Lee Enterprises recently implemented another round of staff cuts at its Montana newspapers, including the Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in the state.
Several people still working there said it was almost impossible to say exactly how many employees were leaving because of the mixed methods of departure and because a few more employees, including two or three in the newsroom, apparently were still considering buyout offers.
Among those who accepted buyouts was Greg Rachac, who just two weeks earlier had been named Montana Sportswriter of the Year for the second time by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.
On Jan. 24, Rachac announced his departure on Twitter, saying: “News: I have taken a voluntary buyout from The Gazette/Lee Enterprises after 17 years as a sportswriter. It’s the best decision for me. Been a great run. Lots of memories & proud moments. Now it’s time to find new ones. Thank you for reading along all these years. Best wishes!”
On Feb. 2, newsroom receptionist Charity Dewing posted on Facebook a photo of a cake, obviously part of her going-away party, and said: “They were my kind of people. I didn’t make a lot of money at the Gazette, but I made a lot of lifelong friends. I love you, all.”
The latest round of cuts came barely half a year after several employees were laid off by the Gazette last summer. The staff cuts also came in the wake of yet another hefty increase in the price of a home-delivered Gazette.
Last Best News has also learned that the Gazette is contemplating significant changes to its circulation policies, which could be put in place as early as this spring.
The proposal, reportedly, is to draw in the boundaries of its home-delivery system, no longer providing that service in Wyoming, and in Montana going no farther west than Columbus or farther east than Glendive. Some subscribers in outlying areas also would lose home delivery two days a week.
The move would be a further geographical reduction for a newspaper that once boasted of having the largest circulation area of any daily newspaper in the United States, in terms of papers delivered directly by carriers.
Decades ago, when the Gazette had bureau reporters and stringers in Bozeman, several Eastern Montana communities and Cody and Sheridan, Wyo., fleets of contract drivers made daily long-distance drives to haul bundles of papers to dozens of communities. From there, carriers delivered them to doorsteps in northern Wyoming and in Montana as far west as Bozeman, to the east into western North Dakota and to the north all the way to the Canadian border.
In Missoula, the company announced plans to bring the weekly Missoula Independent into the Missoulian’s downtown office. Lee Enterprises bought the Independent last spring.
The company also said it will reduce the number of days the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton publishes a newspaper, from five days to three, and will close two customer call centers in Indiana, eliminating 93 jobs.
Matt Gibson, the Missoulian’s general manager, said he couldn’t discuss the paper’s latest round of layoffs. However, he said the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent and the Ravalli Republic — all owned by Lee Enterprises — remain on solid footing.
“I absolutely feel confident in the paper’s future,” he said. “We remain the leading news and information outlet in our market. We employ more journalists at our three papers than perhaps the rest of the media combined. We’re well positioned to continue providing the kind of news and information the community expects of us.”
The reductions come as Lee Enterprises reported quarterly earnings of $27.3 million though digital services – an increase of 3.2 percent. But Lee’s overall advertising revenue was down in the last quarter of 2017, according to a report by the Poynter Institute, which regularly reports on American journalism.
“Lee Enterprises had an advertising revenue loss of 9 percent in the last quarter of 2017, but was able to increase profits with cuts in people and paper and a favorable income tax adjustment,” Poynter reported.
At the Missoulian, the latest round of cuts included the newspaper’s advertising manager and two members of the newsroom, including sports copy editor Tom Kopacz and sports reporter Kyle Houghtaling.
Both announced their departure last week on social media.
“Tonight is my last night at the @missoulian,” Houghtaling tweeted. “The paper had some layoffs and a sportster had to go. I volunteered.”
Last Thursday, the Independent also reported that it would move in with the Missoulian at the paper’s office on Higgins Avenue and share a single advertising manager. According to the Indy, Gibson said the move would save a “substantial amount” of money, possibly sparing the weekly paper from its own job losses.
Over the weekend, the Ravalli Republic reported that it would cut the publication of its newspaper to three days a week, down from its current five. Gibson said reports in the Indy and Republic were accurate and declined to discuss them further.
The Montana Standard, a Lee-owned newspaper in Butte, also made staffing cuts recently. Among those let go were the paper’s longtime photographer, Walter Hinick, and managing editor Carmen Winslow. Both had been with the Standard for 43 years.
Last week, Lee Enterprises submitted a notification with the Indiana Department of Workforce Development stating that it would close two customer call centers in Indiana. The closures will take effect on March 30 and affect 93 employees, including customer service representatives.
According to one former call-center employee, the company is moving the jobs to Ohio and Mexico. However, that could not be confirmed.
Ed Kemmick contributed to this story. A shorter version of this article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.