Mike Dennison, one of the experienced state bureau reporters let go by the Lee Newspapers of Montana three months ago, has been hired by the Montana Television Network.
Starting Monday, Dennison will be the chief political reporter for the network, which has television stations in seven Montana cities, including KTVQ in Billings. The hiring was announced on MTN websites Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to be reported on the stations’ evening news shows.
In its announcement of the hiring, KTVQ also said television viewers will be introduced to Dennison in a special episode of “Face The State” this Sunday. The show will air at 9:30 a.m. on all MTN stations.
Charles Johnson, the other state bureau reporter who lost his job with Lee in May, said MTN’s decision to hire Dennison “is wonderful news for Montana. … What a shame it would have been for him not to work in news.”
Jon Stepanek, news director at KTVQ, said the hiring of Dennison is part of MTN’s commitment to strengthening its reporting resources, particularly in regard to its online news and social media coverage.
“People expect from us interesting stories, well-written, well-researched, with depth,” he said. “For that, we feel we need excellent journalists.”
As Montana newspapers have lost circulation and trimmed their staffs in recent years, MTN has been hiring away some experienced print journalists.
They include Greg Tuttle, a Billings Gazette cops-and-courts reporter for 12 years who became KTVQ’s online editor in 2013; Sanjay Talwani, who left the Helena Independent Record to work for KXLH; and John Emeigh, who jumped to KXLF in Butte from the Montana Standard.
All three of those papers are owned by Lee Enterprises, and all the TV stations are affiliates of MTN. And now Dennison, cut loose by Lee, will be reporting for all the MTN affiliates.
“It’s an unusual development,” Johnson said. “I can think of some cases where TV reporters ended up going into newspapers, but the move now seems to be going in the other direction.”
When he left the state bureau, Dennison said, he figured he’d end up doing public relations work, either for a state agency or a politician. But MTN came knocking almost immediately, which he called “a very pleasant and welcome surprise.”
“MTN offered me a chance to continue my career as a political reporter, work with a new team that includes some great Montana journalists all over the state, learn some new approaches to journalism and fashion a new position from the ground up,” Dennison said. “Not a hard decision to make.”
Dennison and former bureau chief Johnson, who had more than 60 years’ experience covering state government between them, were not technically laid off by Lee, but they were told they could stay on only if they accepted substantial pay cuts. Johnson offered to retire if Dennison were allowed to stay on as bureau chief at the same pay, but that was rejected.
Dennison, who will continue to be based in Helena, said he expects to do a mix of breaking news stories and investigative pieces, lengthier stories that will run on MTN’s websites.
Stepanek said Dennison will not be an on-air reporter in the traditional sense, but will be brought on air to talk about stories he’s written, giving background and perhaps a summary of a story that will run in full online.
Stepanek said the trend of hiring experienced print journalists is based on a longstanding directive from Jon Saunders, group manager for MTN.
“He has always charged us with finding the best people to fill critical roles,” Stepanek said. The move by television to offer more in-depth coverage as newspapers offer less of it is “just the evolution of the industry,” he said.
Circulation and advertising are down for most newspapers, Stepanek said, but TV viewership is as strong as it’s ever been, and now, with “robust” use of the TV stations’ online and social media offerings, there is a need for more news coverage, and more in-depth coverage.
“You have to continue to produce quality content,” he said. “And to do that, you have to hire, and pay, good people.”
Johnson, who was recently appointed to the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees, doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next.
“I haven’t decided,” he said. “I deliberately took the summer off and took it easy.”
Full disclosure: Ed Kemmick has an agreement with KTVQ that allows the station to use his stories in exchange for a monthly fee.