Butte, Mont.—On April 3, 1996, the FBI descended on Lincoln, a small Montana town on the edge of a thickly forested mountain pass, to capture one of the country’s most sought-after terrorists. Federal agents arrested Ted Kaczynski, the troubled mathematician turned serial mail bomber, ending nearly 20 years of attacks that had injured 23 people and killed three. The Unabomber emerged from the woods in a wild beard and shock of dirty brown hair, and journalists from around the world swooped into the state.
For local reporters, it was nearly impossible to get a scoop. National outlets had sources in the FBI and Justice Department who divulged information about Kaczynski. But the dean of the Montana press corps wasn’t going to be beat in his own backyard. Chuck Johnson, who had by then invested 25 years chronicling Montana government and politics, skipped the federal courthouse and the throngs of reporters seeking a glimpse of the Kaczynski. Instead, he headed to the property tax office, where inside a folder, clipped to a tax record, he discovered a photo of a wooden shack, the world’s first look at where the Unabomber had lived and constructed his deadly packages.
It was a scoop that came from years of digging through files and of knowing which government office kept what records. It was the quintessential Chuck Johnson coup, finding something nobody else knew about because he knew exactly where to look.
On March 4, Johnson died suddenly at age 74 in Helena, Mont., the city where he grew up and for nearly five decades reported on state government and politics. Johnson mentored scores of reporters and compiled a deep, far-reaching historical record of Montana and its people. As a must-stop for national reporters writing about Montana, he helped shape perceptions of the state well beyond its borders.
He left a legacy of thoughtful journalism and personal kindness. Hundreds of Montanans, from former governors of different parties to less-recognized folks and friends, gathered for his funeral on March 18. At a reception, mourners told stories of Johnson’s fairness as a reporter and his generosity as a mentor and a source of history and context to other journalists.
Johnson’s career traced an arc in Montana politics that began with the writing of its unusually progressive Constitution in 1971 and continued through the unwinding of the mining industry, which had controlled the state for a century, and into the beginnings of this new era fraught with hyper-right-wing partisanship. His career aligned with the rise and decline of local news and the shift in power away from citizens toward far-right partisans. Until very recently, Montana was idealized as a state full of independent voters; it’s now deep red.
Johnson retired only because he was forced out in 2015 by Lee Enterprises, which owns an outsize number of Montana newspapers and for which he’d worked as a capitol reporter for more than 20 years. He covered another session of the legislature after that and continued to advise other journalists until his death. The economics of local journalism no longer supports careers like Johnson’s. There are fewer reporters able to invest in telling the story and building a history of the place, and we all suffer for it.
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Author Sarah Vowell met Johnson after he retired, when both joined the board of a nonprofit news organization, the Montana Free Press. Both students of history, they became fast friends with a shared love for the Montana Constitution. The 51-year-old governing document includes a unique right to privacy that protects abortion rights, a guaranteed right to a clean and healthful environment, and strong protections of citizens’ right to know what their government is up to. As Vowell worked on events around the Constitution’s 50th anniversary, she delved into Johnson’s archives, which included detailed accounts of his first news job, writing about the 1971 Constitutional Convention. She believes that experience ingrained in him a love of democracy and appreciation for ordinary people.
“I think it probably affected how he covered Montana,” she said. “He had seen these random Montanans from Laurel and Poplar, frame a constitution.”
For decades, Johnson scrutinized the actions of those with power. Today, the newspapers where he worked have been gutted, their reporting and editing ranks stripped to the bones. This is not a tale unique to Montana. It’s a nationwide crisis in which corporate newspaper chains have slashed a public good and weakened its weight in communities.
The numbers are bleak. According to a 2022 report from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, the pandemic accelerated a devastating trend: Since 2005, the United States has lost a quarter of its local newspapers and is on pace to lose another third by 2025. The number of people working for newspapers has sunk 70 percent since 2006. What was once a solid, middle-class job, serving as the eyes and ears of citizens, has become a tenuous post.
Johnson built his career at what was a proudly independent regional newspaper. As the capitol bureau chief for the Great Falls Tribune from 1977 into the early 1990s, he helped the paper become a formidable force, the go-to read on Montana politics and government. In its heyday, the newspaper employed nearly 50 journalists to cover a city of 65,000 people as well as a sprawling region that includes several Native American reservations and Glacier National Park. Today, Gannet has reduced it to a ghost newspaper. The Tribune now employs two journalists.
