It was reported last week that a survey of job satisfaction in the United States ranked newspaper reporter at the very bottom of the list for the third year in a row.
You’d never have guessed it Friday evening at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Uptown Butte, site of the annual meeting of the Butte Press Club. There was some talk about the dismal state of print journalism, but the prevailing mood was anything but gloomy.
It could be that misery loves company, or that misery properly lubricated ascends to satisfaction, but the reporters and editors I rubbed elbows with seemed quite happy.
Better yet, there was considerable talk about an aspect of newspapering that has remained a constant at least since I got into the business 35 years ago: the notion that journalism is more a calling than a job, that no one expected to get rich doing it, and that there is real satisfaction in an honorable job well done.
All those points were touched on by our speaker, John Adams, the founder of The Montana Free Press, a nonprofit, online site devoted to investigative journalism. I wrote about his path to online journalism, and his travails as a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, in a column last month.
A detail he added Friday was this: the Gannett newspaper chain, which owns the Trib, furloughed him three times during legislative sessions he was supposed to be covering. It wouldn’t have been so bad, he said, if he hadn’t known that most of the benefits of such cost-cutting went toward enriching executives on the top rungs of the Gannett ladder.
The same thing has been happening for years at the Montana papers owned by Lee Enterprises, including the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, the Helena Independent-Record and the Montana Standard in Butte. Workers are laid off, papers get thinner, readers are shortchanged and the executives get huge bonuses.
Those things are terribly discouraging, as are thoughts about the future of print journalism, but on Friday we were reminded that doing the work of a newspaper reporter—even if you aren’t working for a traditional newspaper anymore—is still important, and can still be a hell of a lot of fun.
Adams said he discovered, during the time between his layoff at the Trib and starting Montana Free Press, that he could make a lot of money capitalizing on his knowledge, experience and connections. But he realized that the satisfaction of reporting, of playing an important role in the chaotic system of self-government we have in this country, is something you couldn’t put a price on.
So he reinvented his career, and while he hasn’t been able to pay himself yet, he is convinced that reader support, foundation funding and monetary help from the newspapers using his content will eventually pay the bills, maybe even allow some expansion.
So yes, you can be discouraged if you’re a reporter, but you can also feel excitement at being on the cusp of a new age of journalism, of being in on the ground floor for the reinvention of an industry.
Butte is a good place to be reminded that flux is king, and that even in decrepitude some things can retain their beauty and their soul.
The Butte Press Club dates back to 1891, when Butte had multiple newspapers in several languages. In that first year, when the club met often and minutes of the press club meetings were printed in The Mining Journal, there were three occasions on which the minutes consisted of just five words: “Club met, drank and adjourned.”
That still about covers it, but we also had a raffle, the proceeds of which are combined with the dues of $25 a year per member to fund a $1,000 scholarship at the University of Montana School of Journalism. The young editor of The Kaimin was at the press club meeting, and he will be interning at The Standard this summer.
He didn’t seem depressed. Neither did the three young Bozeman Chronicle reporters who drove over to the meeting with their managing editor, Nick Ehli, formerly a reporter for the Gazette. Also on hand was Holly Michels, one of two statewide reporters for Montana’s Lee papers, who said she loves her new job. And David Crisp and I were there, very happily, thank you.
Lots of former newspaper reporters and editors were present, too, along with a handful of professors from the journalism school. They were in good cheer, and I didn’t see any of them commiserating with down-in-the-dumps working journalists.
We drank, ate, drank, adjourned and then drank some more, some of us anyway, and then ate again at the M&M. Worst job in America? From the perspective of Butte, America, it still seemed like one of the best.
Bonus material: Among the traditions of the Butte Press Club, the most venerable is the annual auction of a bottle of Auld Malcolm whiskey. As the story goes, a reporter by the name of Frank Quinn used to go around the to bars and beg for donations of liquor for press club meetings.
Teddy Traparish of the famed Rocky Mountain Club in Meaderville, an old section of Butte, once gave Quinn six bottles of Auld Malcolm to get rid of him. In the words of Pam Swiger, formerly a city editor at the Standard, “The members tried the stuff and found it practically undrinkable, which was saying something for those veteran imbibers.”
One bottle of the stuff was auctioned off at a press club meeting in 1948, one was given to Quinn and we know that one bottle was sampled. It is unknown what happened to the other three bottles, but since at least the 1960s one bottle has been auctioned off every year during press club gatherings.
It is not actually given to the winner. That person just signs it. The label was covered with signatures many years ago and now has a couple of cards attached to it for collecting new signatures. The winner this year was Jim Larson, formerly an employee of the Billings Outpost now living in Butte.