Birth of a salesman
The Register’s new publisher pitches the most important story of his career - his company’s
Friday, December 13, 2013 7:00 AM
As the new publisher of The Des Moines Register, Rick Green has quite a sales job ahead of him.
Hometown: Coshocton, Ohio
Education: Studied journalism at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
Family: Wife, Laura; three daughters, ages 20, 17 and 14; and a son, 10
Green is the first publisher at the newspaper to have been promoted from the Register’s newsroom, rather than the sales or advertising side of the operation, since Kenneth MacDonald ran the paper in the 1960s and ‘70s. In his three years as editor of the Register, he brought the paper into its 21st-century newsroom, gave reporters new tools to compete in the digital media age, elevated the newspaper’s commitment to investigative and watchdog reporting, and advocated tirelessly for strong, sophisticated journalism.
As publisher, he’s now a salesman with a message that seems a matter of primal urgency. He has to convince readers as well as advertisers that his industry is not becoming extinct.
“Those headlines that newspapers are dead? They are just incredibly false,” Green said.
Instead, he says, the Register is reinventing itself, and it’s Green’s job to help Iowans understand that. It’s not an easy task in the face of headlines about declining circulation and print advertising revenues and a shrinking staff of reporters and editors.
“I guess if there was an overarching message, it’s that we’re more than what you might think,” Green said. “Our capabilities are so much greater, they’re so much deeper. ... We’re a heck of a lot more than just a morning newspaper. We’re a powerful force from an advertising, marketing and journalism standpoint.”
Green might not have been trained in sales, but he comes to the task with more than a little natural talent. When he shakes your hand, he’s likely to also give you a friendly pat on the shoulder. He often makes a point to meet his visitors in the Register’s fourth-floor lobby. He gives out his personal cellphone number and tells you to call anytime. And if you want a tour of the Register’s 21st-century newsroom, he’d love to give it.
He’s as proud as a new parent of his high-tech newsroom, which is so unusual that Register executives had no other newsroom model to follow when they began planning to move from the newspaper’s home for 95 years at 715 Locust St. The Register and its 525 employees are now located on the fourth and fifth floors of Capital Square.
Here, a semicircle of editors’ desks faces several large screens that are tracking not only television news channels but also the Register’s websites and other digital platforms, as well as other websites. Editors can see, in real time, how many people are clicking on each story and which stories are most popular. The hub is informally referred to as “Mission Control” (a name Green, a space buff, admits might have come from him). Editors there instantly can direct content to the type of devices on which they want it to appear (computer screen, tablet or mobile phone). They know certain people want certain stories at specific times during the day, and they can target content to audience groups most interested in it, says Green.
Mission Control is staffed with editors for all but a few of the wee hours in the morning. These editors make it their business to know facts such as the time of day when people are most often on their tablets (7 p.m., often while they are watching television). So, during the World Series in October, for example, the editors were searching for and posting articles that people would want to read while watching baseball.
Green sees the Register’s new high-tech offices as a tangible way to show how his company is morphing from The Des Moines Register newspaper into Register Media. In his tour, he gleefully points out the Register’s video studio, the advertising rooms where staff can meet with clients and write on whiteboard walls to brainstorm solutions for them.
“The digital age in particular, I’m convinced, is the golden age of storytelling,” he said. “Everyone wants to talk about the demise of newspapers, and I just laugh at them because I think all we’re doing is reinventing ourselves.”
View a video message from Rick Green to the Greater Des Moines business community.
A Q&A with Rick Green
You’ve come up through the ranks in the newsroom. Was becoming a publisher ever a career goal for you?
I grew up in newspapers since I was about 14 or 15 years old back in my hometown in Ohio. All I ever wanted was to be an executive editor. I wanted to lead a newsroom. It really wasn’t until about six years or so ago that I started having conversations with people like (former Register publisher) Laura Hollingsworth about the prospect of taking a step in a different direction. …
When she left in May, we had a another conversation about it. ... I thought there was a way that I could apply the love that I’ve got of this business with the tough business decisions we have to make to propel us in a new direction and pull us to even greater prominence than what we once had. I raised my hand and said let’s take a look at it. And good things happened.
In announcing your appointment, Laura mentioned that you had outlined a 100-day plan. Can you share some of that with us?
I started off really focusing internally on our organization. My very first conversation I had with everybody was the very simple belief that you win with people. I wanted to send a clear signal to our staff ... to really make sure that everybody knew that I was really making an investment in them.
