On the way out, a Lee publisher blasts the home office

Rush

Chris Rush

In my Prairie Lights column this Sunday, I wrote about the same-day endorsements of U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte in three Montana daily newspapers, all of them owned by Lee Enterprises.

I said that in my many years with Lee I had never seen any “overt attempts at corporate dictation, or even of political collusion among several Lee papers.”

I hope it was clear that my reference to corporate dictation referred only to matters of political endorsements and such. In other matters—those that most closely affect readers—there was never-ending corporate control, and apparently it’s only getting worse.

In a remarkable good-bye column published Friday, Chris Rush announced to readers of The World, a Lee-owned newspaper in Coos Bay, Ore., that he was stepping down as publisher. The first part of the column is pretty standard fare, with Rush describing his lifelong love affair with newspapering, noting the sacrifices made by him and his family, etc.

But then suddenly it veers off into territory that most likely has never been explored before in a Lee newspaper. If any other employee of a Lee newspaper had tried to put this stuff in his or her good-bye column, I’m sure the publisher would have killed it. But when you’re the publisher…

Here’s part of what Rush had to say:

“The industry’s economic fortunes have changed for the worse since the ‘great recession’ of 2008. Corporate ownership by publicly-traded companies like Gannett, Gatehouse, McClatchy and Lee Enterprises (which owns this newspaper) has become the norm. Independent and family-owned newspapers with deep roots in their local communities are disappearing from the landscape.

“At the same time, I have watched the autonomy of the local newspaper being eroded day by day and replaced with central planning from remote corporate offices. More and more decisions about your local newspaper — from its national news and feature content to how much you pay for your subscription — are being determined in boardrooms far away.

“Staffing and publication decisions are no longer primarily driven by local market forces, but by the need to satisfy the unrelenting revenue acquisition and expense-cutting demands of Wall Street shareholders.”

That’s the thing about corporate control. It isn’t necessary to tell individual newspapers exactly how they should be run. If the corporation is primarily focused on “unrelenting revenue acquisition and expense-cutting,” the lack of specific direction is hardly something to be thankful for.

Rush goes on to say some nice things about the staff, trying to do good work in a difficult environment, then throws in this zinger:

“If you care about the importance of local journalism and agree like I do that it is essential for responsive government and building a sense of community pride, then I urge you to make your voices heard. Write letters to the editor. Reach out to corporate ownership and demand that your local newspaper remain viable and accountable to the local community, not Wall Street. After all, without readers like you, newspapers like The World would cease to exist.”

As I said, this was published on Friday. Just two days later, The World published a story announcing that the publisher of several other Oregon papers had been named regional publisher and was henceforth responsible for The World—a move that itself is another example of cost-cutting and loss of local control.

And the announcement quotes Mike Gulledge, publisher of the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian and also the overseer of Lee newspapers in multiple states, including Oregon.

The one thing the second story does not mention is Chris Rush. That’s right, just two days after he announced he was leaving, Lee publishes a story about Rush’s successor while failing to mention Rush’s name.

So allow me to mention it one more time: Mr. Rush, thank you for your years of dedication to journalism, thank you for your sacrifices and thank you for your refreshing honesty.

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