The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

Fewer and fewer reporters cover the local institutions whose decisions most directly affect their neighbors’ lives.

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On November 3, what is likely the most consequential election of my lifetime, I won’t be in a newsroom.

It’s just starting to sink in that I’ve joined—voluntarily, though not under circumstances I’d have chosen—the great mass of unemployed journalists in this country. I’m luckier than most. I managed four decades in a business that seemed determined to kick me to the curb from my first job at a daily newspaper, The Philadelphia Bulletin, in 1980.

Before I could even start, the Bulletin was sold. I called to ask if I still had a job.

The response: an ominous silence.

Things worked out. I delayed my start date by a few weeks, but two years later, the Bulletin folded. Maybe I should have paid attention to that early omen.

I’ve worked for The News-American in Baltimore, which closed within two years. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, which folded a couple of years after I left. The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Denver Post, once Pulitzer-rich powerhouses, now shells. Two years ago, the Post printed an editorial pleading for its hedge-fund owners to sell and deliver its journalists from the hell of unending cuts.

Overall, half the country’s newspaper jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2019, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Amid the 2020 news trifecta of election, pandemic, and massive protests over racial disparities, more than 1,800 communities now qualify as news desertsdefined by the University of North Carolina as communities “where residents have very limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feed democracy at the grassroots level” (emphasis mine).

Translation: No longer do reporters who live in those communities cover the institutions whose decisions most directly affect their neighbors’ day-to-day lives.

Those are oft-cited realities. Here’s what it was like to live them.

When I arrived in 2007 in Missoula, a western Montana university town of about 75,000, the Missoulian’s was one of the smallest newsrooms I’d ever worked in, not much larger than some of the Inquirer’s suburban bureaus. In retrospect, that newsroom in a low-slung orange-brick building on the banks of the Clark Fork River feels impossibly rich in resources.

We covered seven western Montana counties, an area larger than Massachusetts and Vermont combined, with bureaus in three outlying counties. When my parents visited, we traveled to the state’s far northwestern corner, almost 200 miles from Missoula, and I proudly pointed out the yellow Missoulian receptacles at the end of dirt tracks leading to homes hidden in forests of Ponderosa and lodgepole pine.

Missoulian trucks crossed the Continental Divide daily to deliver papers to the state capitol, Helena, and trundled north to the Canadian border and south and west to the Idaho border. A Missoulian sports reporter drove 600 miles—each way—to Wibaux in eastern Montana to cover a high school football championship game between two eight-man teams.

We didn’t just cover our beats; we owned them. The University of Montana, at the time the city’s largest employer and home to a football team whose home games turned Missoula into the largest town in four contiguous states; the environment—nearly a third of Montana is public land, including Glacier National Park and part of Yellowstone, and it also has the country’s largest Superfund site; City Council; County Commission; Board of Regents; school boards; cops; and courts—Missoulian reporters were there, holding elected officials and institutions to account.

In 2012, my own reporting spurred a federal Justice Department investigation into alleged sexual assaults by University of Montana football players and others, in cases later detailed in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. This did not go over well with a significant segment of the community, especially after the star quarterback was charged with rape (he was later acquitted, after a trial whose jury pool was larger than that of Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh), and the coach and athletic director fired. Upon seeing a Missoulian job opening listed, a Grizzlies fan wrote on a message board: “ “Could there be ANY chance that someone with a brainstem put a bullet in Florio?”—fury that flared anew when Krakauer’s book came out. Well-meaning friends suggesting carrying a gun. Instead, I kept bear spray close.

But there was also an undercurrent of support: A tiny cross-stitch sampler arrived in the mail: “Don’t read the comments.” Notes and telephone calls, some tearful, from women saying, “Thank you,” and then, “Me, too,” years before it became a catchphrase.

The paper kept publishing those stories even as it lost advertising, and despite a jittery publisher who asked at one point, “We aren’t going to break any more stories, are we?” (We did.) Because of the support for that sort of reporting, along with our location in an outdoor recreation paradise (insert A River Runs Through It cliché of your choice), the Missoulian attracted talented journalists who could have worked at far larger news organizations—and kept them, something reflected in the awards that crowded a newsroom wall and cluttered a shelf.