And at the same time externally going out and touching with as many of our top advertisers as I could. ... My first conversation with a lot of business leaders from an advertising standpoint is “Thank you very much for your business, and what can we do to help your business grow even more in the new year?”
The other message that I want to send is that this isn’t just an ordinary, everyday media site. There are hundreds of newspapers across the country. There’s something special about The Des Moines Register. ... We’re part of the DNA of this state. There aren’t a lot of media companies that can say that. They can’t point to their long-standing reputation, their involvement in the community, and being the center of news and information the way that we have.
This (new office) space has really allowed us to do this. It’s not that uncommon that we have advertisers coming in and other newsmakers who are looking around at the space and seeing our capabilities and recognizing, “Wow, you guys really are more than that thing that I get at 5 o’clock in the morning on my doorstep.”
What are you most proud of during your tenure as editor?
One, I think that we accelerated the commitment to sophisticated content on all platforms. ... At the same time, we changed some of the (journalists’) skills. The newsroom of today is a lot different than the one that I arrived in three years ago. They’re shooting videos. They’re dominating social media. They’re following analytics. They’re a much more thoughtful organization and journalists who flex muscles that they might not have had when I got here in January 2011.
Two, I’m incredibly proud of what we did during the 2012 Iowa caucus cycle. That presidential cycle really was the first one that catapulted into the social media space. We created our own app. People started talking about the Register and the traditional shoe-leather journalism that we did, but also recognized that we were a power as related to the digital and the tech world.
The third thing is we do journalism that really matters. At a time when some news sites were starting to de-emphasize watchdog and public service reporting, we made a heavier commitment to it. We launched Lee Rood in the Readers’ Watchdog. Clark Kauffman has done some incredible work. ...Despite some sea changes on other fronts, our commitment to watchdog journalism has never wavered.
Julie Harvey, vice president of finance, becomes general manager, a new position that has been described as the No. 2 leader. How do you see the two of you working together?
Julie is phenomenal strategic thinker. She brings to the table 20-plus years of financial acumen. Understanding the numbers and really understanding the trends as it relates to advertising and what’s unfolding as it relates to our products, she brings a sophistication from a financial standpoint. I spent 26 years of my career in the newsroom. I certainly understand marketing and I certainly understand advertising, but I’ve not had to swim in those waters day-in and day-out. Julie has and she’s a really great navigator for that. We’re a really strong one-two punch with the rest of our executive leadership team as it relates to strategy.
What motivates you when you get up in the morning?
It sounds hokey, I know it does, but I’ve been at this since I was 15 years old (working for) my hometown newspaper in Coshocton, Ohio. I was always motivated by “do the right thing, do work that really matters.” It’s something that my first editors taught me and my parents taught me.... We all have long hours, we all have those killer weeks at times, but the passion I have for the business has never gone away. I love the idea that our work really matters. There are not many industries out there that are that noble and still have that tangible result.
What keeps you up at night?
Things that are out of your control. It’s no secret that we live in some really unpredictable times right now. The economy is certainly a big piece of that. The chaos in Washington. The fact that this business of communication and the intersection of commerce with news and information is changing so fast and so dramatically.
Just wondering: Are we where we need to be in terms of understanding all nuances of it? Are we giving the deepest, most strategic approaches to some of our advertising campaigns? How do I convince our readers that we’ve been part of your lives since the 1860s and we’re going to continue to be part of your lives well into this next century? Are we doing everything we possibly can for our readers and for our advertisers? Am I providing the right kind of leadership? Those are the reasons you get bags under your eyes and you can’t sleep at night.
Do you remember your first job and what it taught you?
I was 15 years and I was a sports gofer – go get this box score, go get this phone call, go fetch the pizza for the newsroom - for a newspaper in Coshocton, Ohio. My first boss was a sports editor by the name of Frank Shepherd. Frank was probably about 5 feet 7 inches, could curse like a sailor, and had great passion for the community. He taught me humility. He taught me how to work hard. He taught me never to shortchange the reader. Put your heart and soul into it, no matter how little you might think the story is.
When I was an intern, I had to write an obituary. So you talk to the family and write. It’s not a Page One story. It’s not a breaking news. That afternoon, the father of the woman who died came to the newsroom - with tears in his eyes - and he bought a dozen copies and wanted to meet the reporter who wrote the obituary. I was 17 years old, I guess. You go over, you talk to this father and you realize what great responsibility you have a journalist. Give it your best and never let the reader down.