Lost in the City Commission kerfuffle (always wanted to use that word) at the Independent Record seems to have been a relatively simple narrative: the paper simply lacks adequate reporting staff to do the job of covering the city.
This week’s fight with City Commissioner Dan Ellison is centered around his discomfiture about a story discussing the proposed non-discrimination ordinance in Helena. He was so upset that the story’s reporter, Sanjay Talwani, wasn’t at the meeting and that a bureaucratic detail was reported incorrectly that he not only excoriated the reporter at a public meeting, but he demanded and received a full story correction in the newspaper.
Now it does have to be noted that when the IR’s publisher has been involved in news controversy, the paper hasn’t demonstrated the same alacrity with its self-criticism, but nevertheless, a tiny, largely meaningless detail from a City Commission meeting that almost no one was paying attention to exploded into a mini-controversy.
The truth is that there probably was a small error in the original article, about the nature of abstention in a commission vote. Anyone who has sat through a Helena City Commission or Helena School Board meeting can tell you that they are filled with their own unique parliamentary-jargon-procedure that often seems designed to combat the most intractable cases of insomnia while defying understanding. It’s easy to see someone using the wrong term to describe a vote or non-vote.
At the same time, those rules and procedures are also something that a dedicated city/county government reporter probably would have been more familiar with than Mr. Talwani. And the Independent Record used to have such a reporter. Piper Haugen, who seems to have been transferred to the Montana Standard, was the paper’s city/county government reporter and did an excellent job. Before her, the beat was covered by Allison Maier. In fact, for as long as I can remember, the IR dedicated resources to one of its most essential functions: covering the local government.
Whether it was the coverage of the protracted debate over cars in the Walking Mall, lawsuits related to the county and developers over subdivisions, or even the battle over the Great Northern Town Center, there has long been a dedicated reporter to pay attention to these closest, perhaps most critical issues. Today, the Independent Record is asking its reporters to cover city and county government at the same time they cover forest fires, theater openings, crime, the Supreme Court, and chalk art displays. None of the reporters even have beats listed any more.
It’s not that there are fewer stories deserving attention in our city and county government; it’s that there are fewer bodies covering them. While the Independent Record certainly tends to give less news coverage to staffers leaving than arriving, by my count the newsroom has gone from seven reporters to five in just the past six months or so.
In the excellent fifth season of The Wire, the odious managing editor of the Baltimore Sun tells his staff that they will "simply have to do more with less.” As David Simon notes, it’s an inherent impossibility—and perhaps someday the corporate mismanagers of Lee Enterprises will realize that and give us the news we both need and deserve.