A bureau’s closure sparks talk of new approaches to state coverage in Montana

Photo: WikiCommons

For journalists in Montana who have long memories, the summer of 1979 was a notable one.

That year, a group of former classmates at the University of Montana who were working at two in-state papers owned by Lee Enterprises would often get together on the weekends. Along with some other journalist friends, they shared a vision: a statewide weekly, a nonprofit newspaper that would serve all of Montana, not just cover the local and regional news of the day as they were doing at their separate posts.

As the talks grew more serious, a member of the group drew up a prospectus in hopes of raising $10,000, to be used to publish an experimental issue. The Great Falls Tribune, then a family-owed paper, got hold of the investment document and published a story about the nascent plans—including the names of five people who were currently working at papers owned by Lee. The following week, all of them were forced to resign.

“We were all sort of cast to the wind at that point,” said Jonathan Krim, a member of the 1979 group who now works in San Francisco running global technology coverage for The Wall Street Journal. “It was a pretty big cause celebre at the time. Now barely anyone remembers it.”

These days, the big media story out of Big Sky Country again involves statewide coverage and Lee Enterprises, Montana’s largest newspaper chain. Last week, Lee closed its state bureau in Helena, leaving two of the state’s most prominent political reporters, Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, out of work. For the Great Falls Tribune, now owned by Gannett, the departure of the two journalists was front-page news. Tributes to the reporters have filled the discussion in-state ever since, carried on TV and radio and even reaching the floor of the US Senate. Johnson and Dennison could change the tenor of a meeting “just by walking into it,” said Dennis Swibold, a journalism professor at the University of Montana. Wrote columnist Dan Brooks of the alt-weekly Missoula Independent: “It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of this loss.”

In a series of conversations over the past week, I learned something else about the closure of Lee’s state bureau. The move—coming within months of the departure of Gannett’s state bureau chief—has galvanized sentiment in parts of the state’s journalistic community, where talk has turned again to the prospect of some news organization emerging to cover state government and serve all of Montana. Among a cohort of journalists of a certain age or experience level, there is a sense of frustration with the newspaper chains and a feeling that the state needs more news alternatives.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

At the same time, there is a wariness born of experience about the prospects for such an alternative—whether a nonprofit startup, a public media partnership, a commercial enterprise, or something else.

“There are rumors about all those sorts of things, but I think it’s just way too early to know what’s real and what’s wishful thinking,” said Swibold. “I do think there’s a void here that needs to be filled.”

‘An adjustment driven by the business model’

At Lee Enterprises, which owns papers in Billings, Butte, Missoula, Hamilton, and Helena, the bureau closure is part of a plan to realign government coverage, with less focus on politicians and meetings and more on local and regional issues, including how state government affects local communities.

“This is a modification that’s based on the business model going forward,” said Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick, who supervises Lee’s state coverage. He said the company’s papers will still have reporters at the capital during Montana’s 90-day biannual legislative session, but the chain has to tailor its government reporting to its resources and readership trends. “The move and the changes are really a reflection of all Lee throughout the state,” he said. (I’ve favorably noted the Gazette’s approach to local government coverage in the past.)

I do think there’s a void here that needs to be filled.

Johnson and Dennison, who have a combined 60-plus years of experience in Montana journalism, were given the option of staying on at Lee in new roles at a significant salary reduction, or taking a buyout. They each took the buyout.

Johnson is now retired; in fact, he says he told the company he would retire if that would help keep Dennison on. The suggestion didn’t fly. “I honestly think it was a revenue decision,” he said.

Dennison plans to keep working, and says he’s fairly confident he’ll find something—though he has to decide whether he’ll stay in journalism. I asked if he felt there is an appetite for statewide political coverage, and a viable model for it after all. “I think there might be,” he said, “and I’m just kind of checking that out.”

‘Head to head’ with Lee?

In discussions about statewide alternatives, the name I heard most often was another former Lee reporter: Ed Kemmick. After a quarter century as a reporter and editor for the Billings Gazette, Kemmick started a website, Last Best News, in early 2014. He has someone who sells advertising, and he publishes freelance posts when he can, but it’s essentially a one-man-band that bills itself as an independent news source covering “the culture, people and places of Billings and Eastern Montana, with occasional forays into other parts of Montana and neighboring states.” The site generates between 1,200 and 1,500 viewers a day, he told me, and he’s been able to make it work financially as his full-time job. (The state’s total population is just over 1 million.)

Over the past week, Kemmick, who seems to have little love for Lee, has published a series of posts about the departure of Johnson and Dennison. He has also been talking to a handful of journalists about the idea of an advertising-supported statewide news site.

“I never would have imagined as part of my original plan to cover Helena or anything like that, but I have to say, the moment I heard about what happened at the state bureau I started thinking in a different direction,” Kemmick said, describing a vision of going “head to head” with the Lee papers. If he does pull the trigger, he said, the project wouldn’t have to poach any working Montana reporters: There are enough unemployed journalists in the state already.

“It’s been a dream for a long time, and I think a lot of people see the opportunity,” he said.

Hoping that somebody comes up with a model

One Montana journalist looking for a job is John S. Adams, the former statehouse bureau chief for Gannett’s Great Falls Tribune. Earlier this year, he left the paper when his newsroom was reorganized and he was asked to apply for a redefined job, as part of a much-publicized move by the chain that has affected papers around the country.

These days, Adams spends much of his time in a cabin on the Rocky Mountain front. There, he has a wood-burning stove, which he feeds with a stack of newspapers that go back to the 1990s.