Then Lee Enterprises took it away.

In fairness, Lee has always treated me well. Exponentially more important, Lee’s 1959 purchase of several Montana dailies rescued them from a far worse corporate existence.

For seven decades, Montana newspapers suffered under the “copper collar” ownership of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. In his 2006 book about that era, Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press, 1889-1959, University of Montana School of Journalism professor Dennis Swibold titles the chapter about Lee’s acquisition “Emancipation.”

“At last we are newspapermen, not company whores,” a reporter said at the time.

Lee doesn’t have the national name recognition of other large newspaper chains—Gannett, Hearst, McClatchy—nor does it evoke the mustachio-twirling Snidely Whiplash villainy of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund inflicting misery upon The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, and others.

For decades Lee flew under the radar with its stable of newspapers in small towns and midsize cities. That changed when Lee acquired big-city muscle—and crushing debt—with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the other Pulitzer-winning papers in 2005, two years before I arrived at the Missoulian with the 2008 recession looming.

Given my history, I should have known what was coming. In 2011, Lee filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Two years later, I took one of Lee’s early buyout offers, and spent three years writing novels and teaching at the University of Montana Journalism School, rejoining the staff as city editor at the behest of newly hired editor Kathy Best, under whose stewardship The Seattle Times had won two Pulitzers.

I barely recognized the newsroom to which I returned. Empty desks abounded. Gone were several editors, reporters, and a photographer. Lee had fired two longtime, highly respected capitol correspondents, replacing them with decades-younger reporters.

Positions went dark and bureaus shuttered as staffers retired, took buyouts, or opted for the financial security of public relations. Our pay was abysmal; one reporter told me the Missoulian’s initial offer was what he earned as a dishwasher at Outback Steakhouse; others worked second jobs to cover living expenses.

But we were the Missoulian, damn it. We had a tradition to uphold.

David Erickson’s reporting on foreclosures of mobile homes whose owners sometimes owed less than $100 in back taxes changed laws and lives; as did a Missoulian team’s yearlong investigation into abuses at unregulated for-profit programs for troubled teens. Reporter Rob Chaney was awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, hanging out with journalists from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and the like.

With the zeal of upending sofa cushions for loose change, we went after grant money to fund our work. Success allowed Missoulian journalists to report from Zambia and Botswana, China, Nepal, Brazil, and New York City on stories with relevance to Montana. Within Montana, grants funded trips to the state’s far-flung Indian reservations for necessary reporting on the effects of the pandemic and challenges to voting.

We held our heads high, collected regional and national awards, and tried to avoid the quicksand sucking at our feet.

I moved into the editor’s job in spring 2019 when Best departed to become the first director of the new Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. In the months that followed, layoffs and attrition cost us 20 percent of our remaining staff. Interns filled in on some of our biggest beats. We reduced weekend coverage, meeting coverage, out-of-town coverage. We ran stories from other Lee Montana papers and from credible nonprofit news operations like Kaiser Health News. A recent day’s paper contained not a single Missoulian byline. Readers notice things like that.

I gave silent thanks to the pandemic for keeping me from being out and about in a community where people stopped me on the street with complaints about soaring subscription rates for a shrinking paper with a plethora of typos (without copy editors, we did our best, but exhausted mulitaksnig freqeltly won out) and nagging delivery problems.

Then came the endorsement.

Here’s the only good thing about the Missoulian’s October 11 endorsement of a state public service commission candidate who’d spoken at a forum featuring the anti-government Bundy family and groups favoring the transfer of federal lands to states and undercutting tribal sovereignty.

The community cared.

Missoula is a liberal bastion (“Montana’s communist capital,” someone in Billings described it to me during an early reporting trip to the state), but has its share of elected conservatives.

