Papers go dark when news is about them

If you are still an old-fashioned reader of Montana newspapers published by Lee Enterprises, then you missed last week’s most intriguing story.

News that Lee was closing its Capitol bureau this week and letting go two of the state’s most respected journalists, Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, appeared first on the front page of the Great Falls Tribune.


David Crisp

As of this writing, late Tuesday, I have been unable to find a reference to the story in any Lee newspaper—not the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian, the Montana Standard or the Ravalli Republic, or any of the Lee’s numerous satellite publications in Montana.

Nothing more clearly illustrates how the Internet has changed the news environment, both for good and for ill.

As Dennison himself said in the Tribune story, “The Internet is a blessing and a curse. It’s great to have the information, but the Internet has undercut newspapers’ entire revenue plan, and that’s what’s leading to these types of decisions.”

Not too many years ago, Lee could have shut the bureau quietly, as it once did in the early ’90s. Even if the Tribune had the front-page story, it would have taken time for word to get around to those of us who don’t read the Trib.

The Tribune itself would not have banged the drums too loudly because it has an unhappy State Bureau history of its own. In January, the Trib’s capital bureau chief, the highly regarded John Adams, was laid off after he declined to reapply for his job under a corporate-wide restructuring.

Eventually, the state’s independent weeklies—the Missoula Independent and the Outpost, perhaps the Butte Weekly—would have picked up the story, made a small splash, and that would have been it.

But these days the story grew legs fast, despite the silence of the state’s largest newspaper chain. Blogs and news sites such as Last Best News picked it up almost immediately and drew dozens of comments from readers. Jim Romenesko reported it on his national media blog. University of Montana journalism professors weighed in. Both of Montana’s U.S. senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester, made easily available video statements praising the work of the bureau.

The praise was well deserved. Chuck Johnson has covered the state capital since the Constitutional Convention of 1972. I have gotten to know him a little, and I have read his work for many years. If he has any political biases, I have been unable to detect them.

He also was just about the coolest character under fire I have ever met. Once when I was still working on the region desk at the Gazette, the legislative session was winding down on a Saturday night with major bills still pending. Deadline was looming, and it was uncertain that anything at all would be resolved in time to make the Sunday paper.

It was a perfect time to panic. About 11:30 p.m., with the session still raging, Chuck called in to update me on what was going on. He was, without a scintilla of hesitation, the same old Chuck: utterly at ease, relaxed, dependable and capable. The man bled ice water.

Mike Dennison has been in recent years, if anything, the more aggressive of the two reporters. He covered healthcare better than any Montana reporter I know about. His stories were detailed, precise and fair, and his occasional columns were must reads.

Word is that both were offered other jobs within Lee with substantial pay cuts—around 40 percent, according to Romenesko. As James Conner at the Flathead Memo put it, “their sin was seniority.”

The 4&20 Blackbirds blog may have put the issue most concisely: “So what fills the vacuum? If the answer is bloggers, we’re screwed.”

So far, so true. While news sites like Last Best News show extraordinary promise, the web has nothing yet to match the expertise and deep knowledge that Johnson and Dennison brought to statewide coverage of Montana.

The web has done a great job of tearing apart the old news model. The new model is still under construction.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

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