A couple of notes from the past week that demonstrate at least part of the reason your local daily seems to have less content every day and the web sites for your local Lee paper suggest we’re living in a crime wave that would have broken Eliot Ness.
First, the typically (and inexplicably) exuberant earnings report for Q3 notes that Lee lost less money than feared because the corporation shed more staff. From the Quad City Times, which did not even mention that it is a Lee paper in its reprint of the press release:
Cash costs, excluding workforce adjustments and other, decreased 8 percent. Compensation decreased 9.1 percent primarily because of a reduction in staffing levels.
That line about a reduction in staffing levels is standard fare in Lee earnings reports. For Quarter 2, it was “Compensation decreased 9.9%, primarily as a result of lower self-insured medical costs and a reduction in staffing levels.” You can’t find an earnings report from Lee in the past few years that doesn’t boast about the savings accrued from reduced staff compensation and newsprint, both of which go a long way towards explaining why Lee papers can’t cover the news they should be.
Don’t worry, though. Executive Chairman Mary Junck still received $1.25 million in compensation for 2016 while President and CEO Kevin Mowbray had to settle for a paltry $1.3 million, with each receiving eye-popping bonuses while leading the paper to a $2.00/share valuation today.
The vulture capitalism model Lee operates is old hat to anyone who has been following their effort to gut Montana newspapers, but a recent piece in the Guardian by a former reporter at the Montana Standard demonstrated the pressure reporters at Lee papers feel to drive readers to web content, even if that pressure meant ignoring more substantive news. Hunter Pauli writes:
In my newsroom we had a monitor that displayed live pageviews, and I was often pressured to finish police blotters as soon as possible to feed the lunch break crowd, regardless of whether there were more pressing stories towork on. I don’t blame my bosses: small newspapers need money….
Frequently, the demands of filling a daily crime section would prevent me from working on more important stories, such as an investigation of why the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable level of lead in children’s blood was set at a higher level in Butte than federal regulations allow. Lead turns children into barbarians, and the lead-crime hypothesis in Butte – known to Montanans as a rough and tumble city – has never been tested.
Monitoring live page views is undoubtedly part of the explanation for the listicles and click bait articles that have been increasingly common on local newspaper web sites. As much as I am tempted to click on the “One Star” National Park reviews every time the Billings Gazette repackages it and throws it on the homepage or as angry as I am that exploiting mug shots replaces coverage about the systemic failures that facilitate crime, it’s easy to see how being judged on the metric of click throughs would put a great deal of pressure on reporters and editors.
The convergence of the failure of local newspapers to adjust to the Internet economy, badly diminished local coverage, and a public increasingly disinterested in facts poses a profound threat to democracy at the local, state, and federal levels and it’s hard to see how the situation improves in Montana, where an out-of-state corporation driven to wring every drop of value from local papers for the sake of exorbitant executive salaries dominates our print news coverage.
Depressing times, worthy of more than a one-star review and listicle.