I remember fondly the first time I felt the excitement of launching a new product. Memories have flooded back as I have spent the last six months preparing for today’s launch of TBD.
Hometown was going to provide a new business model for the Des Moines Register. I had the odd title of “launch editor.” I wasn’t going to be part of the permanent staff, but I was in charge of sending the product into orbit.
The Register was a dying breed in an industry that was prospering (sort of), but is now declining (some say dying): We were a statewide newspaper.
The Register circulated throughout Iowa, with home delivery in every town, bureaus in Iowa’s major (relatively speaking) cities and a state desk that sent reporters to cover major news and features in every corner of the state. Our statewide coverage gave the Register a special status in Iowa and in journalism. The Register covered farming better than any newspaper, with six of 16 Pulitzer Prizes through the years related to agriculture coverage. Our coverage of state politics and the Iowa presidential caucuses gave us a quadrennial seat in the national spotlight.
In 1984, the year we began planning the Hometown launch, Time magazine named the Register one of the nation’s 10 best newspapers, a perch we never reached based on circulation but earned on quality and reputation. In Time story five years earlier, David Yepsen, a political reporter who later gained national prominence based on his role as the leading press expert on the caucuses, summed up: “The Register is part of the Iowa experience, like tall corn and snow days home from school.”
Newspapers returned strong profit margins in those days, but were already starting to retrench. The high fuel costs of the 1970s had forced other newspapers to cut the costs of statewide delivery and coverage. The statewide newspaper made no economic sense. A metro paper’s circulation revenue barely covered the costs of production and distribution. For those readers in the far reaches of the state, subscription payments didn’t cover the extra fuel to truck the paper out there daily. Any newspaper’s profits came from advertising and our primary advertisers were big-city retailers who were largely uninterested in readers outside our core market area. The statewide newspaper faced an uphill struggle trying to match the profit margins of a metro.
Afternoon newspapers were dying off in those days. The Des Moines Tribune, our sister paper, had folded in 1982 because of declining profits. Staff members openly wondered how long the Cowles family would continue to subsidize statewide coverage and delivery. Ownership had spread among several descendants of Gardner Cowles, the man who built the statewide Register in the first half of the 20th Century. The chairman in the early 1980s, David Kruidenier, faced pressure from other family members who thought their stock was undervalued.
A hot trend in the newspaper industry then was “zoning.” A metro newspaper would publish a weekly or biweekly – sometimes even a daily – section or edition tailored for a slice of the metro area. In Des Moines, we called these our Neighbors sections. A weekly tabloid section would present news of, say, the northern suburbs. Usually one reporter with entry-level wages provided the coverage. And the advertising staff targeted smaller merchants who were not interested in the full metro audience and the higher costs of advertising in the full press run.
In 1984, as Register executives considered our future as a statewide newspaper, someone decided to try regional zoning. As far as I know, no newspaper had tried such a thing outside its metro area. A new shopping mall was going to open in 1985 in Mason City, and the Register saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with a new batch of advertisers who weren’t already loyal to the Mason City Globe-Gazette. So we launched the North Country Register, based in Mason City and circulating as a section of the Sunday Register in several counties of north-central Iowa.
The regional zoning move spooked the Fort Dodge Messenger, which was not in the North Country area. Executives of the Messenger thought the Register was planning on launching in Fort Dodge next (we weren’t; I saw the strategic plan for North Country and the plan was to watch the Mason City project for a couple years, then decide whether to expand, and no next location was named). But the Messenger announced plans to start a Sunday edition and switch from afternoon to morning publication.
Beyond our coverage of agriculture and statewide news, the Register’s statewide standing was based on two factors:
- Most other papers in the state were afternoon papers; the Register owned the morning.
- The Sunday Register was a must-buy for many Iowans. We were so dominant that some newspapers, such as the Messenger, didn’t even bother with a Sunday edition.
By taking us on in the morning and on Sunday, the Messenger sparked Register executives to decide on a second zoned regional section.
The North Country staff and project manager were too focused on their own fledgling effort to branch out. So I was asked to be launch editor, working under a project manager, Dave Witke, one of the two best editors I ever worked for.
As much as I relish the adrenalin rush of a breaking story, solving an investigative puzzle or telling a fascinating story, no challenge of my newspaper career brought more fun or satisfaction than launching Hometown.
Dave and I didn’t have to follow the North Country plan at all (it was having some startup struggles). We were to come up with the business plan, the coverage plan and the prototype and hire the staff. We were to name the product (I proposed Hometown and Dave quickly agreed).
Community engagement and user-generated content were not news-industry buzzwords then, but they were part of the Hometown plan from the start. My prototype included a full page that would come from our readers, called “Your Page.” We would invite them to submit columns about their personal experiences and perspectives. We would invite them to submit photographs and recipes. We also engaged the community through events, meeting at a Fort Dodge restaurant renowned for its cinnamon rolls to tell people about Hometown and to hear what they would like in a weekly local paper.
I hired an excellent young editor, Tom O’Donnell (who had worked for me a few years earlier as a Register intern), and Tom and I together hired a couple promising young reporters, Jonathan Kronstadt and Veronica Fowler, plus a news assistant or two. Dave hired a general manager, Daryl Beall (now an Iowa state senator), who hired a sales staff.
We launched in January 1985, with loads of advertising, lots of news and plenty of excitement on the staff and in the community. Hometown was such a success that the bosses asked me to spend a couple weeks in Mason City, helping fine-tune the operation there.
Also in January 1985, the Cowles family decided to sell the Register to Gannett. I won’t go into details, but we had a new publisher who hadn’t been heavily involved in the decision to launch the regional sections. He decided to close both the Mason City and Fort Dodge operations less than a year after they were launched, even though the Mason City mall was just opening and both sections were running well ahead of projections, on track to make money.
Just a few years later, the Register stopped delivering statewide and cut back on its statewide coverage. Its agriculture coverage is diminished now and its Washington bureau was folded into Gannett’s years ago. No one would place it on a top 10 list today or probably even on a top 25 list.
It’s still a good metro paper in a lot of respects. Register photojournalist Mary Chind won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography last year, the Register’s first Pulitzer in 19 years. And it still provides strong coverage of the big stories around the state, even if its focus is on the metro area. Clark Kauffman was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005 and last year sparked a statewide scandal with his investigative reporting on an eastern Iowa turkey operation that abused mentally handicapped workers for decades. And the Register excelled in coverage of the 2008 Parkersburg tornado and last month’s dam rupture at Lake Delhi.
I had moved on to the Kansas City Times by the time the Register folded Hometown and North Country, so I wasn’t affected as profoundly as the staff members, some of whom lost their jobs. I have often wished, though, that the Register had given the Hometown and North Country projects a chance to succeed. I think we had a plan that would have helped us plant satellite local operations around the state, an approach that could have supported the statewide Register for another decade at least and possibly even still today. We’ll never know.
I’m back in launch mode now. I’m not the launch editor, but part of the permanent staff of TBD. We launched today, covering local news for the Washington area.
Though 25 years later, the experience has been remarkably similar. Again, I am working for an outstanding boss and an outstanding organization, launching a local news product that will engage the community. Again I have been involved in hiring a young, dynamic staff that brings great energy, creativity and optimism to the project. I’ve never enjoyed this business more than I have planning the TBD launch.
One thing’s different this time, though. I’m confident Robert Allbritton won’t be selling his company. I believe we will have a fair chance to succeed. And we will.