DES MOINES, Iowa — Brianne Pfannenstiel has been giving her red 2010 Toyota Corolla a workout lately.
“900 miles in three days,” said the 31-year-old chief politics reporter for The Des Moines Register, who had spent the weekend chasing Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden around Iowa.
As we stood chatting in the Register’s newsroom Wednesday, she turned to her boss, politics editor Rachel Stassen-Berger, and warned her to expect a hefty expense report, given all that mileage.
But chances are, Pfannenstiel, who was a moderator this month for a Democratic debate, won’t have time to file expenses anytime soon.
With the Iowa caucuses Monday and the results of a final Iowa Poll, owned by the Register, due out Saturday night, the Register’s staff is entirely focused on what’s immediate.
The newsroom was revved up. The staff was more wired than exhausted.
They seem undaunted that their newsroom staff, which once approached 200, is now around 60.
They don’t seem fixated on the merger of their owner, Gannett, with GateHouse Media, and the very real possibility that it will mean even more staff cuts.
I certainly was thinking about it, though, after learning that morning that Warren Buffett was getting out of the newspaper-ownership business — a decision that included the sale of my hometown paper, the Buffalo News, which he has owned since 1977. I started my career as a summer intern there and was its top editor for a dozen years.
Local newspapers like the Register and the News — and hundreds more — are in distress as their advertising-based business model has crumbled. More than 2,000 (mostly weeklies) have folded in the past 15 years.
The Register’s staff knows all this, of course — but they have Monday on their minds, and after that, the rest of the 2020 election cycle.
For Carol Hunter, the Register’s executive editor, the good news is that the paper gets to tap into Gannett’s nationwide network to boost her local staff that usually includes about 35 reporters. The USA Today Network will bring reporters, photographers and producers from Gannett papers around the country to Des Moines this weekend to help with caucus coverage.
“The Register doesn’t have to do it all by ourselves anymore,” she said during an interview in her office just off the open-plan newsroom with its clear sight line to the Iowa statehouse. Like many papers, the Register had to leave its longtime home, a landmark downtown building, years ago. That was a sentimental loss, but the new digs are appropriate for digital-first journalism and very attractive, to boot.
Hunter says the view allows her to remind everyone that her staff is keeping a relentless eye, quite literally, on state politicians.
Nearby, outside a meeting area called (with a wink) the Caucus Room, towering reproductions of Register front pages tell the storied history of the paper, which has won 17 Pulitzer Prizes.
One page from Jan. 4, 2012 carries the post-caucuses headline, “It’s a split decision,” with photos of Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, each accompanied by locally oriented tag lines. For Romney: “His visits to Iowa were rare until late in the campaign.” For Santorum: “Persistent from the outset, he stopped in all 99 counties.”
The tag lines, and every conversation I had with the editors and reporters, reflect the paper’s clear mission during the political season: to report on national politics through a local lens. “We are Iowa,” Stassen-Berger reminds her staff.
This mission is a way of narrowing down the endless possibilities of national political coverage to what really matters to the Register audience, giving them something they can’t get elsewhere.
And many appreciate it.
“The Register coverage has been incredible,” said Robert Leonard, news director of two Iowa radio stations, who has written opinion pieces for The Washington Post and The New York Times. “Day after day, I’m astounded, and I greatly appreciate what they are able to do with a small staff.”
Even in the nonpolitical season, if there is such a thing here, the Register has a lot to be proud of.
It still has two full-time investigative reporters and a reporter on the agriculture beat, a rarity these days, writing on the impact of trade wars on Iowa farmers and the overall strain on the farm economy. (Hunter calls that economy the worst since the 1980s.)
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder about the next time the caucuses roll around, in 2024. Will the Register still be able to do its important work?
Hunter calls herself an optimist and thinks new ownership will see the value of the newsroom’s efforts.
At the same time, she admits, “there’s a lot of things that keep me up at night, and to find that business model to keep a large enough staff is a constant worry.”
But for now, Monday looms. And the Register is ready.