The Media

Maybe Adequate Staffing is the Issue at the Helena Independent Record

Lost in the City Commission kerfuffle (always wanted to use that word) at the Independentlens10759011_1272575256court-reporter-clipart 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.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Craigslist killed the papers profits.

    Think about it. No cost, pictures included, stays up for a month, can be viewed all over the world.

  • The fact is that the Independent Record/Butte Standard ARE making a profit by overworking a skeleton staff while using cheap filler material such as wire service reports, press releases, and extraneous material from other Lee sources posing as local news. The result is crap, but apparently folks continue to pay for it because it’s the only crap we got. When was the last time we saw actual news on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday?

  • David Simon, who, when he worked for the Baltimore Sun, was given a whole year to report on the city’s homicide police, also had some good advice for young, smart journalism students. He told them to become corrupt local politicians because that’s where the money is, and since newspapers can no longer be counted on to expose the crooks, no one will ever catch you.

  • When I studied journalism, and that was pre-Watergate, the standard was a profit with honor. We knew what that meant, and so did the newspapers that subscribed to that standard.

    Once the finance boys become publisher, however, the standard becomes a profit big enough to please Wall Street and the investors, most of whom probably prefer a newspaper that publishes what’s cheap to report, and avoids investigative report, which is both expensive and often inconvenient to the money uber alles crowd.

    There are still newspapers that strive for a profit with honor, but more and more it seems they’re the exception.

  • The trouble with Lee Enterprises is that it can’t even treat the stockholders right.
    Here’s their 10-year stock graph:
    (As you can see, the company has lost 92 percent of its value in 10 years.)
    The current management has driven down share prices, corporate officers keep their jobs thanks to a captive board of directors, and then they reward themselves with six-figure bonuses for the great job they did driving the company into bankruptcy.
    Warren Buffet’s reportedly buying up a controlling interest in Lee.
    Maybe he’ll clean out the rat’s nest in Davenport, Iowa.

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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.

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