Des Moines Register prepares for a ‘very stressful’ newsroom restructuring

Editor Amalie Nash speaks on turnover, transformation, and a virtual reality adventure

Amalie_Nash_590.jpgAmalie Nash became editor of the Des Moines Register earlier this year, at a time of transition for Iowa’s largest daily. (Photo courtesy Amalie Nash)

It’s a time of transition at the Des Moines Register. Along with other Gannett newspapers, Iowa’s largest daily has begun a process of newsroom reorganization that will bring some pain. New reporting jobs are being added even as other positions go away, but a number of longtime staffers will likely find themselves out of a job at the end of the process—and some have reportedly already bowed out.

Not all of the changes underway at the Register are difficult, though. The paper has also made news recently with the announcement of a new partnership with Bloomberg Politics; a collaboration with papers across the state to track political ad spending; a multi-tiered offensive in the battle for open records; and, perhaps most surprisingly, a foray into futurism with the “Harvest of Change” series, in which the Register presented a virtual-reality tour of an Iowa farm designed to be viewed through the Oculus Rift headset.

At the center of all these changes has been Amalie Nash, the Register’s editor and vice president for audience engagement, who is still in her first year at the helm after coming over from the Detroit Free Press. A Michigan native, Nash took the Register job at what she noted was “a transformational time” for the paper and Gannett as a whole. I spoke to Nash late last week about the restructuring, the Register’s ongoing open-records battles, and the paper’s venture into the unsettled (and for this interviewer, unsettling) territory of virtual reality. An edited transcript is below.

I understand you’ve been doing interviews for your restructuring this week—in which every staffer has to reapply for positions in a reorganized newsroom. What’s the reaction been like in the newsroom to this tumultuous process?

It’s certainly a difficult process for everyone. We’ve had a range of emotions from across the room. You know, it’s a very stressful time, and we’re cognizant of that.

One of the takeaways we’ve seen is just how passionate our employees are about the Register and about wanting to be part of the newsroom as we’re moving forward. And so we’ve heard a lot of really great stories from people about why they got into journalism, why they’re right for their roles; people are excited about some of the new roles that are going to be part of this restructuring…. This is a difficult process and one that we think will position us to have future success, to be able to have some new areas of coverage and that sort of thing.

You’ve said that you’re beefing up reporting as part of the process, and yet it’s been reported that your newsrooms in Des Moines and at the Iowa City Press-Citizen are going to be losing 18 positions between them. So how can you be both beefing up reporting and shrinking the newsroom?

We don’t know exactly how many positions it’s going to be at this point because obviously there’s a lot of financial modeling that goes into this. And so part of it’s going to depend on what the payroll is going to look like at the end of this. But there will be a loss of positions as a result of that, and that’s coming in a couple of different areas.

As you know, newsrooms have had a digital desk and a copy desk, so what we’re doing is combining those into one production desk….

We’re also reducing the number of middle managers. The role of the assigning editor is not part of the new structure. Instead you have content strategists and coaches who work with teams of reporters on what they’re covering, how to reach certain audiences, how to respond to what they’re hearing through metrics and feedback and everything else. So we’ll have fewer people in those positions.

Some of the work is moving over to the design studios. Gannett has a number of design studios where the newspapers are put together and designed. Some of the finishing work, as it’s called, which involves trimming stories, some headline writing, that sort of thing, is going to occur now in the design studio. They’re hiring more people. So while there’s some loss of people in the newsroom, there are also some additional positions that are going to move to the design studio.… 

As a result of making those moves, we are able to beef up the feet on the street, and so we have five new reporter positions as part of this restructuring.

Are any reporting positions and beats going away even while you’re adding positions in other areas?

Yes. It’s a net total of five more positions, but some beats are sort of being reconfigured.

We had someone who was covering the insurance industry, for instance, and now we’re going to have a little bit more of an economic-trend beat. We had a couple of GA beats—there’s no GA in here. There’s a storyteller position. We added a culture/values reporting position. We added a position that’s going to focus on politics from a younger, millennial-generation focus. We added a metro columnist and a business columnist. We added a public-safety enterprise position; we have, obviously, breaking-news reporters and courts reporters, but we didn’t have any enterprise reporters. We’re adding a reality-check reporter who will focus on truth-squadding, politics, public officials, that sort of thing. 

