The first newspaper in Des Moines, the Iowa Star, was founded in 1849. In 1855, the Iowa Citizen began publication; it was renamed the Iowa State Register in 1860. In 1902, the Register merged with the Des Moines Leader, a descendant of the Star, to become the Des Moines Register and Leader. In 1903, Des Moines banker Gardner Cowles, Sr. purchased the Register and Leader; the name became The Des Moines Register in 1915. (Cowles also acquired the Des Moines Tribune in 1908. The Tribune, which merged with the rival Des Moines News in 1924 and the Des Moines Capital in 1927, served as the evening paper for the Des Moines area until it ended publication on September 25, 1982.)
Under the ownership of the Cowles family, the Register became Iowa's largest and most influential newspaper, eventually adopting the slogan "The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon." Newspapers were distributed to all four corners of the state by train and later by truck as Iowa's highway system was improving.
The Register employed reporters in cities and towns throughout Iowa, and it covered national and international news stories from an Iowa perspective, even setting up its own news bureau in Washington, D.C. in 1933. During the 1960s, circulation of the Register peaked at nearly 250,000 for the daily edition and 500,000 for the Sunday edition–more than the population of Des Moines at the time. In 1935, the Register & Tribune Company founded radio station KRNT-AM, named after the newspapers' nickname, "the R 'n T." In 1955, the company, renamed Cowles Communications some years earlier, founded Des Moines' third television station, KRNT-TV, which was renamed KCCI after the radio station was sold in 1974. Cowles eventually acquired other newspapers, radio stations and television stations, but almost all of them were sold to other companies by 1985.
In 1906, the newspaper's first front-page editorial cartoon, illustrated by Jay Norwood Darling, was published; the tradition of front-page editorial cartoons continued until December 4, 2008 when 25-year veteran cartoonist Brian Duffy was let go in a round of staff cuts. In 1943, the Register became the first newspaper to sponsor a statewide opinion poll when it introduced the Iowa Poll, modeled after Iowan George Gallup's national Gallup poll. Sports coverage was increased under sports editor Garner "Sec" Taylor – for whom Sec Taylor Field at Principal Park is named – in the 1920s. For many years the Register printed its sports sections on peach-colored paper, but that tradition ended for the daily paper in 1981 and for the Sunday Register's "Big Peach" in 1999. Another Register tradition – the sponsorship of RAGBRAI – began in 1973 when writer John Karras challenged columnist Donald Kaul to do a border-to-border bicycle ride across Iowa. The liberal-leaning editorial page has brought Donald Kaul back for Sunday opinion columns. Other local columns have faded and given way to Gannett-distributed material.
In 1985, faced with declining circulation and revenues, the Cowles family sold off its various properties to different owners, with the Register going to Gannett. At the time of sale, only The New York Times had won more Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting. In 1990, the Register began to reduce its coverage of news outside of the Des Moines area by closing most of its Iowa news bureaus and ending carrier distribution to outlying counties, although an "Iowa Edition" of the Register is still distributed throughout most of the state. Many of the Register's news stories and editorials focus on Des Moines and its suburbs.
The Register opened a new printing and distribution facility on the south side of Des Moines in 2000. The newspaper's offices are located in downtown Des Moines. On June 1, 2005, the Register launched a weekly tabloid publication, Juice, which features entertainment and lifestyle stories targeted at the 25 to 34-year-old demographic. They also launched dmJuice.com in conjunction with the free weekly publication.
After 95 years in the Des Moines Register Building at 715 Locust Street, the Register announced in 2012 that they would move to a new location in 2013, settling for Capital Square three blocks to the east. Overnight on Friday, June 14 into the early morning hours of Saturday, June 15, 2013 The Register moved to its new location on the 4th & 5th floors of Capital Square with no interruption in service, design, reporting, circulation, or any other operations. The old building was sold in late 2014 and will be redeveloped into a combination of apartments and retail space.
In the three decades before the Cowles family acquired the Register in 1903, the Register was a "voice of pragmatic conservatism." However, Garner Cowles Sr., who served as a Republican in the Iowa General Assembly and was a delegate to the 1916 Republican National Convention, was an advocate of progressive Republicanism. The new owners presented a variety of viewpoints, including Darling cartoons that frequently made fun of progressive politicians.
During the Cowles family's ownership, the Register's editorial page philosophy was generally more liberal in its outlook than editorial pages of other Iowa newspapers, but there were notable exceptions. Garner Cowles Sr. served in the administration of President Herbert Hoover. The publishers strongly supported Republican Wendell Willkie's 1940 presidential campaign against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. The newspaper also supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower's campaigns for the Republican nomination and general election in 1952, and again in 1956. Although the Register endorsed presidential candidates Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, it endorsed Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1972.
In December 2007, two weeks before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the Register endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton (in the Democratic caucuses) and John McCain (in the Republican caucuses). In October 2008, the Register endorsed Barack Obama for president in the general election.
In 2011, 24 days before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, the newspaper endorsed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican Iowa Caucuses. The Register endorsed Romney over Obama 10 days before the general election on October 27, 2012—the first time it had supported a Republican for president since 1972.
On July 24, 2015, the newspaper announced that it had been denied press credentials to cover a Donald Trump presidential campaign family picnic in Oskaloosa, Iowa, due to an editorial the previous week which called on Trump to drop out of the race.
Register and Tribune Syndicate
In 1922, Gardner Cowles' son John launched the Register and Tribune Syndicate. At its peak, the syndicate offered other newspapers some 60 to 75 features, including editorial cartoonist Herblock and commentaries by David Horowitz, Stanley Karnow and others. The cartoons and comic strips included Spider-Man. Will Eisner's The Spirit was part of a 16-page Sunday supplement known colloquially as "The Spirit Section". This was a tabloid-sized newsprint comic book sold as part of eventually 20 Sunday newspapers with a combined circulation of as many as five million copies. The most successful comics feature was The Family Circus, eventually distributed to more than 1,000 newspapers. In 1986, the Register and Tribune Syndicate was sold to Hearst and the King Features Syndicate for $4.3 million.
Current Register columnists include Rekha Basu, Kathie Obradovich, Daniel P. Finney, and Kyle Munson. Former columnist Rob Borsellino, who authored the book So I'm Talkin' to This Guy... (ISBN 1-888223-66-9), died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on May 27, 2006.
The Register has won 16 Pulitzer Prizes:
- 6 for National Reporting: 1954, 1958, 1968, 1976, 1979, and 1985
- 3 for Editorial Writing: 1938, 1943, and 1956
- 3 for Editorial Cartooning: 1924, 1943, and 1963
- 1 for Photography: 1952
- 1 for Feature Photography: 1987
- 1 for Breaking News Photography: 2010
- 1 for Public Service: 1991
Register writer Clark Kauffman was one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for his exposure of glaring injustice in the handling of traffic tickets by public officials in Iowa.
Iowa Sports Hall of Fame
The Register sponsors the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.