Lee cuts solid reporting, beefs up click bait, and more


The Montana House of Representatives, the people’s house, now covered by fewer people.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but since Lee Enterprises actually shot the animal, I don’t feel it’s necessary to apologize for being unwilling to let go of this subject.

I refer, of course, to the closure of the Lee Newspapers Capitol bureau and the buyout of two fine reporters, Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison. There has been a lot of interesting reporting and commentary on the bureau shutdown, but it has been widely scattered in newspapers and online sites. I thought it would be a good idea to bring some of those threads together in one place.

For starters, former AP statehouse reporter Bob Anez wrote a fine op-ed in the Helena Independent-Record, which included this bit of eloquent, pointed criticism:

It appears that some involved in deciding the fate of the State Bureau don’t realize its significance. I asked Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick why his paper and the other Lee papers in Montana did not tell their readers about the State Bureau changes in a news article. This is what he told me: “Typically, when we’ve changed beats or redefined reporting roles, we haven’t written stories about that.”

That is part of the problem. It’s wrong to liken the change to moving a reporter from the cops-and-court beat to covering county government. That misunderstanding of journalism’s role in this state would be laughable if not so sad.

(Update: Anez’s op-ed was published in the Gazette on Thursday.)

The IR also printed a good letter from Mary Vandenbosch and Jeff Erickson, who said Lee has created an “unfillable abyss” by letting go of Johnson and Dennison. One of the earliest letters to the editor on the subject was also printed by the IR.

The IR deserves still more credit for running an unsigned editorial on Sunday that noted the closure and had some kind words for Dennison and Johnson.

The Billings Gazette still has not itself directly remarked on the closure of the state bureau, though a lot of us were surprised when it ran two op-eds, from James Nelson and Jim Elliott, and a letter from Don and Mary Ann Dunwell, all on the same day.

Gary Buchanan, of Billings, whose insights on state politics are always worth listening to, also wrote a letter to the editor, but as far as I can tell, it has appeared so far in the IR and in the Montana Standard, but not in the Billings Gazette. Perhaps the Gazette objected to this line from the letter: “I think that the Lee Newspapers should be printing tributes to these men instead of cloaking their departure in mystery.” (Correction: This letter did appear in the Gazette, on Sunday, and somehow in my searches I missed it.)

One of the best tributes was written by Dan Brooks, a columnist for the Missoula Independent. Brooks said something in his piece that made me laugh out loud, mostly because precisely the same thing could be said of my own columns on the Montana Legislature: “As a person with opinions but little information to back them up, I relied on Johnson and Dennison for nearly everything I said in this column that turned out to be true.”

The Havre Daily News, in a short but spot-on commentary, had this to say: “Lee officials said they are going to have a different focus for their statehouse coverage. But from what they have said so far, the focus of their new focus is pretty unfocused. You can’t help but feel that during the next gubernatorial campaign, we won’t be quite as well informed. Lee will get new people to do the work, but with less experience, less insight and, we suspect, a far lighter paycheck.”

Other expressions of dismay and disgust came in tweets and blog posts, and the outpouring was genuinely bipartisan. One of the best comments came from Don Pogreba, proprietor of the Intelligent Discontent blog, who tweeted: “Lee Enterprises has done the impossible: they’ve made everyone across the political spectrum in come together today.”

And today we have a blog post from Preserve the Beartooth Front, which relentlessly monitors developments in the oil and gas industry in Montana. It does a good job of rounding up alternative sources of news and information in this state, and says: “If Lee Enterprises is going to abdicate its watchdog role, citizens need to take responsibility for keeping themselves informed.”

Meanwhile, one thing I had intended to include in my Sunday Prairie Lights column, until it grew too long, was a reflection on what seems to be a distressing new direction for the Lee papers in Montana.

At the same time they are cutting back on staff and by extension drastically reducing traditional newspaper reporting, they are attempting to increase their online presence—in other words, to get more clicks—by constantly running the sort of click-bait crap that already pollutes the Web to such an offputting degree.

Some of it is mildly entertaining, but even the best of it is so obviously designed only for generating clicks that it is embarrassing. I really don’t want to go in search of links, but any regular readers of the online Gazette will know what I’m referring to: the Top 10 Montana references on Letterman, 10 local restaurants that aren’t open anymore, photos of long-ago local rock bands, Montana towns named after foreign places, famous Montanans bitten by three-legged dogs.

OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. What they all have in common is that they require no reporting—unless plumbing the archives or consulting Wikipedia is considered reporting—and they invariably involve a gallery of photos that you have to click through one at a time, the better to generate numbers that can be shown to potential advertisers.

In the short-term—and if there is one thing Lee Enterprises does well it is thinking in the short term—it undoubtedly does generate bigger numbers and probably brings in some revenue. In the long term, even readers who click through all that crap are going to start asking themselves, why bother?

Why pay money for just the sort of thing that is so abundant, and free, all over the Internet, while being served less and less of what newspapers really ought to be charging for: good, solid, informed local and statewide reporting?

The Gazette, the Lee paper I am most familiar with, still has some damned good reporters and photographers, and many times a week it offers up content that is top-notch and available nowhere else. Sadly, though, and this was also the case when I worked there, the best work seems to get done in spite of Lee. With little encouragement or reward, good reporters and good photographers continue on occasion to produce great work, because that is what they want to do, why they went into the business.

Just imagine how you’d feel if you worked for weeks on a long, important story or package of stories, beautifully illustrated and nicely presented on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Montana, only to learn upon coming into the office that the state bureau is closing, Lee executives in Iowa are in line for another round of six-figure bonuses and the monthly mug shots feature is far and away the most popular offering on the Gazette’s website that day.

Some people like to characterize the people running Lee as the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but I don’t see it that way. On the contrary, they have been shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly, and with unerring precision. And then they went and killed that horse. Goddamn it.


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