Second time’s no charm: Lee papers shutter State Bureau

The news is out that news coverage in Montana is taking a huge hit.

Lee Newspapers is closing its State Bureau in Helena, the Great Falls Tribune has reported, and KXLH TV in Helena has a story that adds some details. Chuck Johnson, who has been covering Montana politics for more than 40 years, will take a buyout and retire.

Mike Dennison, who has done the same kind of reporting for almost 25 years, will be taking a buyout while he looks for a new job. I couldn’t reach Johnson, but Dennison told me Lee offered the two veteran reporters continued employment—if they would accept quite substantial pay cuts.

Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick, who delivered the news to Johnson and Dennison, told KXLH that Lee plans to hire two state reporters, who might both be in Helena, though pitches to work elsewhere will be considered.

Dennison said Ehrlick told them that Lee editors want a different kind of coverage, news about statewide issues “from the perspective of the governed instead of the governors” (referring, of course, to politicians and bureaucrats in general, not the state’s chief executives). Dennison said Ehrlick specifically mentioned that he’d like to see more people profiles and more reporting on the oil and gas industry, tourism, agriculture and general trends.

The bureau closure comes a few months after John Adams, capital bureau chief for the Gannett-owned Great Falls Tribune, turned in his resignation under circumstances similar to what happened to Johnson and Dennison. Adams was invited to apply for a new position as “state capital columnist” as part of Gannett’s plans to restructure its newsrooms all over the country.

Adams looked into it and didn’t like what he saw, so he quit. (Editor’s note: Not quite accurate. See Adams’ explanation below.) But at least the Tribune is keeping its bureau. Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers in Billings, Helena, Missoula, Butte and Hamilton, supposedly plans to continue covering the Montana Legislature. But its commitment has to be questioned, given its willingness to let go of 70-some years of experience and hire people who, presumably, won’t be spending much time covering the nuts and bolts of state government.

Without doing that kind of reporting, you can’t fully know, much less communicate to readers, how things really work, how decisions are made, how the process of legislating and governing play out.

Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, one of the most conservative legislators in Montana, paid Johnson and Dennison a fine compliment in a tweet today, describing them as “Honest reporters w/ institutional memory and well calibrated BS meters.”

Larry Abramson, who has been dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism for just under a year, called the closure “a real step backward.”

“As a news consumer, I feel this is devastating news for the people of Montana,” he said. There is so much news coming out of the capital, Abramson said, and “I can’t imagine how Montanans will be able to keep up with all that information without Chuck and Mike delivering the news.”

Lee Enterprises closed the bureau once before. Dennison said one of the bureau’s two reporters quit back in 1990 or 1991, when Dennison was still working for the Associated Press. Dennison applied for the job, but before he was interviewed, the other reporter quit. Dennison soon found himself interviewing for the job of bureau chief, which he thought he was going to get.

He waited and waited to hear back from the Lee editors and finally called Dick Wesnick, then editor of the Gazette, who told him that, oh, yeah, they had decided simply to close the bureau.

It remained closed until the fall of 1992, when Gazette publisher Wayne Schile lured Johnson away from the Great Falls Tribune and made him chief of Lee’s reopened bureau. As I recall, Schile even rented a billboard to crow about his coup. Dennison, who replaced Johnson at the Tribune, moved over to the Lee State Bureau in 2005, and he and Johnson have worked together ever since.

As bad as the announcement is for Montanans, I have no doubt it will be good for Mary Junck, Lee’s CEO. Every time she takes the “bold move” of laying people off, she is lavishly rewarded.

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