Prairie Lights: Don’t blame Lee’s bad moves on the Web

Capitol

MTPR.org

This is the Montana state Capitol in Helena. A lot less news is going to come out of it in the future.

I suppose it’s still possible that Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick, in his Sunday column, will formally salute Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, the two experienced reporters whose last day as employees of Lee Enterprises was Friday.

With more than 70 years of reporting experience between them, Lee’s Capitol bureau team certainly deserved a proper send-off. But because Lee treated them so shabbily, and because it seems to believe that closing the bureau is merely a cosmetic change in the way it covers the news, a proper tribute seems most unlikely.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

And even if it came, it could not possibly be as sincere or as meaningful as the praise already heaped on them by colleagues, media watchers, government officials and both of our U.S. senators, who delivered their tributes on the floor of the Senate.

Mike and Chuck were the kind of reporters whose very presence in the capital lent the Lee papers (in Billings, Missoula, Helena, Butte and Hamilton) an air of credibility and respect. Their deep understanding of Montana history and politics, their even-keel fairness, the thoroughness and dependability of their reporting—all of it is irreplaceable.

One of the finest tributes I heard came in an email from a friend, a former Republican Party activist who moved out of state a few years ago. He told me he didn’t really know Mike, but he described Chuck as “a prince of a man and a tower of integrity.” That about covers it, and one could say the same of Mike.

True to form, Chuck and Mike have been gracious in their public utterances since Ehrlick and Jim Gaasterland, the Gazette’s human resources director, went up to Helena to drop their bomb two weeks ago.

Let me be less than gracious on their behalf.

Mike in a news story and Chuck in a Montana Public Radio interview, as well as David Crisp in his recent column, all mentioned how the Internet has dramatically changed the media landscape, and how that played into Lee’s decision to close the state bureau.

The Internet has been hard on newspapers, undeniably, but I worked for the Gazette for almost 25 years starting in 1989, and I watched the Gazette and Lee Enterprises make the same stupid, short-sighted kinds of decisions long before the Web deprived newspapers of a nickel.

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I hate to think of how many soul-scouring meetings I sat through as the latest round of cutbacks was announced, usually in terms that insulted both our intelligence and the English language. I can remember looking around the room, wondering how my colleagues who were single could resist resigning on the spot. My excuse was that I had three daughters at home, whom I pictured as hatchlings in a nest, crying out for food. But that was a lousy excuse. David Crisp quit the Gazette almost 20 years ago to found the Billings Outpost. He had only one little hatchling at home, but still …

Anyway, the problem wasn’t solely the Internet. The problem was how much money newspapers and newspaper chains had grown accustomed to raking in. For decades, they made so much money printing newspapers that they might as well have been printing money. Profit margins of 35 and 40 percent were not uncommon.

People have often misunderstood the pernicious influence of chain ownership of newspapers. It wasn’t that editorial policy was dictated in some far-off tower, or that publishers were ordered to support certain candidates or political parties, or that they were ordered to slant their coverage in any way at all.

The truth is, Lee Enterprises never gave a damn what was in the Montana newspapers. The bosses in Davenport, Iowa, issued but one directive to Montana publishers: produce enormous profits and shovel bales of greenbacks into eastbound freight trains.

It would have been bad enough to watch Lee gut its papers and cavalierly dismiss talented, valuable employees. It would have been painful enough to be constantly reminded that the reward for diligent labor was an increased workload, reduced benefits and static pay.

But to endure all that and then to watch as the executives who plunged Lee into a billion dollars worth of debt were rewarded with six- and seven-figure bonuses year after year—well, that was asking a bit much. I won’t even give you any links. Just Google “Mary Junck, greed.”

The kind of company that does that is the kind of company that doesn’t have the decency to announce that it is closing the state bureau and laying off its two star reporters. Instead, it announces it is creating two new state reporting positions, then “offers” Chuck and Mike those jobs—with a pay cut of nearly 40 percent—or buyouts.

They took the buyouts, of course. The new reporters supposedly will cover “statewide issues,” whatever that means, and trends, and subjects like tourism, oil and gas and agriculture. Oh, yes, and politics. Why, Lee even intends to have them both in Helena when the Legislature is in session.

By week three of the session, after they have figured out where the bathrooms are, they can get down to the business of providing the in-depth, nuanced, history-mindful reporting we all came to expect from Mike and Chuck.

Or not. But who cares? With term limits, the legislators themselves have so little institutional knowledge that they might as well be covered by similarly benighted individuals, right?

What the decision-makers at Lee really think of this is anybody’s guess. Chuck mentioned in his radio interview that Ehrlick said Lee’s revenue picture in Montana could no longer support the state bureau. But then Ehrlick went on to talk about the new style of coverage Lee would be emphasizing, and he reportedly told the Gazette staff that Lee editors were dissatisfied with Mike and Chuck’s reporting.

Ehrlick also said, in an email to other Lee editors in Montana, that there would be no news story about the departure of Mike and Chuck because it was merely a restructuring, a change in beats. Several of my colleagues have said this was the most discouraging thing about the whole mess—that Lee might actually believe this is not a huge, historic shift in how the Lee papers view their mission and their public responsibility.

Morale, already sapped, can only be weakened by moves like this latest fiasco, and by the terrible way it was handled.

In the midst of all this came news that Lee Enterprises is suing the former publisher of the Missoulian and four former advertising department employees for allegedly stealing confidential information from the newspaper before going off to start their own marketing company.

I don’t know if this is true, of course, but if it is, it would seem to suggest that a company that refuses to reward loyalty is being paid in kind. A few years ago, an analyst explained why he thought Lee was “burning the furniture to heat the house.” The picture has changed somewhat, but the prognosis is still accurate.

I’m sorry that Mike and Chuck were not able to leave on their own terms, but I’m glad they got out of the house in one piece.

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