A Couple of Tidbits About How Lee Enterprises Is Killing Montana News Coverage

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.


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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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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  • I really want to wake up in the morning and browse through a paper with meaningful content. It is taking less and less time.
    I have noticed increasing crime content. Like many, linked it only to an increase in crime.

  • I’m sure the readers here are aware of the old TV news maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.” When I was a young pup news cameraman, I took this to heart and brought back footage of homicides, horrific car wrecks and other tragedies, for which I was rewarded. In retrospect, I am ashamed.

    Looks like the print media and Internet are now following suit. In these days of strapped budgets, it’s much easier than in-depth, researched news stories, plus it makes good click bait.

    Here’s a well-written piece by a woman new to Missoula and her take on the Montana “crime spree.”


    • “Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.”

      Well isn’t that precious. We get to listen to BuzzFeed’s gossip columnist write about Montana now. Should be interesting when Bullock runs for president, Curtis takes on Tester, or Montana Dems run their latest sacrificial lamb against Gianforte.

      Or maybe we’ll just hear about the latest John Engen rumors as he tries to run for his 4th term amidst his many personal and public travails.

      • You never disappoint, JC. Got to love the smug condescension of an anonymous Internet troll dismissing a writer with a Ph.D. who has written interesting, insightful pieces about Montana politics.

        Just try to be a better human being. It might feel good.

        • I get that you don’t like cynics and that most sarcasm goes right by you subconsciously triggering that knee-jerk reflex. But nothing whets the cynic’s appetite more than AHP’s gossip article about Kim Kardashian normalizing celebrity pregnancies in public. And it’s this sort of story that I’m really looking forward to with her coverage in Montana.

          “Yet in transgressing the boundaries of the “cute celebrity pregnancy,” Kardashian effectively called attention to the constrictive, regressive norms of how women, celebrity or not, are now expected to “perform” pregnancy in public. ”


          • You’re certainly right. We need more people writing poorly about half-baked conspiracy theories and their one-man crusades to crush neoliberalism from under the cloak of their trollish online pseudonym.

            That’s the real stuff.

          • I’ll be honest. I am really busy right now. Can we skip to the end of this?

            A precap:

            I find your approach as annoying as your arguments. You’re dismissive, rude, and excessively focused on personal attacks. I find that especially unreasonable given that you do it all while hiding who you really are.

            You think I am dismissive, rude, and excessively focused on trivial politics. I am a shill for the Democratic party, a cheerleader for capitalism and war, a terrible teacher, and somehow I’ve used my hegemonic cultural capital to silence the real voices of the Left.

            Is that good enough? Can we call it there and not exchange 45 messages? If you need to post a personal attack on your own site, too, that’s great. I likely won’t read it, and you’ll feel better.


      • So, does JC stand for Jesus Christ? That’s quite the holier than thou attitude you’ve got there. I thought the article was well-written and thoughtful. Are folks with “a Ph.D from the University of Texas” barred from making observations on Montana media?

        I have some other thoughts on your comment. Bullock has not consulted with me on a presidential bid so no insight there, but Curtis will not be taking on Tester. I imagine she realizes that Tester will have a hard enough time running against multi-millionaire Republicans in a state that likes to elect multi-millionaire Republicans. She’s staying out of the fray. There is an interesting candidate who has announced for Gianforte’s seat: John Heenan, a lawyer out of Billings. He’s a Medicare for all proponent and certainly not a party insider. Here’s a link:


        I understand your concerns about Engen’s public “travails”: TIFs, the MRA, bonds and the like, but to bring up his personal issues, well, I assumed more empathy from you.

        • Did you notice I didn’t say that AHP’s article wasn’t well-written or thoughtful? She obviously can write, and puts much thought into what she writes. I just happen to find it interesting that BuzzFeed’s gossip columnist (those are BuzzFeed’s own words about her PhD thesis on gossip) moved to Montana and will give us BuzzFeed’s unique perspective on our little oasis in the madness. Again, my reputation obviously precedes any real look at what I wrote.

          As to the political comments, I don’t know what either Bullock or Curtis are going to do, but I know there will be a lot of pressure on her or another dem to primary Tester. Tester has lost the support of many who once voted for him, and where he looks to backfill those votes remains to be seen. But what I said is that BuzzFeed’s gossip columnist will have a unique perspective on Montana politics, and I stand by that — it is neither condescending or holier-than-thou. Though I expect those appellations in the ongoing ad hominem attacks against those of us who don’t toe the dem line.

          About Engen. I did not bring up any personal issues. But I fully expect them to become a part of the election, and I may have many more “empathetic” things to say about them if brought forth by other, though not as a form of gossip. How BuzzFeed chooses to approach them given its focus on celebrity gossip remains to be seen. Again, the criticism seems to be derived from the prejudice against those of us who watch and comment on politics from a cynical independent venue.

          You guys probably would have strung Samuel Clemens up for blogging about Missoula and Montana politics.

          “When politics enter into municipal government, nothing resulting therefrom in the way of crimes and infamies is then incredible. It actually enables one to accept and believe the impossible… ” –MT

          • C’mon, JC. No, you didn’t say that her article wasn’t well-written or thoughtful. You said, “Well isn’t that precious. We get to listen to BuzzFeed’s gossip columnist write about Montana now … nothing whets the cynic’s appetite more than AHP’s gossip article about Kim Kardashian normalizing celebrity pregnancies in public. And it’s this sort of story that I’m really looking forward to with her coverage in Montana.”

            Now that’s a glowing preview of her work, which makes your claim of an “ad hominem attack” a moot point. And I doubt she’ll being doing any writing on our little mayoral contest.

            But I’m honestly curious, who’s going to put “a lot of pressure” on someone to primary Tester?

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