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Civic Skinny

Food fight at Fong’s. Register’s circulation drops again. Court okays Dico-city deal. Ernst lines up with Hawley.

3/3/2021

Print circulation of The Des Moines Register continues to plummet. Reported digital circulation is holding more or less steady, but at a low level, but internal numbers show it rising nicely. Executives can’t explain that discrepancy.

In the six months ended Sept. 30, the latest period for which figures are available, print circulation of the Sunday Register averaged 53,274. Daily print circulation averaged 33,077. A year earlier, in the third quarter of 2019, Sunday circulation was 67,353, daily 38,904.

That’s a year-to-year drop of 21 percent on Sunday, 15 percent daily.

In the latest period, so-called digital replica circulation — that’s the entire paper on the Web — averaged 4,992 on Sunday, 6,061 on weekdays. A year earlier, the average was 5,053 on Sunday, 6,109 on weekdays. Those are drops of around 1 percent.

All these figures come from reports the Gannett newspaper submits to The Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group.

Prep Iowa

But Carol Hunter, the paper’s top editor, says reports she sees show the Register has more than 23,000 digital-only subscribers. “Paid digital subscriptions are growing at a pretty robust clip,” she says, and are up 13 percent from a year ago.

She says she “hasn’t been able to get to the bottom” of why the numbers she sees are so much higher than the numbers the paper reports to The Alliance for Audited Media.

But no one is disputing the sharp drop in print figures. Five years ago, for instance, the print figures were 129,444 on Sunday and 71,015. The five-year drops: 59 percent for Sunday, 53 percent on weekdays.

It’s hard to see how the Register can continue with seven-day-a-week print editions long into the future.

But Hunter says that Mike Reid, the chief executive of Gannett, says print “has a long runway.” Asked what that means, she says Gannett thinks “there’s a long way to go before print ends,” though it will eventually end in many cities.

In the past 15 years, about 1,800 newspapers have closed across America — including about 100 dailies — and Iowa has been hit especially hard. Examples: The Pella Chronicle and the Knoxville Journal Express were closed and merged into the Oskaloosa Herald, in neighboring Mahaska County, leaving Marion County without a newspaper. Similarly, the Daily Iowegian of Centerville in Appanoose County was merged into the Ottumwa Courier in Wapello County.

Even the very best papers struggle. The Storm Lake Times, a semi-weekly owned by the Cullen brothers and perhaps the best small paper in the state (perhaps the best of any size, for that matter), has a circulation of 2,919, according to Art Cullen, who won a Pulitzer Prize a few years ago for editorial-writing. That’s up a tad from a year ago but down from about 3,200 in 2016, he says. Digital circulation, now around 500, is up from about 400 just a few months ago.

Even so, the newspaper — which competes against the smaller, chain-owned Pilot Tribune — has to work hard to stay in the black. Last spring the Cullens raised $28,000 through a Go Fund Me appeal to readers.

Now, Cullen and Doug Burns, whose family owns the excellent Carroll newspaper, have set up the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, to support independent community journalism. “The aim is to support western Iowa’s independent, family-owned newspapers like the ones in Carroll, Jefferson, Storm Lake and Denison, among others, notably our friends at La Prensa Iowa Hispanic Newspaper,” Cullen wrote last month. Some big foundations are showing interest in contributing. …

There’s a food fight in the backroom of Fong’s Pizza in the Drake neighborhood.

Gwen Page, a founder of the original Fong’s downtown and a partner in the Drake operation, has sued the other three main owners of the Drake Fong’s, saying they have in effect frozen her out of the management of the restaurant though she holds the title of president and is “nominally” a director.

She says the Drake Fong’s is insolvent, and her suit in Polk County District Court against her partners Jeff Bruning, Andy Massoth and Daniel Massoth asks to have the owning corporation — Fulldogs, Inc. — dissolved. The suit says Bruning owns 20 percent of the Drake Fong’s, Daniel Massoth owns 15 percent and Andy Massoth owns 10 percent. The suit says Page also owns 10 percent. All have guaranteed portions of the restaurant’s bank debt, the suit says.

Among other things, the suit alleges, Bruning and the Massoths “have directed the business activities of Fulldogs without directors meetings or shareholders meetings or typical written contractual arrangements.” Page says she “has been excluded from all management discussions and decisions about the operation of Fulldogs since it opened for business” in April of 2019.

Bruning and the Massoths control more than a dozen Des Moines area bars and restaurants — The High Life Lounge, El Bait Shop, Rita’s, the Chicken and Truman’s, among them — and they control the original downtown Fong’s. Page says she has offered to assume all of Fulldogs’ debt and business operations if Bruning and the others would sell her a controlling interest in the downtown Fong’s, but she says they have refused to negotiate with her.

The lawsuit asks that Bruning and the Massoths “be ordered to account to Plaintiff for their waste and misappropriation of Fulldogs in breaches of fiduciary duties and to repay such funds as the Court deems just.”

UPDATE: On March 6, Bruning, the Massoths and another stockholder fired Page as general manager of Fong’s Downtown and president of Half Court Press, which owns Fong’s. The four stockholders who fired her together own 52% of the shares; Page says she owns 32% and is the single largest stockholder. She also says the downtown Fong’s is profitable.

“The termination is completely retaliatory,” Page says. She says they are trying to force her to sell her interest to them cheap, to divert Downtown Fong’s income “to the other entities they own,” or completely “freeze me out.”

Page says she continues to own not only the 32% interest in the downtown Fong’s but also 18% of the Fong’s in Ankeny and 20% in the Drake and Cedar Rapids Fongs, “which are both bankrupt.” Page says she “created and built the Fong’s we all know and love today.” What the four stockholders have done “is not right,” says says, “and I look forward to seeing them in court.”

