The Media

Lee Enterprises Death Watch 2013

Written by Don Pogreba
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I think I might have a future career as a media analyst. Last year, I wrote about the bind faced by the mismanagers of Lee Enterprises: desperate to deal with its incredible debt and burdened by the need to richly rewards it top executives, the newspaper chain has to reduce expenses, those expenses primarily consisting of the people who produce the news that gives Lee its marginal value. (Lee Enterprises is the parent corporation for the Montana dailies in Billings, Butte, Missoula, and Helena.)

Today, on the heels of a 8% reduction in Lee staffing and an $88.5 million dollar quarterly loss, the St. Louis Business Journal quotes Ken Doctor, a media analyst, who explains the mess Lee is in:

If the company continues to cut staff in order to make repayments, it risks diminishing its product to a point that readers won’t pay for it, he said.
Lee reduced its average number of full-time equivalent employees by 8.3 percent in fiscal 2013 from the prior year.

It’s pretty simple: when you don’t have enough reporters and editors to write and prepare news worth reading, eventually you’ll lose even the readers who may be just buying your paper out of habit.

Back in April of 2012, Lee reduced its staffing by a similar amount, cutting full-time equivalent positions by 7.5%.

The Seeking Alpha investing blog puts the situation Lee faces in perspective. In the past three years, the company has shed over a quarter of its staff:

Since the beginning of 2010, Lee Enterprises has reduced its headcount from 6,304 people to 4,678, a decline of 26%. If you’re wondering how this is possible, it’s not from getting people to work smarter or harder. Firing 26% of the workforce was made possible by the company’s decision to shrink its newspapers. Over the same time period, the volume of newsprint consumed by the company has declined by 30%.

Media consumers in Montana are certainly seeing the impact of these reductions. As the staff cuts continue, readers who read the Missoulian on Wednesday are likely to read a marginally interesting local story from Helena that was published in the Independent Record on Monday. Critical local and statewide news stories simply aren’t getting the attention they deserve, because there simply aren’t enough bodies in the newsroom writing them.

Shrinking staff, shrinking newspapers, and a rapidly shrinking value of the core product put out by corporation. It’s simply astonishing that the only thing growing at Lee Enterprises is the compensation of the people who’ve destroyed the company and irreparably harmed news gathering in our local communities.

Vulture capitalism at its worst.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

8 Comments

  • I concur, and was contemplating writing a few paragraphs after reading Romenesko ‘s report — but you’ve saved me work by writing a fine post to which I can link.

    This kind of reminds me of how the downfalls of Anaconda and Montana Power began with various entities taking the money and running. I just hope that Murdoch doesn’t buy the papers Lee runs into the ground.

  • The Rapid City Journal is zombie journalism. The Sioux City Journal is a Republican re-election machine. The Bismarck Tribune seems to be doing well because Nick Smith has the fire in his belly. The Casper Star-Tribune is the lead publication for most of the northern zone and now Jeremy Fugleberg is interim editor. Nov. 11 2013 : Arizona Daily Star is Lee’s 2013 Enterprise of the Year.

    Good to see you, Montana. Rock on, Don: keep a weather eye.

  • Good post.

    Here was my 2007 attempt at some media critiques directed at the Missoulian’s misleading coverage and biased editorializing on forest and public lands issues. Ironically, way back in 2007, the Missoulian editorial board and reporters were lining up to support the secret, closed-door, non-transparent origins of what was to become Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill.

    http://newwest.net/main/article/whys_the_missoulian_misleading_the_public/

  • I, too, gave up on the GF Spitoon a couple of years ago. I basically read it out of habit and a hope that some day, somehow, they would print something worth reading. I decided to start keeping track, for I just knew that things had to get better at the Spitoon. After about three months of nothing news, I’d finally had it. But nothing news was not its only fault. It was also insulting news! And I can’t stand paying to be insulted. I still glance at it at work, and I believe that it’s even getting worse. I think that now they are actually doing a disservice to the community and state by printing garbage. This is actually hurting democracy, for there are NOT necessarily two sides to every story, and teabaggers farting is NOT news!

    I called down and explained all this to the folks at the Spitoon when I quit. If it goes under, I don’t see that as a great loss. Other than the sports scores, there’s nothing there any more except the obligatory military industrial complex story every day now, usually on the front page. I think that they must be keeping their circulation up with the Air Force guys at the base, ’cause no one I know gives two shits about all that military nonsense!

  • American journalism was always hit-and-miss, and the few names we remember were the exceptions. Mencken thought very little of American journalists, this during the 20’s and 30’s – he said something to the effect that they were third or fourth-rate minds, if I remember right and my memory is third or fourth rare.

    But American newspapers, for all of those apparent defects (they did not suddenly become bad at journalism – they’ve never been good at it!) fulfill an extremely important role – a local diary of events and people, a written history of a community. We can get by without the things they didn’t do well anyway, but how do we replace that? (Has any newspaper anywhere yet admitted that the Tonkin affair was a hoax?)

    Don’t forget that before Lee was Lee, there was the copper collar. One of the books on my shelves that I will never part with is “Montana: High, Wide and Handsome.” It’s a great retelling of the corruption that has always been part of Montana, a resource colony.

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