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.