Page is represented by the Dickinson law firm. Guy Cook represents the men she is suing.

Cook told CITYVIEW that “the scurrilous and wild claims by Page are untrue. Like most big lies, the truth is just the opposite.” He said that the “tactics of Page are regrettable and sad” and that ”my clients will proceed with all sensible legal action.”

Footnote: Once, Fong’s was a happier family. Page dated Andy Massoth from July of 2015 to January of 2019….

Marty Tirrell now is in residence at the Duluth Federal Prison Camp, a minimum-security federal prison in Minnesota with 305 other convicted felons. In February, the sports-radio host and serial scammer was sentenced to 41 months in the penitentiary after pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud as part of a plea deal in which nine other counts of fraud were dismissed.

Tirrell, 61, had asked that he be sent to a prison closer to his boyhood home in Massachusetts, but Federal Bureau of Prison authorities chose Duluth instead. Though it’s a minimum security prison, it’s still a prison and, say people who have served time there, not a particularly nice and friendly place. 

In Duluth, Tirrell is prisoner number 19011-030, and prison records say his release date is “unknown.”…

No one seems to have noticed, but the federal court in Des Moines approved in February the deal that will allow the city of Des Moines to take ownership of the 43 acres of polluted wasteland at the corner of 16th Street and MLK Parkway.

That includes the land where Kyle Krause and his colleagues hope to build a soccer stadium if they can get the state aid and other help they want. In all, they envision a $550 million development of stores and hotels and apartments on the site as well as the stadium.

The land was owned by Dico Inc., an affiliate of Titan Tire, and it has been polluted for decades and empty for the past 25 years except for couple of ramshackle, deserted buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency twice sued Dico, which was fined $16.6 million for issues relating to the pollution, and Dico simply ignored the judgments. Meantime, MLK Parkway was built, and development of apartments and condos moved west up the parkway until it approached the ugly and polluted land.

Last fall, the government, Dico, Titan and the city of Des Moines made a deal where Dico and Titan will pay the EPA about $11.5 million and the companies then will give the land to the city of Des Moines. Most of the money will be used to pay for past cleanups, though the land remains heavily polluted. The deal absolves Dico and Titan for their past liabilities.

Senior Federal Judge Robert Pratt, who became an expert on the site after 10 years of litigation, had asked the companies and the city for more clarification to their proposed deal, and after getting that he approved it. It limits the use of the land, in particular barring the use of
it for “first-floor residential occupancy, such as single-family homes, duplexes, or day-care facilities, elder-care facilities, nursing homes or hospitals.” The property may be used for commercial or recreational purposes.

No one has formally opposed the deal, and the City Council has unanimously approved it. In a filing in response to questions raised by Pratt, Sanders estimates the city will spend $790,000 in operating and maintenance costs the first year after it takes possession and $300,000 a year after that. Also, the city will spend about $550,000 to demolish and remove two buildings on the site and spend about $2 million “to bring in clean fill dirt or other clean fill material.”

The planned soccer stadium seems to hinge on getting a big chunk of state aid, and there are several competing requests for that aid. One comes from the Merle Hay Mall, which hopes to renovate part of it to build an ice arena as a home for the Des Moines Bucs, who now play in a small, aging arena in Urbandale. …

Sen. Joni Ernst seems to be lining up with Josh Hawley and that bunch when it comes to voting on President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations.

Of the seven nominees voted on by CITYVIEW’s press time, Ernst opposed four, while Sen. Chuck Grassley opposed just one. Ernst was one of just seven Senators to oppose the appointment of Denis McDonough as Veteran Affairs Secretary and one of 10 against the appointment of Avril Haines as Director of National Security. She also voted against the appointment of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State (the vote was 78 to 22) and of Alejandro Mayorkas as head of Homeland Security.

Almost all Republicans opposed Mayorkas, where the vote was 56 to 43.

Grassley, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, opposed Mayorkas but voted for the other six nominees.

Ben Watson, the press secretary for Ernst, said the Senator “is hopeful to work together with the Biden Administration in a bipartisan way.” But…. But she “has serious concerns” over the fact that Blinken and Haines “support the failed Obama-era foreign policy,” she “has concerns over McDonough’s record and lack of experience on veterans issues” and Mayorkas’ “support for policies that she feels will keep
Iowans less safe and our border less secure.”

Missouri’s Hawley was the only other Republican to oppose all four nominees opposed by Ernst. Hawley has voted against all seven nominees while Ted Cruz of Texas has opposed all but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. ♦

Well, not really.

From a paid obituary, with photo, in The Des Moines Register: “Always a gentleman, it will be difficult to picture Jack without his standard bow tie.” ♦

3 Comments

  1. Randy says:

    Who is even a little bit surprised by these circulation numbers? This “so called: newspaper has been so one sided (liberal left) that it seems that they deliberately try to cut their circulation by making the right seem insignificant and unimportant.I fought subscribing to it for years because of their views but I had to acquiesce just to see the local sports information.

    I have tried to convince them for years to be fair and present both sides of the issues on which they report. I truly believe in doing so, they would increase their circulation tremendously. Of course, they deny that they aren’t fair and objective, so there is no hope for them. They are like an alcoholic that doesn’t think HE has a problem.

  2. Mike Wegner says:

    Someone needs to explain to me how the Des Moines Public Schools stadium needs don’t mesh with the Krause stadium project. I don’t pay as much attention as I used to, but with the existing Drake stadium, the Cownie soccer complex, the existing DMPS stadiums at Lincoln, East, North and Hoover and the pending Krause stadium, why is it that the schools need another stadium? I understand there are maintenance costs but ….

  3. John Frank says:

    What’s going on at KCCI? Kurtis leaving. Cynthia in house arrest. Max left. What’s up?

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