Lee Enterprises Gives Up Covering Montana Politics

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In news that would be shocking if it weren’t so incredibly disappointing, the Lee Newspapers chain in Montana has decided to send the state’s two most experienced political reporters out to pasture, preferring to focus their coverage not on the governance of our state, but instead on “people profiles and more reporting on the oil and gas industry, tourism, agriculture and general trends.” That’s little more than doublespeak for replacing the experienced reporting of Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson with new reporters perhaps better versed in the new demand for content light clickbait to drive digital revenues, especially if those reporters will work for a lot less money.

Because every cent Lee Enterprises makes needs to line the pockets of the very executives who have driven the company (and its papers) to the brink of financial ruin, not to compensate reporters.

Maybe the future of journalism in Montana is aping year old Internet memes in a desperate bid for “relevance” or hard-hitting exposes about some of David Letterman’s favorite guests, but I have some difficulty understanding how either of those will play the critical role of the Fourth Estate that editorial boards periodically claim newspapers fulfill in our state.

Those pieces might generate a few more shares on Facebook, but they will certainly not help the people of Montana understand the complexity of implementing the Affordable Care Act or the history of the Montana Legislature’s role in the state, the kind of coverage that Dennison and Johnson offered for years

I don’t know if Mike or Chuck have ever paid any real attention to the occasional online sniping about some of the political coverage in the state. 99.6% of the criticism of their coverage was for sins of omission, as even two people couldn’t be expected to cover all the stories the online commentariat thought deserved coverage—and as their employers kept cutting staff and resources it must have been even more difficult to keep up. That picayune criticism aside, both men deserve our thanks for years of fair, thoughtful coverage that helped Montanans better understand the political issues facing the state for decades. Lee’s own Principles for Quality Journalism acknowledge that a role of the company is to “recognize and cultivate the newspaper’s role as a community historian.” Hard to do that when you are driving the historians out of the building.

Lee Enterprises might honestly believe that hiring some neophyte reporters to cover local color brings real value to their pages, but those of us who follow Montana politics know that there simply isn’t any way to replace the institutional knowledge and wisdom that Mike and Chuck have brought to their coverage. A news chain interested in serving its readership and treating its employees with a modicum of respect would have used them as mentors, to ensure that the next generation of reporters could one day offer what Mike and Chuck have delivered the state. There are undoubtedly some great young reporters in the state, some who even worked the last session of the Legislature, but I’m sure that they’d be the first to acknowledge they have a great deal to learn from reporters who have decades of experience on the job, and I doubt any are naive enough to trust that working for a major media company in this state is a sensible–or stable–career move.

But keeping mentors would be the action of a company interested in serving its mission of providing the news, not stripping the corpse of a company slowly being killed by corporate raiders enriching themselves at the expense of employees, readers, and the community who depends on their work.

While bloggers (and occasional merchants of Twitter snark) may not have been the most pleasant readers Mike and Chuck wrote for, I think I can speak for many of us who want to offer sincere thanks for their dedication, professionalism, and writing. Both men, in addition to their knowledge about Montana politics, were excellent writers, each with a unique voice that no one will be able to replace. Whether it’s retirement from journalism or finding new opportunities, I wish both of them the best and my heartfelt thanks for providing columns and stories I could analyze, dissect, debate, and discuss. . Their work was always the first part of the paper to read in the morning, and usually the stories that lingered throughout the day.

Thanks, gentlemen. You deserved better.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-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

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  • You’ll still be able to pick up your daily newspaper at the grocery store, next to the National Enquirer, the Star and the Globe.
    Or you can go online and find your news somewhere between the cute kitten videos and shots of busty celebrities.
    And there’s still TV: lurid Dateline homicide stories, Geraldo Rivera or Sean Hannity.
    In depth, experienced reporting on government, the economy, the environment, social justice, politics … it’s just so boring.

    • I should temper my snarky comment above with some information. This is from Lee’s second quarter report (ending March 19, 2015):
      Lee Enterprises … reported higher revenue in the second quarter, propelled by digital advertising growth. Operating revenue grew 0.9 percent to $155.5 million.
      Now that’s hardly a big revenue gain but it’s better than a loss. Thing is, print and online advertising revenue was down but mobile advertising revenue was up almost 35%. This also was interesting:
      Compensation increased 1.6%, with the average number of full-time equivalent employees down 3.7%.
      Hmm
      The report didn’t have the compensation for CEO, CFO, COO or other board members but here’s the BONUSES they got last year: CEO Mary Junck – $1,150,000, CFO Carl Schmidt – $533,000, COO Kevin Mowbray – $128,125.
      You can draw your own conclusions. Lee isn’t exactly rolling in the dough but management seems to be doing okay.
      I believe canning Dennison and Johnson, because really what else can you call it, was a huge mistake, though.
      Finally, it was ironic that the Great Falls Tribune broke the story – big time banner at its online edition – but failed to mention that the Trib (Gannett) did the same thing to Capitol Bureau Reporter John Adams not that long ago.

  • Back to the snark. Billings Gazette editor Darrel Ehrlick says a new crew covering the state will allow the papers to take a fresh approach.

    “Wearing a stunning mauve Pierre Cardin jacket, Sen. Debby Barrett (R-Dillon) introduced some bill. She accessorized with a string of oversized faux pearls, and a egg shell and ecru Coach handbag. Highlights adorned her shoulder length hair and it appears she’s been working out as her taupe Christian Dior skirt clung tightly to her taut derriere. Her final statement: goldenrod Aldo party pumps.”

    • Ah yes. Notices how Deb is striving to court the Ag vote with that tight cling to her dairy air! Makes Art’s wittich twitich!

  • Oh lord, this is grim. So now there will be basically no coverage of state government, because the Bozeman Chronicle sure ain’t going to do it, they long ago went the clickbait route. They can barely be bothered to cover local government and issues, much less state issue.

  • Been a long, sad ride down for print journalism, the Missoulian in particular. I noticed the trend starting back in the late 80’s when Manning left. Then a serious nose-dive without Jamison… final death throes now complete with Chuck. These reporters who understood the history and broader context of Montana are totally extinct in print media. While I appreciate ID (thanks Dan) and all for sticking a thumb in that gap, I fear this form of media will never reach, nor inform, the greater public mind.

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