Photo by Don Pogreba.
Education Featured Helena Montana Politics

The Death of the Local Press and an Informed Citizenry, Take 41: Coverage of the Helena School Budget

This past Tuesday, the Helena School Board conducted what could be the most important meeting they’ve held in my almost two decades as a teacher in town. After weeks of muted rumbling and years of growing concern about the state of the budget, those in attendance were told that the budget situation in the district over the next few years is dire, with projections showing that the cost for staff alone will be 130% of the projected 2023-2024 budget. Those in attendance heard that the district has even had to “shuffle funds” this year to make payroll some months, as 95% of the elementary budget is devoted to salaries.

Those in attendance heard that while the Board has apparently been aware of these serious budget issues for years, they have “kicked the can down the road” until this meeting, held a few days after the deadline to file to run for the Board as something other than a write-in candidate.

Those in attendance did not apparently include the local newspaper, as three days after the board meeting, the Independent Record has neither covered the story nor mentioned it. The only coverage of the meeting I can find online is a report from the local TV station which, while something, does not drive the community conversation the way a newspaper article can and should.

And that’s part of the ongoing crisis our country is facing as local media vanishes, robbing the public of vital information and stripping it of the power to demand policy change. How does the public have a voice in the leadership of its critical institutions like the School Board when it doesn’t even hear about crucial meetings that will affect the direction of the district for years? How does the public demand accountability from these institutions when the watchdog that is entrusted with keeping an eye on them doesn’t even send someone to meetings to learn what they have been doing?

I get that the crisis of local news is rooted in the economic reality that newspapers are struggling in the Internet age, both because they can’t monetize their product well enough and because of some terrible decision-making made by corporate leaders. I understand that each wave of staffing cuts at the newspapers has made it more difficult to cover things like meetings, even though local government meetings are where the most direct impact of decisions are felt in democratic societies.

But the local paper does still have some agency despite these budget cuts. While they did not cover this board meeting, the IR has had time to cover these stories in the past week:

  • NorthWestern Energy removes harmful twine from iconic Euclid Avenue osprey nest
  • As prom costs rise, Helena senior collects dresses students can use for free

  • Rocky Mountain Credit Union honored with Diamond Award

  • On the path to Eagle Scout: Girls in Scouts BSA attend Merit Badge University at Carroll College

  • The typical, depressing despair pornography of arrests and the corresponding mug shots, even though most of the charges will end up being reduced or dismissed.

My personal favorite was a five-month-old “news story” about a local business owner who got in a heated argument with some members of his staff.

I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with covering these stories (other than the parade of mug shots), but in a time of diminished resources, the need to make good editorial choices has to be more, not less, important. I love the story about the student giving her time to help her classmates, but in the scheme of things, what’s going to matter a lot more to future students is whether they have small class sizes, effective teachers, and the resources to learn.

I’ve been writing about the collapse of local reporting since at least 2011 when I noted that corporate greed and mismanagement was undermining the credibility of the IR:

When there aren’t enough reporters to cover the news or editors to manage them or even copyeditors to review the text of stories, all the news—and  even all the important news—simply won’t get covered.

You don’t fix a failing product by cutting back on essential services. You don’t fix a newspaper by making its staff feel that each of them could be the next one unceremoniously shown the door.

That a newspaper which practically enjoys monopolistic control over the news in a town can’t squeeze out enough profit to satisfy its corporate owners says much more about the publisher than it does about the editor—and this latest move only confirms that.

All still true, even more so today. If local papers want to save themselves–and perhaps democratic governance as we know it–they need to be careful stewards of the resources they still have.

Human interest stories, sagas about twine, and a parade of human misery aren’t what makes a newspaper indispensable to a community. Covering frequently jargon-filled, often poorly run, and almost always inefficient meetings where policy gets made is what makes the newspaper a resource we can’t live or govern without.

I certainly hope the IR spends some time over the next weeks doing a deep dive into just how the Helena School District got to this point, how they propose to fix it, and just how those decisions are already having devastating impacts on individuals and troubling implications for our schools.

Our community is depending on the IR to do just that.

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.

4 Comments

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  • Sadly, I think that the problem is permeating the newspaper industry in general. Here in Great Falls, the quality of the Tribune has gone steadily downhill since the change in corporate ownership/management.
    It’s almost not worth the paper it is printed on.

  • Thank you for a well-written article. I certainly have been remiss in not paying enough attention to many local newspapers and their lack of relevant information. Kalispell still has THE DAILY INTERLAKE publishing a list of upcoming events including school board meetings plus various school committee meetings. I have to admit that I do not attend these meetings which are where policy is made.

  • The articles Don listed as appearing in the IR got the space because they were submitted by the subjects, or were available at no charge or staff involvement.

    Lee Enterprises, over the past several years, has managed to put itself into the position of the car dealer with only one car on the lot, priced at $1 million. When asked how he expects to stay in business, he replies, “I only have to sell one!”

    They also have degenerated to unethical, deceptive treatment of their readers and advertisers, trying to squeeze every penny possible. Sad, but typical.

  • Let’s not forget the dismal namby-pamby nightly news coverage. As an active senior citizen who also considers herself an avid news junkie, I despair these are alarming drifts towards dangerous mediocrity. My despair is fueled buy my helplessness to do anything about it. On the bright side, I have learned to access other sources of Information and inspiration, mostly online. Keep up the good work!

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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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