Lee Enterprises' two-person state bureau, which covers politics and statewide issues for five Montana newspapers including the Missoulian, is losing a reporter barely two years after the company insisted its statewide reporting would not diminish.
Bureau reporter Jayme Fraser announced the change Aug. 1 in a lengthy post to her professional Facebook page, writing "my job has changed." Fraser will now cover education at the Missoulian. Missoulian editor Kathy Best confirms that the company does not plan to fill Fraser's position at the bureau, leaving Holly Michels as Lee's sole statehouse reporter.
It's the second cutback to Lee's state bureau since 2015, when budget cuts led to the departure of longtime reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison. That widely publicized shakeup led to fears that one of the state's most important journalistic institutions would disappear. Rebuffing those concerns, Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick told the Indy, "This is re-prioritizing our resources in a different way, but we still intend to have two reporters covering statewide issues."
Such reassurances ring hollow in a news industry that continues to cut staff in an attempt to keep pace with plummeting advertising revenue. All seven daily newspapers in Montana have eliminated newsroom positions in the last 12 months, according to our survey of editors and industry sources. The latest cut to Lee's state bureau only underscores how newsrooms statewide are "being nibbled to death," as University of Montana journalism professor Dennis Swibold puts it.
Lee Enterprises, the largest corporate newspaper chain in Montana (and owner of the Indy since April), has cut total employment by 23 percent over the last three years, based on figures published in an Aug. 3 quarterly report. The company touted "strong fiscal third quarter results" to shareholders, despite an overall revenue drop of 6.6 percent. Lee regional publisher Mike Gulledge tells the Indy the company's Montana properties "face the same headwinds of disruptive change" as the rest of the company's 50 daily newspapers, but, he adds, they "continue to be successful and profitable."
While cuts within Lee have the broadest effect on Montana journalism, the company is far from alone in its struggles, which date to the national recession of 2008. Mike Gugliotto, CEO of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's parent company, Pioneer News Group, outlined the privately held company's own financial challenges in an internal memo distributed Aug. 9 and obtained by the Indy.
"One thing we've learned is that we can't sit back believing these trends will end or cycle through soon, which has been an incorrect industry assumption for several years," Gugliotto wrote. "They may, but we can't count on it. Hope is never a good business strategy. And we just can't rely on more expense reductions."
Chronicle editor Nick Ehli says his newsroom has roughly two-and-a-half fewer positions than it did a year ago, with reductions made mostly by combining jobs: The city editor also covers crime, while the politics reporter also writes for the nearby Pioneer-owned Belgrade News.
"We've had to become creative on people's time," Ehli says. "We're at the point where we need X number of bodies to get the work done for a six-day-a-week paper and cover the things we need to keep covered."
Kalispell's Daily Interlake eliminated one vacant reporter position late last year, editor Frank Miele says, and the Gannett-owned Great Falls Tribune has endured two rounds of reductions, according to media reports and a former staff reporter. Gannett has declined to provide details of its latest company-wide layoffs in May, but one Columbia Journalism Review reporter tallied three positions affected in Great Falls. Publisher Jim Strauss did not respond to requests for comment.
The Indy could not confirm a precise tally of recent newsroom cuts at Lee's Montana papers, but they are substantial. "Voluntary incentives," or buyouts, were offered to some employees earlier this year, leaving both the Helena Independent Record and Butte's Montana Standard with only three of their five reporting positions staffed, according to those papers' editors (both of whom say they hope to rehire one or both positions). Sources at the Billings Gazette say the paper recently eliminated a vacant photographer position, and business reporter Erik Olson confirms he was terminated in July as part of a cost-cutting effort. Two people informed of the changes say more than 10 positions at the Gazette were affected.
As publishers look for new ways to generate revenue, Lee editors say they've tried to maintain coverage by coordinating and sharing content. The Missoulian's Best says Fraser will research statewide issues when school isn't in session and continue to be a "statewide resource for all the newsrooms" year-round.
That's the plan, anyway.