Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Yepsen Leaves Register

Farewell to Yepsen

It's the end of an era, as we await the official announcement that Des Moines Register ubercolumnist David Yepsen is leaving the paper after three decades for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

The hagiography from the national press corps is starting. To them, with their quadrennial visits, Yepsen WAS Iowa journalism, caucus history incarnate (and he seemed to love that). I'm sure he'll stay in the rolodexes and show up on the talk shows in 2011 with a curmudgeonly critique of the GOP field.

Those of us on the ground in Iowa have more mixed opinions. It's no secret that I'm not a Yepsen fan. Part of it was my hometown pride. Yepsen worked in way too many cheap shots at Iowa City, the University, and espresso-based beverages, implying that our academic liberalism was somehow un-Iowan. Around here we adopted his “People's Republic of Johnson County” slur as a badge of pride.

I also thought that in his later years, he got some stories handed to him on a silver platter (I've had that happen to me a couple times so I know how it goes) simply because he WAS Yepsen, and the politicos knew that was the best way to maximize the play.

But more importantly and more personally, I also saw journalism very differently than Yepsen did. I've told the story a lot, but the first time I quit journalism, in the early `90s, it was because David Yepsen chewed me out for a bumper sticker on my car. It was more than just that, to be sure, but that was my condensed version of my struggle with, and rejection of, the paradigm of neutral, “objective” journalism.

I doubted Yepsen had ever listened to my stories to judge my objectivity (I was fresh off a really good Grassley interview), but he was old-school rigid on the symbolism. I guess he saw it as his duty to uphold the profession and school the youngster with the long hair and the full NPR outfit (tie worn with sneakers and jeans).

But I thought that as a journalist I was still a citizen, and I should be able to clock out and enjoy the rest of my rights. I even thought I should be able to state my interest and say “This is where I'm coming from, and with that taken into account here's how I see it.” But journalism didn't work that way in 1992. The symbolism mattered more than the substance. So, after an interval of slapping duct tape over my Harkin sticker when I was on assignment, I quit and went to work on a campaign.

Some places still see it that way. I know of organizations that literally disenfranchise their staff, not letting them vote in primary elections if it means declaring a party affiliation.

But technology caught up to me and made self-publishing cheap and easy. Six years ago I started this site, and three years ago I got serious about it. Eventually the quality of my work was judged on its merits, and professional opportunities came along.

We all know Yepsen is getting while the getting is good. The Register, like the entire rest of the print media industry, is in deep, deep, trouble with revenue losses and layoffs. They flat-out fired cartoonist Brian Duffy, and now they've lost the national face of the paper. Soon the only Register employee left will be the Juice photographer in charge of the Hot Gals In Bars section.

It's a dynamic of our times. More and more people want information electronically. There is an expectation that on the internet, information should be free; subscription site models have mostly failed except for highly specialized trade publications. Online ad revenue is lagging because ads are easy to block, and free sites like craigslist have eaten into classified revenue.

It's science-fiction fantastic for the public at large: every paper in the world instantly available. But at some point, someone has to feed the beast with some money, to keep those writers out on the street getting the news.

So far, so one seems to have come up with a good model. Government subsidy is a non-starter in our culture. The only place I see the money coming from is the political community, which in the Obama era seems to have virtually bottomless pockets.

There's a downside, sure. Without some self-restraint, a partisan press would be no better than the corporate special interest PR shills we have today. But done right, partisan reporting can be fair and can shed more light than simplistic neutrality. Is my writing partisan? Sure. But I never pretend to be something I'm not, and I've gotten many compliments from Republican readers.

On a larger scale, who can realistically argue that Kos is not one of the most important journalists in America today?

Other countries have a partisan press. If you're European you know which paper is the Christian Democrat paper and which paper is the official government line paper and which paper is the lowbrow naked girls on Page 3 paper and which paper is the Communist paper, and you apply grains of salt as needed.

America has not had that model in a century or so. We've seen it the way Yepsen has, with the goal of journalism being objectivity defined as neutrality.

But the partisan press is coming back, with broadcasting leading the way. Conservative talk radio exploded in the late `80s, and while Air America has been struggling, MSNBC's Olbermann-Maddow team has been thriving.

Sure, there's a polarizing dynamic to partisan journalism, with people of like mind turning to Hannity or Olbermann for ideological reinforcement as well as information. But ultimately it may be such partisanship that saves journalism.

Still, there's some losses with the death of the old school. The biggest loss with the demise of hometown print press is institutional memory. I've seen it time and again around here. It took me years of immersion in local government and politics to figure out where the bodies are buried, yet local government coverage invariably gets shunted off to the newest cub reporter who hasn't learned yet that what's said at the meeting ain't necessarily what's really going on.

Insider blogs, like this one, can fill some of that gap, though they can fizzle if the insiders play too coy. (Guilty, sometimes.) But thirty years of work, like David Yepsen put in, is irreplaceable, and this can't be seen as anything but a body blow to the Register.

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