The DMR’s revolving door in the Gannett Age

Photo Credit: cliff1066 (via creativecommons)

Carolyn Washburn’s departure as editor of the Des Moines Register, announced Monday, got local and national industry headlines, but what’s unremarked on is how her understandable decision to leave Iowa for her hometown Cincinnati Enquirer is the latest evidence that the Register has transitioned from a career-destination newspaper to a stepping stone.

The evidence comes from the Register’s own pages this morning, where an infographic on A4 shows that the four Register editors who served before the Gannett buyout in 1985 served a combined 80 years at the top of the paper. Starting with Jim Gannon, who was editor when Gannett bought the Register, the biggest newspaper in Iowa has had six editors over the course of 26 years.

And the pace of the revolving door is quickening: Rick Green, who will take over the paper on Jan. 17 after having served at the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., since 2008, will be the third editor of the Register in the past 10 years.

In one sense, that’s not a surprising story: The days of newsroom giants running a major paper for decades are long gone. It’s also no doubt a reflection of the transition of newspapers from indispensable community resource and power broker to just another information source fighting it out on the web. And the fact is that journalists are like all professionals — they’re much more mobile than they used to be.

But to Iowans, those who’ve read the Register since our youth, it’s another sign that the paper’s not what it once was. During the 80 years of the run of the first four Register editors (Harvey Ingham, William Welsey Waymack, Kenneth MacDonald and Michael Gartner), the paper won 13 Pulitzer Prizes. Since then, the paper’s won three — and the 19-year gap between last year’s Pulitzer won by Mary Chind and the Register’s previous Pulitzer in 1991 was the longest in Register history.

Geneva Overholser, one of the Register’s Gannett-era editors, told me during a visit she made to Simpson a few years ago that she’s saddened to see the paper make the transition from national institution to just another local paper struggling to meet budget goals and keep a graying readership.

Indeed, a newspaper that once found its way to the president’s desk in the Oval Office each morning and won six Pulitzers for national reporting between the mid-1950s to mid-1980s, is now focusing heavily on Juice and Metromix, featuring photos of under-40s having good times at local bars.

The result: The Des Moines Register’s become just another newspaper that will have a more difficult time in years to come in showing why it’s needed in Des Moines. And the editor’s chair will likely see a lot more people sitting in it in the years to come.

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