Over the ten years I have written here, I’ve had moments of real sympathy for the people who work at the Lee newspapers here in Montana. Run into the ground by a rapacious, incompetent board more interested in siphoning profits for a few fat cats than in giving newsrooms the resources to cover their communities, the papers here have undeniably struggled, and at times, I’ve expressed sympathy for their situation.
But the truth is more complex than that. Those understaffed newsrooms make choices in how they spend their precious resources. They make choices like forcing out seasoned political reporters who covered meetings and the functioning of government. They invest in people who plagiarize satires of their beard coverage. And, most importantly, they make editorial decisions about the direction and focus of their coverage.
And, though I hate to go back to it again so soon, the cable news-style, saturation coverage of the Lt. Governor story from the Lee Newspapers deserves a bit more criticism. Fresh off the heels of their really poorly written, factually unsupported editorial piece in the Billings Gazette, the Lee papers followed up with the bizarre spectacle of the editor at the Montana Standard trying to get Governor Bullock to smear the outgoing Lt. Governor.
Governor Bullock is acting like an adult, as Lt. Governor McLean has been. While both have noted that the relationship didn’t work out, neither has any interest in smearing another professional colleague. It might upset the editor of the Standard that he doesn’t have a juicy quote he can use in another editorial that doesn’t have any news supporting it. While both are certainly likely to be disappointed about how their professional relationship worked out, it’s not a scandal—and no matter how badly the Lee Papers want this story to live on, there simply isn’t anything more complicated than that here.
They followed up that “coverage” with a slide show that, weeks after the story broke, simply reprints the same e-mails Mike Dennison unearthed last week, with this editorial commentary attached.
I’m no reporter, but typically “news” depends on reporting what people have actually said. Since neither Governor Bullock nor Lt. Governor have described the relationship the way this slide show alleges, it’s not news, but just cheap commentary written by someone unfamiliar with words in English. I get that it must sting to have been badly scooped by the reporter Lee forced out of his job, but their insecurity and failure to do their job hardly justifies this absurd media explosion.
The only thing Lee papers seem to care about covering these days are their own asses.
Why does Lee spend so much energy on stories like these? The main reason is simple: they’re self-sustaining without requiring any investment of resources other than the time it takes to put up a poorly-spelled slide show that doesn’t add anything to the story.
Again, let me be clear. The Lt. Governor leaving her office is a news story. And Lee’s competitors reported the hell out of it. But extending the outrage and speculation and opining without adding a single element to the story’s reporting is why people don’t trust Lee papers to do the job anymore. It’s not that they’re partisan or biased; it’s that they’re lazy and disinterested in the newsgathering function of news.
Montana is going to face a critically important election for governor in 2016. Don’t Montana voters deserve news coverage and editorial pieces, not to mention listicles and slide shows, that talk about the issues facing them? Wouldn’t those be better priorities for shrinking newsrooms?
Maybe I’ll put this piece together in listicle form for easier reading in some editorial offices.