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Letter From The Editor: Change vs Destruction

For three brief years of my life, I lived in Iowa.

It was brief because I had two jobs at the time: finish high school and work as sort of a working manager for an old fashioned general store in Merrill. It was called Keiser’s for Eldo and Inez Keiser, who bought the store after World War II. (Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser is their daughter.)

Keiser’s Store sold most everything the hardware store across the street did not carry and include a soda fountain (yes, I was a jerk) and cafe. On Sunday mornings, farmers and others living in the country would pour into Keiser’s to pick up their copy of the Des Moines Register.   

We probably sold a couple hundred copies, and those farmers read the same paper city folks in Des Moines were reading.  It was the glue that held 99 Iowa counties together.

Not any more. Long ago, back in ’97, it dumped border to border daily delivery. Fifteen of Iowa’s 99 counties out west where Merrill is located were cut off.  The in-state bureaus were shut down.  

Before all this happened, the Des Moines Register was second only to the New York Times in winning Pulitzer Prizes and had earned a reputation for representing an entire state that was unmatched anywhere in the country.

That all changed, slowly at first, in 1985 when Gannett Corp. purchased “The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon” from the home-grown Cowles Media Co.

Its ’97 moves were what the American Journalism Reivew called a “Golden Circle” strategy.

By that AJR meant the one-time statewide newspaper was pulling back to its base in and around Des Moines to cut costs and live off the mostly recession-free urban center.

Gannett insiders at the time said those who had problems with those moves just did not understand change.

Well this week, there was more change. For everything having to do with food, food safety, and of course agriculture in general, there have been few equals since 1933 to what comes out of the Register’s Washington D.C. bureau. In recent years, that spot has been ably filled by Philip Brasher.

Brasher has been called the dean of Ag journalists in the nation’s capital. On the basis of his own skill and who he works for and where it is located (think nation’s first presidential primary), there’s probably not been a Secretary of Agriculture who would ignore Brasher’s calls.

But this week, the Gannett empire eliminated Brasher’s job, along with dozens of others back in the Register news room in Des Moines, including  Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jane Schorer Meisner.

Hey, Gannett’s going through a bad quarter, so why not eliminate a job that every publisher and editor has deemed to be important for the past 78 years?  What do you think 200 farmers were doing, getting up on a Sunday morning to pick up a newspaper, if it was not to read about the latest food and agricultural news out of Washington?

That was then. Paula Crossfield, managing editor of Civil Eats, put it in great perspective Friday when she wrote: “Uniquely, however, Brasher wrote for a Midwestern audience about food policy. It has become increasingly rare for a Midwestern paper to keep an agriculture reporter in Washington, and in fact he was one of the last reporters left reporting solely on national food and agriculture policy for a major media outlet.”

By the way, among all its many newspapers and media outlets, Gannett axed 700 journalists from their jobs in this move. I am sure the company line will be that change is good. I just wish Gannett understood the difference between change and destruction.

While Bill Marler never saw the demise of the Des Moines Register’s Washington D.C. Bureau coming, he did start Food Safety News to fill a niche created, in part, by daily newspapers cutting health and food safety reporters from their staffs.  As I’ve said in this space before, we are working at building Food Safety News 2.0  to fill that need.

So, on a far happier note, we are pleased to announce a staff addition..

Andrew Schneider has joined Food Safety News as the senior public health correspondent and will continuing doing investigative reporting on topics of food and public safety and health..

He covered the same beat for almost two years for AOL News until it ceased to operate in April and before that he was the senior national correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until the paper closed in 2009. 

In addition to his work for Food Safety News, Schneider also writes for two blogs he created: coldtruth.com, which focuses on public health issues, and thefoodwatchdog.com, which focuses on food safety.

Schneider and his wife live in a house overlooking Puget Sound with their two Labrador Retrievers.

Welcome, Andrew!

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