How Lee’s Vulture Capitalists Undermine American Democracy

Photo by Don Pogreba.

Yesterday was another big day in the sordid saga of the Trump administration’s effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden to harm one of President Trump’s presidential rivals before the 2020 election. Readers of the New York Times this morning learned new, breaking details that further implicate the President and complicate the stories his defenders have tried to spin.

But for those who rely on the Helena Independent Record for coverage of national affairs, there was no story about the latest revelations at all.  In an eight-page news section, readers got 10 stories that could be considered news, a weather map covering 60% of a page, two advice columns, horoscopes, and a whole lot of despair pornography in the form of crime briefs, mug shots, and police reports.

Nothing about the news about Lev Parnas linking the President’s personal attorney, vice president, and attorney general to the Ukraine scandal, nothing about the trove of documents turned over to the House Intelligence Committee further incriminating Giuliani and the President, and nothing about ongoing negotiations in the Senate about whether witnesses should be called.

This isn’t a story about how the press is biased or fails to challenge the President; it isn’t a story about bad local reporting;  it’s a story about how corporate and personal greed have so damaged the press that there’s no one left to write many of the pieces we desperately need objective news coverage to understand, and how, even if there was adequate staff, the corporate vultures who run the Lee papers wouldn’t give clearance to print them.

Because the newsprint to publish it might cut their exorbitant salaries.

For the vultures who have stripped the Independent Record and other Lee newspapers to the bone, giving local newspapers the resources necessary to report, proofread, and even print news is far less important than lining their pockets, no matter the damage they’re doing to the credibility of their product and the public’s understanding of basic fact.

As reporter @__matt_______ noted on Twitter this week, Lee executives continue to reward themselves exorbitantly even as their corporation continues to see a decline in revenue.


Another declining quarter, another massive payday for the executives who have overseen the collapse of the once-proud Lee chain. While the median salary for Lee employees is under $40,000, these executives—the very decisionmakers whose short-sighted decision to put the chain in massive debt and strip mine the credibility of their newspapers—are cashing checks and stock options worth millions.

And this time, like every time, they justify the exorbitant salaries by noting that they have reduced expenses. And this time, like every time, the “expenses” they target are the salaries of people in the newsroom and the very newsprint that contains stories.

In another industry, this would just be the story of unchecked corporate greed, but because we’re talking about the press, the impact is far more profound: it threatens American democracy.

And that’s not hyperbole.

When local newspapers abandon their role of providing the basics facts about the American government, it’s not as if there aren’t institutions filling that void. People who care about the news did learn about the Lev Parnas news last night and today, but they learned about it from the filter of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN.

As anyone who has watched those channels for more than a few minutes can attest, far too much of the information they provide is little more than partisan propaganda or the clown show of CNN’s dozen talking heads who are far less interested in uncovering the truth than they are in making or scoring political points.

While a fact or two might wander onscreen for a moment, they’re rarely the point of cable news shows. As Martin Kaplan noted:

There’s no surer way to attract an audience than a bear fight, and no dispute is too nuanced not to be reducible by modern journalism to he-says versus she-says. Instead of trying to tell us what’s true, journalism now prides itself on finding two sides to every story, no matter how feeble one side may be.

While consumers certainly could get their news from national sources like the New York Times or Washington Post, easy access to the cable news spin machine and our self-created social media bubbles not only further widens the chasm between conservatives and liberals, but it widens the gap between the objective facts we accept as truth.

And that growing divide—not the divide between partisans—is what threatens American democracy. While they were never perfect, local newspapers functioned best when they presented the objective facts we need to make informed choices about the leaders who represent us.

But now that chains like Lee have largely ceded the field of objective fact to those who scream on our television screens and those who share on our social media feeds, we’ve lost the ability to have reasoned debate with each other because we no longer share the facts necessary to do so.

I wish I had the brains to find a solution, but I’m more convinced with every financial statement that Lee Enterprises releases that something must be done. How can we return our local newspapers to the institutions they once were? How can we give editors and reporters the resources they need to cover national news, our city government, our courts?  How can we make sure that the people who produce the news–not the vultures who profit off the death of newspapers–are compensated well enough to stay in the field?

They’re questions we simply must answer if there is any way out of this mess.

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.

Subscribe to our posts

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.


Click here to post a comment

Please enter an e-mail address

  • In a 40-year career in newspaper production, I worked at 3 different Lee papers. The shift to greed-driven, next-quarter budget primacy began years ago. It began with cost-benefit ratios used to justify shrinking the news hole and became a point of braggadocio that Lee was “aggressive” in jacking up ad rates and subscription charges. The gradual turnover in senior management at corporate HQ inexorably shifted the cultural priorities from actual journalism to “where did you get your MBA?”

    Lee Enterprises has devolved to the point now where, every time they cut another feature, reduce staffing, or idle another press – they raise their rates yet again to try desperately to maintain some level of profit.

    It’s a vicious cycle that hinges on the insanity that -somehow- you can cut your way to profitability.

    There is no way to cure this disease. It is terminal.

    • Thanks for the insight.

      Years ago, I posted from great insight from a financial analyst who pointed out that Lee’s only path forward was to keep cutting features from its papers and raising costs, a strategy that could only further erode their value and relevance.

      Sad to see it playing out when there are some great reporters doing their best.

  • I recently cancelled my subscription to the IR when it went to over $500 a year. I subscribe to the New York Times and the Washington Post. How I long for a local paper with good reporting, headlines that make sense and articles that don’t end in the middle of a sentence. I feel cut off from information about local events and hope I can figure out a solution. Lee and Ganett organizations have largely destroyed local papers.

Latest PostCast

Support Our Work!

Subscribe Via E-mail


Which Democratic Candidate for Governor Do You Support Today?

Send this to a friend