However, this was a candidate several steps too far to the right; one who saw the armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as an exercise in civil disobedience, who served in a local land-use organization with Militia of Montana founder John Trochmann, and whose Facebook post about vans of antifa activists headed to Missoula spurred people armed with semi-automatic rifles to show up to “protect” the community from peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

People canceled subscriptions. Businesses yanked ads. The only worse reaction would have been a collective shrug.

Because I’d stepped back into reporting when our political reporter took a medical leave, I’d recused myself from the endorsement process, but as top editor, the buck landed atop the litter of notebooks and papers obscuring my desk. I resigned, hastening an already-planned retirement after the election.

After my departure, the paper retracted the endorsement and printed a full page of outraged letters to the editor.

One writer wondered what sort of mushrooms we’d ingested. “Irresponsibly dangerous,” wrote another. Yet another: “The most misguided endorsement I have seen in 47 years of reading the Missoulian.”

Many people blame the fiasco on some sinister corporate mandate: Endorse some Republicans or else. Without full knowledge of what happened, I suspect it had more to do with everyone being so overworked that proper vetting—beyond candidate interviews—went by the wayside. I doubt corporate gives a good goddamn about what we write unless, as with the endorsement, it affects advertising and circulation—although now I wonder, given the Billings Gazette’s Friday endorsement of gubernatorial candidate US Representative Greg Gianforte, who gained infamy in 2017 for body-slamming a Guardian journalist on the eve of a special election.

I still think that at Lee the bottom line takes priority over all else, even if that means cutting resources into an increasing inability to serve as the community’s watchdog.

It’s cold comfort that the Missoulian is hardly unique in its dilemma.

Lee became the country’s fourth-largest news organization in January—just weeks before the pandemic hit—when it acquired nearly 80 daily and weekly Berkshire Hathaway newspapers, touting “synergies,” corporate-speak for cutting people and newsprint.

Due to Lee decisions, North Dakota and Wyoming no longer have a seven-day-a-week print newspaper.

When the managing editor of Virginia’s Floyd Press, Ashley Spinks, recently described her one-woman reporter/editor/photographer/page designer role to public radio station WVTF, Lee executives fired her in a phone call three days before her wedding. Last week, Lee posted Spinks’s job at the same $36,000 salary she’d earned.

Papers across the country, Lee-owned and others, imposed mandatory furloughs in response to the financial realities of the pandemic, some of which continue. The Cheyenne (Wyoming) News Guild tweeted October 13 that the Tennessee-based Adams Publishing Group told reporters at its papers they won’t be working 40-hour weeks through the end of the year.

Cheyenne’s Guild formed in February, part of a recent wave of unionizations at news organizations large and small across the country.

At Lee papers, the response to unions has been swift and merciless. When Lee bought the alternative (and perennially money-losing) Missoula Independent in 2018, reporters there organized—and Lee shut it down with no notice. After the Casper Star-Tribune’s successful union vote that same year in Wyoming, Lee fired three staffers and suspended a fourth who wrote about it.

Reporters at the Billings Gazette organized earlier this year after Lee laid off the editor and editorial page editor, leaving the Missoulian the only paper in Montana with a full-time opinion editor. Billings reporters are in contract negotiations now.

I fear for their jobs, but cheer their willingness to go down swinging.

What about those news deserts, where the fight is already lost? In August, a chilling report from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism detailed 1,200 so-called “pink slime journalism” websites that appear to cover local news but instead are written from afar, typically pushing conservative agendas. A Montana Free Press report examined nine such sites in the state.

And yet.

The University of Montana School of Journalism, with a 50 percent enrollment drop over the last several years, reports a 70 percent rise in freshman enrollment this year. Student Addie Slanger, who interned at the Missoulian and saw firsthand our disheartening reality, spoke passionately about why she’s sticking with it.

“Man, it’s so thankless, so thankless, all the time. But I’ve never been more fulfilled than when I turn in something on time and when I put the best work I can into a story and highlight something really important in the community.… I fall in love with [journalism] over and over again.”

I won’t be in a newsroom on election night.

But Slanger will. There’s still hope.

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