Once upon a time, the Des Moines Register was great

Sean Keeler
Sean Keeler

It really was. The writing, reporting, editing and presentation were terrific, and the content was plentiful and had depth. It was one of the best newspapers in America, and has the Pulitzer Prizes to support that claim.

One of the reporters who won a Pulitzer at the paper (for public service), Jane Schorer Meisner, was laid off (fired) Tuesday. So were 12 other newsroom employees, including one of the best photographers around, John Gaps III, sportswriter Dan Johnson, and sports columnist Sean Keeler.

This isn't the Register's first go-round with downsizing in the last few years. As part of the Gannett chain, layoffs, pay-cuts, furloughs, etc., have been standard operating procedure there in recent times. There have been four such rounds of layoffs since 2008. The company lopped off 700 jobs this week.

Chopping staff has happened at virtually every newspaper, of course. My company got out the blade in 2009. Three members of the Gazette's nine-person sportswriting staff were shoved out the door in one swift purge. I have good friends elsewhere in the country who made newspapering a career and were very good at it. They were laid off.

It's a surely become a tired story to you to hear about the problems companies that own newspapers are having trying to enter a new-media world. Mine is trying. It's hard, and it requires a lot of changing of mindsets about many things. It's often frustrating, and it means walking through some dark tunnels in order to reach the light, but I like our chances a lot better than Gannett's.

Of course, I'm just a voice on the sideline, not some genius like those Gannett top executives. Its CEO, Craig Dubow, had his salary doubled last year, to $9.4 million. Its chief operating officer, Gracia Matore, made $8.2 million. She also doubled her salary from 2009.

So somebody at the company is making out all right.

Gannett's way isn't everybody's way, as this column from the Poynter Institute's Rick Edmonds tells us. Edmonds wrote:

Metro papers like the Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News that have adopted a high price/high quality circulation strategy know readers will not be satisfied with skinny papers that have little worth reading. So those newsrooms are protected and, in a few cases, growing.

Other individual papers or chains, especially those that are debt-free, like Scripps or A.C. Belo, are willing to operate at break even or at a modest loss for now to keep the news core strong and invest in a range of digital startups.

Everything shakes itself out in business over time. Those who innovate with eyes on the future survive. Those who don't go bye-bye.

Keeler is a supremely talented writer who proved that time after time in his work for the Register. It sure looked like he embraced the changes to our business as much as anyone at his paper. He blogged on the Register's website, held live chats with readers every week, hosted webcasts, reached out to readers via social media, and continued to write essays and features that required a lot of thought and commitment and skill. He added genuine value to his company.

A lot of companies still reciprocate when that happens. Gannett clearly isn't among them, unless the value an employee brings comes from reducing the rest of the work force. 

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