You’ve said that you’ll be reducing the number of managers and streamlining the editorial and production process. It’s been reported that the editorial page editor and one copy editor, among other people, have declined to reapply and so will be departing. Is there a danger that you’re losing important institutional memory and some quality control?

There’s certainly that concern. You know, quality is very important. Having been an editor for more than 10 years, I certainly understand the importance of editing and having the safety net there of quality editing and several layers. Institutional knowledge is something that’s a big deal. I’ve been here for seven months now, and so having started from ground zero, I certainly understand the importance of having people who do know a lot of the contextual information that I haven’t yet learned.

I think we’re going to have a good mix in the end. You will lose some staffers who are very highly qualified, very skilled, who do have institutional knowledge. But you know, as this industry is constantly in change, obviously we lose staffers to retirement, to other industries, to everything else on a fairly regular basis.

And so hopefully the end result is that we do have a number of very qualified, experienced editors, reporters and everybody else to be able to bounce ideas off each other, to do that quality editing, and to make sure that we maintain the product that is the best that we can offer to Iowans. 

In your time at the Register, you’ve placed an emphasis on pushing for open records in Iowa. In the spring, you filed simultaneous open-records lawsuits; one of those you won and the other against the state’s public information board is still pending. Earlier this month, you hosted a freedom of information roundtable with state officials and legislators—an idea that you’d had when I first talked to you in May. Are you happy with your progress to this point in putting the Register front and center on these open-records battles? 

We’re seeing a lot of momentum there. It’s an area I feel very strongly about, so I’m pretty excited about it.

The lawsuit that you mentioned involving the juvenile-home video that the state refused to release went to oral arguments before the judge on Sept. 23. I was there that day; I think our attorney made some really good arguments. But it also underscores the need for changes to the law, and so that’s sort of the next area of emphasis.

Filing lawsuits is great, but obviously if a judge is simply following what the current law says, then in some cases you may not be able to get that information. There are a number of loopholes; there’s some vague language in Iowa’s law. 

The Iowa Public Information Board as of July has been in existence for one year, so they’ve gotten their sea legs under them some, and so we think there’s a lot of momentum right now in terms of the lawsuits, the public records forum, pushing forward with legislative proposals that the information board is going to put before lawmakers hopefully early next year. We think that there’s a lot of ability to really continue pushing that effort until it results in some actual law changes.

We’ve been talking a lot about change and innovation. Perhaps the most dramatic new initiative at the Register has been your recent foray into virtual-reality reporting. How did that come about?

That came about several months ago. There was a professor at Syracuse University who just happened to be at Gannett Digital, and he had various things with him like a Google Glass and an Oculus Rift, and he was showing off these things.… One of the executives over at Gannett Digital said, “We need to do something with this Oculus Rift. We need to figure out: Is this the future of storytelling, and what does that look like? We need to do a project around that.”

And so they came here, and we really started looking at what kind of a story we would want to try to tell using virtual reality.… Obviously agriculture is big in Iowa, so we settled on looking at these shifting demographics in the nation through the eyes of Iowa farm families, and specifically the Dammann family that’s featured in the virtual-reality experience.

So we look at such serious issues as climate change, aging, the unsettling of cities across the state, and various other issues told through the virtual-reality experience.

I visited your offices earlier this month and viewed your “Harvest of Change” presentation on the Oculus Rift headset. I have to say, and you did warn me about this, I found the virtual-reality experience nauseating—literally. In other words, your story was really good but it made me sick. 

(Laughs.) You’re not the first one to have said that.

Is that something that can be improved as the technology develops, or just something that can happen to non-gamers like me who aren’t used to virtual reality?

That’s a good question. I don’t actually know whether they would be able to change the technology. The way it was explained to me is essentially that your brain thinks that you’re moving because you’re in there and you’re moving around, but your body recognizes that you’re not. And so as a result, you can have this sort of almost sick stomach because of that disconnect. Some people react to it a lot more strongly than others do. 

Do you envision using virtual reality for more stories in the future?

I certainly think that we will and other news organizations will as well. Some of what I’ve heard, just in the industry in general, is the idea that could you use something like that to almost transport people to something in real time. So if you couldn’t get tickets to the Bruce Springsteen concert, is there a way for you to experience it in virtual reality, almost as if you were there?

I mean, I certainly don’t think we’re too close to being able to do something like that. But projects like ours start to show you the capacity for what could be.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.