STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today's business news is about the business of news.
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INSKEEP: One man in Iowa believes we should all be concerned about the state of the nation's newspapers. Ralph Gross is not a journalist, but he's been asking tough questions about his local paper--questions that apply to many papers across the country.
NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
Physically, Ralph Gross certainly isn't an imposing figure. He's an investment counselor, a long-time Des Moines, Iowa resident who stands just five and a half feet tall. But he's also a man with a lot of energy and interests. He's an accomplished photographer, sits on the board of some local non-profits, and is an avid newspaper reader.
It's that last role that led him to join the reader advisory board at his hometown newspaper, the Des Moines Register. At his first meeting, he asked the paper's top editors something he'd long been wondering.
Mr. RALPH GROSS: I said, 35 years ago, I used to walk by the paper's building. In front there was a statement, and it said, "This newspaper has won more Pulitzer prizes than any other newspaper except one for national reporting. Congratulations New York Times." And I said, I'm here because I'd like to know if you have a plan in place that would reestablish the preeminence of this newspaper.
ALLEN: In the 1960s and '70s, the Des Moines Register defined for many what a great newspaper could be. It won a string of Pulitzer prizes for national reporting, established a national reputation for its coverage of agricultural issues, and boasted a circulation that was the envy of many larger papers.
But a watershed moment came in 1985, when the long-time owners, the Cowles family, sold the paper to Gannett--then, as now, the nation's largest newspaper chain. In the 21 years since, the paper has won just two Pulitzers, and critics say adopted graphics and an editorial style reminiscent of Gannett's flagship property, USA Today.
At that first reader's advisory board meeting, Ralph Gross says the newspaper's managing editor told him the Pulitzers were hanging in the newsroom to inspire the reporters, but that, quote, "You can't a run a newspaper to win Pulitzers."
Over his next two years on the board, Gross says he continued to get what he considered evasive answers to some tough questions, like why there was less investigative reporting at the Register, less coverage of state and local issues, and whether the push for profits was eroding the paper's quality.
Mr. GROSS: I finally got to the point where I was so frustrated I wrote a letter to the editor, as an Op-Ed piece, and I said, here, I would like to talk about this issue of profits versus excellence here. And the paper refused to publish it.
ALLEN: The paper also refused to run four quarter-page ads Gross wanted to buy to air his comments.
Eventually, he found a forum in the Columbia Journalism Review. That article placed him in the center of a discussion well under way in newspaper circles: whether journalism is suffering because of investor demands for high profits from media companies like Gannett.
Just last month, those pressures forced the nation's second largest newspaper chain, Knight Ridder, to sell its 32 daily papers. Profit-wise, Gannett has long been an industry leader, with an operating margin approaching 30 percent. Critics have openly wondered whether those returns sometimes come at the expense of good journalism.
But that's a conversation that Des Moines Register managers would rather not have with Ralph Gross. The paper's publisher, Mary Stier, steadfastly refused to meet with him, saying Gross was asking for financial information he had no right to see. And, she rejects his accusation that the newspaper's quality has fallen in recent years.
Ms. MARY STIER (President and Publisher, Des Moines Register): I take offense to that. I, we have two hundred very hard working journalists in the Des Moines Register newsroom that would take offense to that.
ALLEN: Stier says the Des Moines Register takes its journalistic responsibilities as seriously as it ever did. She notes that the paper was a Pulitzer finalist last year for investigative reporting, and she proudly points to a recent series that led the state to pull the plug on its touch-play electronic lottery machines.
Ms. STIER: We acquired the information, and from that information, it's changing the law in the state of Iowa. It was because of our work. So when you say that we're not taking that role as seriously as we used to, I do take offense to that.
ALLEN: There's no question, though, that circulation at the Des Moines Register, like most papers, is far below where it was 20 years ago. In downtown Des Moines, Don Ruffcorn(ph) is typical of many younger readers in their 20s and early 30s. He relies on the Internet for news, and picks up the paper only on Sundays, and mostly for the ads. But as far as Ruffcorn is concerned, the Register is the same paper it always was.
Mr. DON RUFFCORN (Des Moines, Iowa): And for me the quality has stayed pretty well the same. I mean, I don't see any slip in it at all. So long as they remain accurate, they bring stories to me that are pertinent to today's issues, then they're doing a good job.
ALLEN: There are many here in Des Moines, though, who believe the Register's best days are behind it.
Mr. JAMES FLANSBURG (Former Editor, Des Moines Register): I feel the same about the Register as I feel about my late father. I really, really miss him. But there's nothing I can do about it.
ALLEN: Jim Flansburg worked for the Des Moines and its sister paper, the Tribune, for 40 years on various beats, writing a political column and as editorial page editor. He's one of several former editors sharply critical of the paper's direction under Gannett.
Flansburg says the changes came slowly. It wasn't until after he retired in 1997 that he realized what had happened to the paper where he'd spent his career.
Mr. FLANSBURG: I had no complaints about Gannett whatsoever. None. And I thought we produced a good paper. But, at the same time, I believe the caliber of the paper has gone down consistently for these nearly 20 years now.
ALLEN: Stephen Bloom teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. He concedes that the slow changes over time may have gone unnoticed by the Des Moines Register's readers. But he argues that something important has been lost.
Professor STEPHEN BLOOM (Journalism, University of Iowa): It's now been 21 years since Gannett took over the Register. And the sad thing is that I teach students that are 21-years old, and they have no concept of what a good, strong newspaper is.
ALLEN: It's a complaint you hear not just in Des Moines, but in cities around the country. Seasoned journalists and media watchers who are upset that their local newspaper has changed, and in their view, not for the better.
The Register's publisher, Mary Stier, notes that the paper wasn't making money when Gannett bought it in 1985. Her job, she says, is to serve the community, but also to make money so that an institution that's so important to Des Moines survives.
And she says what readers want and need from a newspaper has changed over the last 25 years. The challenge of producing a quality newspaper in an era where consumers have access to online news, radio, and 24-hour cable news networks is tough. Equally hard is the challenge of producing consistent profits.
The question that journalists, media professionals, and readers like Ralph Gross are asking is whether it's possible to do both.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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I'm Steve Inskeep.
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