What’s left when news goes bad

DC

David Crisp

When Lee Enterprises bought two Bozeman-area publications in 2004, Billings Gazette Publisher Mike Gulledge said the publications “will extend the reach of Lee’s daily newspapers and other publications in western Montana, and we’re excited to welcome them into our family.”

But as Tolstoy said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Owner Corrine Garcia said in the 2004 news release that she was “really excited to join forces with Lee.” But both publications, Explore and Tributary, folded within a couple of months of each other in 2008.

Tributary was once a lively publication that focused for 17 years on politics, the arts and local events. When it closed, Publisher Janet Taylor told the Bozeman Chronicle that Lee had to reevaluate the profitability of all its publications.

“We don’t have the luxury of not doing so,” she said.

I always picked up a copy of the Tributary when I passed through Livingston, and I stole a couple of ideas from it for the Billings Outpost. Theft in the cause of journalism is no crime.

But when I was trying to come up with the paper’s name last week, it had vanished from my brain. The public library in Livingston couldn’t help me either, not even the old guy who I was told knew everything about the city’s past. Sic transit gloria.

I finally found the name in a story about the closing that appeared in NewWest.net, which was then an up-and-coming online publication with aspirations to cover the entire western region. If any Lee papers covered the closing of the Tributary, my Google searches failed to turn up that fact.

NewWest.net went dormant in 2011 and eventually folded. No, that’s not right, it didn’t fold, although the word flows so smoothly from the keyboard that it feels like it ought to be right.

NewWest, founded by Jonathan Weber in 2005, is still around, as it turns out. Weber, who also founded the Industry Standard, actually was just the first of three owners of the website by the time it went dormant.

The site is now owned by August Publications, which runs 20 websites and publishes two or three books a year. August’s Kevin Reichard said he didn’t know the full history of NewWest after Weber’s departure.

“We bought it from the venture capitalist who was the last person standing,” he said in an email exchange. August bought the site’s assets, including its trademarks and URLs, but not its liabilities, Reichard said.

He did say that the site went dormant after Lee pulled out of an acquisition at the last minute. Sic transit gloria.

August switched the site to WordPress, Reichard said, “but honestly, it’s not been a huge priority for us, as other parts of our business have dramatically expanded in the last 18 months.”

Frankly, it shows. NewWest runs a roundup every few days of regional news that appears to be aggregated from various newspapers. I couldn’t find much evidence of original reporting.

For example, although NewWest was founded with its headquarters in Missoula, I could find nothing on the website about the folding of the Missoula Independent last week.

No, wait, the Indy didn’t fold, but the keyboard won’t let me type it any other way. The Independent, now part of Lee Enterprises’ happy family, was nearly the last in what once appeared to be a thriving string of independent urban weeklies in Montana. Sic transit … oh, never mind.

The Great Times folded. The Queen City News folded. The Billings Outpost folded. The Butte Weekly stumbles on, quietly. Livingston and Bozeman still spin out various publications at a dizzying rate, tapping into ever tinier niches of a declining market.

Nationwide, according to economist Paul Krugman, 270,000 newspaper jobs have been lost since 2000. In a not unrelated event, department stores have lost a third of their employees since 2001.

Just this year, there have been nine retail bankruptcies. J.C. Penney, Macy’s, RadioShack and Sears have each announced dozens of store closings. Krugman points out that 18 times as many department store workers have lost jobs than coal miners have.

Yet politicians rally around coal jobs while ignoring far larger disruptions for far more workers. Maybe that’s because politicians can unfairly blame President Obama for taking away coal jobs.

You’ve no doubt heard that technology has done more to put coal miners out of work than Obama ever did. But you may not realize just how stark the statistics are.

In 1949, 485,306 U.S. workers mined 481 million short tons of coal. In 2011, 143,437 U.S. workers mined 1,094 million short tons of coal.

In 2016, the number of U.S. miners fell below 100,000 for the first time since the 19th century. Yet Montana set its coal production record as recently as 2010, and it barely fell short of that number in 2014.

Even if coal production comes back, coal jobs won’t. And those newspaper jobs aren’t coming back either.

Announcing the purchase of the Independent, Gulledge said, “Independent Publishing is an excellent addition to the Lee portfolio in Montana and further expands our already strong audience in Missoula and the surrounding communities.” Independent owner Matt Gibson, perhaps thinking of the hard rain about to fall, said he was “excited” to be under Lee’s umbrella.

They barely had to rewrite that 2004 news release at all. When no one is left to cover the news, those PR jobs go away, too.

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