Prairie Lights: Good news, bad news & lipstick on a pig

Newsroom

This is a newsroom of the past. To create a “newsroom of the future,” you would simply lay most of these people off.

There’s lots of news about the news in Montana, though some of it is rather old by now.

The most surprising news, to me, is that the Montana Standard in Butte has hired David McCumber as its new editor. The Standard, where I landed my first newspaper job 35 years ago, has had a lot of editors in its long history, but for decades most of its editors have come from within Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based chain that owns the Standard (and the Billings Gazette).

Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

There’s nothing wrong with hiring in-house, but many editors riding the Lee circuit lack any knowledge of the cities they land in, a bad situation made even worse in a city like tradition-encrusted Butte.

The most recent editor, Matt Christensen, migrated to Butte in the summer of 2013 from La Crosse, Wisconsin, and left this January to become the editor in Twin Falls, Idaho. The papers in LaCrosse and Twin Falls are also owned by Lee.

The Standard reported that McCumber is going to Butte after leaving his position as the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers. He was also the founding editor and publisher of the Big Sky Journal, co-author of a book on the asbestos mess in Libby and author of the well-received “The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch.”

Cynics might say that at 62 he’s coming back to Montana to ease into retirement, but with all his experience and his familiarity with the state, I don’t see how this can be anything but good news for Butte.

McCumber said, in something of an understatement, that this is a challenging time for journalists everywhere. He went on: “There has never been more demand for excellent journalism, and Butte has, and deserves, a newspaper that can meet those challenges in ways both old and new.”

He’s right about Butte deserving a good paper. I wish him all the luck in the world.

Working for Lee Enterprises, he’s going to need it. In a trade publication last week, a fellow named Marc Wilson wrote a laudatory piece on how Lee Enterprises, since posting an $879 million loss in 2008, has undergone a “dramatic” transformation.

Wilson does disclose that he works for Lee (as CEO of the Lee-owned TownNews.com), which certainly explains the jaunty tone of his article. He begins by relating that Lee got into deep doo-doo after CEO Mary Junck engineered the purchase of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and 13 other Pulitzer-owned newspapers for $1.46 billion in 2005.

Then came the Great Recession and the “massive structural upheaval that was overwhelming the newspaper industry.” How, Wilson asks, “did Lee survive when many skeptics predicted a breakup or sale of the company?”

He gives “much of the credit” to an initiative known as “Transforming Our Business Model,” led by Junck and Lee CEO Carl Schmidt. Between 2007 and last December, Wilson says, Lee cut expenses by 37 percent.

How? There was a lot of consolidation—of financial operations, circulation departments and pagination, the process of editing and laying out news pages. Those and other changes had the effect of trimming the number of Lee employees from a high of about 10,000 to 5,500 now.

And year after year, Junck has been lavishly compensated for what has been described as her “bold leadership.” Her compensation in fiscal year 2014 was a little over $2.8 million, which included a $700,000 bonus. If anyone knows of a Lee employee making less than $200,000 a year who believes Junck deserves her bonuses, or who thinks she shouldn’t have been fired years ago, I would like to talk to that person.

Wilson’s article contained material that was even more nauseating, however, delivered by Kevin Mowbray, Lee’s chief operating officer.

“What we’ve done has been good for the long-term health of the company, and good for our customers — our readers and advertisers,” Mowbray was quoted as saying. “We’ve used technology to get both smarter and better at delivering locally generated content to our growing audiences via all types of media.”

Ha! You can’t lay off nearly half your people and then pretend that “technology” makes it possible to be “smarter and better” at delivering “locally generated content.” Does he really think anyone is dumb enough to believe that?

Meanwhile, over at the Gannett-owned Great Falls Tribune, John Adams recently gave up his post as the paper’s capital bureau chief. This was first reported by talk-radio host Aaron Flint of the Northern Ag Network.

Adams told Flint that he resigned in late January because Gannett is “restructuring” its newsrooms all over the country. The process involved eliminating a lot of job titles and creating new positions. Adams was invited to apply for the position of “state capital columnist,” whatever in the hell that was supposed to mean.

Adams told Flint that newsroom employees were told they could apply for up to two new positions. If you didn’t apply, or did but weren’t offered a job, you would be laid off.

After some soul-searching, Adams decided not to apply. As much as he enjoyed his job with the Tribune, he said, “I did not feel any of the available openings in the Tribune’s new ‘newsroom of the future’ were a good fit for me.”

I would feel better about the fate of newspapers if they used plain language in describing their harsh cost-cutting methods. To refer to mass layoffs as “transforming our business model” or creating “a newsroom of the future” is an abuse of the English language, as cynical as it is chicken-hearted.

So let’s wish Adams good luck, too. I suspect, based on personal experience, that he’s loving his newfound freedom.

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