At my invitation, Arnold Garson, former Des Moines Register managing editor, shared his thoughts on lessons from the Des Moines Tribune (which died 30 years ago today). As a reporter, Arnie broke the story that the Tribune was closing. My observations on lessons from the life and death of the Tribune are a separate blog post. In a third post, I publish some Trib memories from Arnie, Ron Maly and me.
The most important lesson to emerge from the closing of The Des Moines Tribune was the lesson not learned.
I arrived at the Des Moines Tribune as a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald in October 1969. Ed Heins, then the top Fourth-Floor news executive for The Register and Tribune, actually hired me for The Register. But before I arrived he changed his mind saying that he wanted to inject some new energy into the Tribune.
Under the leadership of its newly appointed managing editor, Drake Mabry, The Tribune, which had grown a bit lethargic, would become a harder edged news product for Central Iowa and hopefully would stabilize its future.
The Tribune’s new mindset: We will focus on hard news and enterprise. We will concentrate on the market our advertisers care most about. We’re as good as anybody in the business. Happily, the Tribune had a news staff that could execute superbly against this strategy and the transformation came quickly.
It was a great formula for the time, and it was kept strong through periodic reevaluation and refinement over the years that followed.
But in the end it didn’t matter. A PM newspaper was still a PM newspaper in an AM world. A mid-size, two-newspaper town was not destined to survive as anything more than a one-newspaper town. It would be only a matter of time before economic realities forced the newspapers’ owners to make the difficult decision to shut down their PM newspaper.
But how much time?
One could argue that it should have been obvious long before 1982 that a PM newspaper in a market the size of Des Moines needed to be closed.
Had the Tribune been closed 5-10 years earlier, the R&T ownership might have been in a stronger financial position to invest in and strengthen its AM product, The Register. The R&T owners weren’t alone, of course. The owners of AM-PM combination newspapers across the country fought for years longer than they should have to save dying PM entities.
As late as 1986, when I was managing editor of The Des Moines Register, I explored a job opportunity as the top editor at an AM-PM combination newspaper in a city much larger than Des Moines. I asked the publisher about the future of the rapidly declining PM paper. He told me it would be the next editor’s job to save the PM paper.
In my judgment, no one could have saved this paper, and no one did. It closed a few years later.
But the biggest sadness here is that the industry didn’t learn anything from its futile efforts to save dying businesses in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
It would be no more than another quarter century or so until the newspaper industry faced its next crisis, the double whammy of a capital-R Recession and the digital transition. And guess what? The industry was slow again in making the necessary, hard decisions. When the industry should have been aggressively reinventing itself, shifting resources to digital and developing digital strategies that would be right for the Twenty-first Century, it was dragging its feet.
Arguably, thousands of jobs might have been saved if the industry had taken to heart the lessons it should have learned in the 1970s and moved more quickly and aggressively to a digital transition in the early 2000s.
In the 1970s PM newspaper circulation was in free-fall. Aggressive news formulas intended to strengthen them weren’t working. Advertisers didn’t want or need the duplicated reach of AM-PM combinations.
In the 2000s, people were turning to the Internet for news and information in droves. Efforts to reinvent print products weren’t working. Advertisers wanted to find digital marketing solutions that newspapers might have provided years sooner.
What is it about the newspaper industry that prevented the owners from learning the lessons that seem so obvious in retrospect?
The answer, I believe, is that newspaper owners grew fat and comfortable through the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. In virtually every city of any size in the country, one of the richest and most powerful families in town was the family that owned the newspaper. In this scenario, the motivation to preserve the status quo becomes enormous.
It seems no coincidence that innovation and change in the newspaper industry during the early history of the United States, when the industry was still in its infancy and the owners were still struggling for survival, came much faster: the penny press, the introduction of photography, the emphasis on local news coverage, the acquisition of faster and more versatile presses, the emphasis on quality writing.
The decline of the PM papers simply wasn’t a big enough threat to ownership interests to force the kind of dramatic action that was needed. That would not happen until the next crisis came along, driving stock prices and ownership values down to the basement threatening both the personal wealth and power base of ownership interests.
Under that kind of pressure, the changes did begin to come. And, happily, the industry now seems to be on track for the digital age. But I doubt there’s an owner anywhere who would argue that the industry shouldn’t have moved more quickly in the early 2000s. Perhaps the lessons that should have been apparent when PM newspapers came under pressure have been at last absorbed.
– Arnold Garson – Omaha World-Herald, 1965-1969; Des Moines Tribune, 1969-75; The Des Moines Register, 1975-88; The San Bernardino County Sun, editor, 1988-96; Sioux Falls Argus Leader, president and publisher, 1996-2008; Louisville Courier-Journal, president and publisher, 2008-2012.