“I’m pulling out articles that Mike Dennison wrote for the Great Falls Tribune back in 1994 and reading them, and what’s really kind of funny is all the bylines in there,” he said. “None of those people who were writing and doing great work in the ’90s are even around anymore—there’s not a single veteran around anymore, it seems like.”

The moment I heard about what happened at the state bureau, I started thinking in a different direction

Adams himself hasn’t been around as long as Johnson and Dennison, but since beginning his Montana news career at the alt-weekly Missoula Independent he has had an impact on state politics. While at the Tribune, Adams investigated a Democratic former governor’s ties to dark money as the pol contemplated a run for the US Senate. He barged into a secret meeting of the GOP caucus held in a hotel basement, which led to an open meetings lawsuit. He broke the news of an email chain among lawmakers showing how conservatives in the legislature were trying to purge moderates from the GOP, which changed the tenor of the 2014 session.

Now he’s looking for work.

“I was just to the point where I had enough institutional memory, where I had enough know-how to get around the capital, where to look, the insider stuff that takes you a while to develop,” he said. “I was finally at the point where I felt totally in my element covering the legislature. And then they”—meaning, Gannett corporate higher-ups—“pulled the rug out from under me.” (Representatives at Gannett headquarters did not reply to requests for comment before this story was published.)

Adams was able to keep ownership of a politics blog called The Lowdown that he ran while at the Tribune, and he’s been trying to figure out if there might be a way to monetize it. He has started an LLC, but he’s more into being a journalist than trying to run a business.

“I’m hoping that somebody comes up with a model and then says, ‘You know who we need? John Adams,’ and then I’m ready to go,” he says. “But I don’t know the likelihood of that happening. I hope that happens, that’s my great hope.”

‘I would say Montanans care’

Aside from the small-scale success of Last Best News, the recent track record of news startups in the state is not especially encouraging. One person rooting for Kemmick is Shane Castle, who ran an alternative weekly, The Helena Vigilante, for three years until the the fall of 2014. (The publication wasn’t dedicated to state issues, but included them as part of the coverage mix). He then tried the nonprofit route with an online publication called MtVigilante.org. He published a few reports and got a decent response from readers, but ultimately didn’t think the project was sustainable. He and his wife are moving to Alaska this summer.

The experience left Castle frustrated about the level of support for what he called “deep-digging reporting.” For all the complaints about the status quo, “when people are out there trying to do it and trying to start a nonprofit model, you’re just butting your head against the wall,” he said.

Elsewhere in the state, Jeremy Chapman has struggled to get his Montana Center for Investigative Reporting where he wants it for the past three years. He hoped that his nonprofit news site, which counts the California-based Institute for Nonprofit News (formerly the Investigative News Network) as a fiscal sponsor, could attract some grant funding.

But so far, his fundraising efforts have been dispiriting. His most recent denial letter, from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, came June 1. “I’m probably going to have to hire a professional here pretty soon,” Chapman said. “Maybe I better stick to journalism and hire someone to do the grant writing.”

Maybe I better stick to journalism and hire someone to do the grant writing.

After speaking to a string of former, out-of-work, or underemployed journalists, I started to worry I might be getting a skewed version of the state’s media ecology. I wanted to talk to a working reporter. And there are still people covering state politics and government. The Great Falls Tribune still has a capital bureau with one reporter. The Associated Press has a full-time politics reporter, Lisa Baumann, who moved to Montana from Washington State last year, and the AP brings on another reporter during the legislative session. Montana Public Radio and the Montana Television Network have journalists covering the state politics beat. TV stations in Great Falls and Helena send reporters to the capitol during the session, and the Bozeman Chronicle, about 100 miles from Helena, has a staff writer who covers politics and government.

One of the Montana journalists who follows state politics is Jackie Yamanaka, the news director for Yellowstone Public Radio, based in Billings. During the legislative session she moves to Helena for a few months, where she actually stays with Chuck Johnson and his wife. Yamanaka describes the statehouse press corps as more congenial than competitive—because it’s so small, they’re all in the trenches together. She says she actually started a news-sharing partnership with Montana Public Radio, because it seemed wasteful to have two radio reporters covering the same meeting.

She and her colleagues have always worked in the shadow of Johnson and Dennison, Yamanaka said, so last week’s news was tough. I asked if the journalists who are left can keep Montanans informed about their government.

“We’re going to try,” she said. “It’s not to say that we can’t do it. I think the problem is we don’t know—even I don’t know— how our employers are going to support those of us who are left. Honestly, we’re at their mercy.”

Yamanaka said it’s clear to her, from what she hears during the fund drives—when she tells listeners how member donations help her head to the capital for gavel-to-gavel coverage—that there is an audience that cares about statehouse reporting. “People respond,” she said. “In that way I’m very optimistic … I would say Montanans care. Montanans care deeply about what happens in their legislature.”

Summer of ’79

Whatever may come of the discussion about a new statewide news operation, that’s not the only thing bringing up memories of 1979, when the Lee publications faced the prospect of a new rival started by their own former employees.

On May 26, Lee Enterprises sued the former publisher of The Missoulian and four other former employees in the paper’s advertising department after they started their own marketing business. In part, the lawsuit accuses them of a conspiracy to leave the Lee paper and compete against it, and of allegedly using information about clients that belonged to Lee.

One way to look at that development: While there’s some hopeful discussion and so-far unrealized aspirations about setting up a rival news operation, the project that actually got off the ground to pose a threat to the incumbent media company is a marketing firm.

Maybe Kemmick, or somebody else, will find the path to success for a statewide news startup; maybe the quality of state coverage in the papers will be better than the critics fear. Perhaps this is an opportunity for a TV station to step into a larger role. For the moment, 35 years after what now looks like a golden age, that stands as a sort of commentary on the state of the local news business.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.