, which has disrupted the entire retail world. Amazon's founder even owns one of the nation's best newspapers, The Washington Post, and it's more or less a hobby for him. And what about the evolution of cell phones to smart phones? Uber has disrupted the public transportation business, Air BnB threatens the hospitality industry, and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have spawned a generation of smartphone zombies, obsessed with collecting likes, snapping selfies and protecting the world through Pokemon Go.
The change predicted by Gannett brass two decades ago has certainly come, but not in a good way. In Des Moines, round after round of layoffs and gimmicky promotions have kept the paper afloat but have not slowed plunging circulation. With fewer reporters, there is less news but more "listicles" and coverage of all things beer-and-baconish. There's also increasing reportage on restaurants patronized by visiting celebrities and other "trending topics" of the day. But, to journalists who have lost their jobs and to readers who have lost a once-great newspaper, change doesn't begin to describe the disruption to the news business in Des Moines.
So, I get rankled a bit when I hear the recent presidential race described merely as a "change election." I hope America emerges from this week's political earthquake better than my brothers and sisters in the news business.