Studies have shown that as local news disappears, people tune in to national politics and hyper-partisan news outlets, pushing voters to identifying with parties instead of issues. Today in Montana, there’s more available information about the governor of Florida than about the governor of Montana. Great Falls illuminates that. Twenty-five years ago, the city was a blue-collar labor stronghold full of independent voters and a whole lot of Democratic elected officials. Without a strong local newspaper, it’s now entirely controlled by far-right Republicans. The same has happened across Montana, where the GOP holds a supermajority in the state legislature for the first time since the state adopted its Constitution 51 years ago.
Ken Toole, a former state senator and progressive activist who lives near Great Falls, said the loss of local news has consequences on politics. “What we’ve got is an absolute news desert with no coverage of local politics,” said Toole. “If you are supporting a candidate, there is nowhere that you can have public comment. There is no coverage of both sides in a race. Nobody has any information.”
I worked for Johnson through much of the 1990s. I was 21 when I started and one of few women reporting on politics in this state where men and macho behavior often rule. Johnson was none of that. He taught me the importance of showing up, of talking to people, and of building trust that would lead to stories. He treated me as an equal. In editing my stories, he’d drop in bits about past events and context that made each one stronger, connecting daily news to things that went back a decade or more.
Montanans didn’t read us because they were especially obsessed with news from the capitol or with politics. They read local newspapers full of sports stories, school honor rolls, and news that reflected the community back to itself. Our 10 or so stories a day from the legislature were part of an ongoing chronicle: Here are the people making laws that shape your lives; these are the things they might not want you to know about; this is how you can get involved. In political campaigns, issues drove our coverage. Ads and partisan talking points were simply less interesting, and, in Johnson’s view, not very informative. Readers needed to know what a candidate was going to do about the cost of health care or escalating property taxes.
Through most of the 1990s, Marc Racicot was the Republican governor, a popular two-term moderate and former state attorney general who grew up in the mining town of Libby. This year, the Montana Republican Party, in a confusingly written statement, “rebuked” and severed ties with Racicot (once the chairman of the Republican National Committee) for speaking out against its nosedive into extremist politics and its attempts to discredit the state’s independent judiciary. Racicot said he is unsure whether he’s officially kicked out of the GOP, but it doesn’t matter to him.
We spoke about the intertwining of the decline of local news and threats to democracy. Johnson, he said, “was a bridge between people of disparate thoughts. We can take almost anything if we have it explained.”
Racicot joked that sometimes he’d see Johnson approaching in the hall and he’d want to run for the stairs, not feeling like answering any questions. But both men knew it was their job, their obligation to the voters and taxpayers of Montana. Today, Republican Governor Greg Gianforte rarely speaks to reporters, shies away from large public events, and does not publish a daily schedule of his work activities. He has not moved full-time to the capital city of Helena, a fact known but not widely reported.
The erosion of democratic norms has come alongside the decline of credible information. Racicot told me, “Everything has just been scattered everywhere, and we’re stumbling around in the dark trying to make sense of it all.”
I suspect there was a version of Chuck Johnson in every state and major city in the heyday of local newspapers: the unusually brilliant journalist and writer who could have worked anywhere but eschewed national offers to become a watchdog for their home. Many of us who worked with Johnson left the state to work elsewhere; doing that did not interest him.
Given the demise of local news as a stable career for all but a few, it seems unlikely we’ll see the likes of him again. With Johnson’s death, we’ve lost an evolving encyclopedia of a place, a steady hand who wrote the big stories with context, and a historian willing to teach the next generation.
Johnson’s friend and competitor Bob Anez ran the Associated Press capitol bureau in Helena for more than 20 years. He told me younger reporters don’t have the luxury of planning out a life in local news. The job is too precarious. Older reporters are often pushed out first, and younger reporters who weather rounds of furloughs watch senior staff leave the profession before they’re ready.
“Montana is one expansive but small media market,” said Anez. “Chuck was a homegrown journalist with deep ties to the state and an extensive knowledge of its history. He was committed to being a reporter in his home state for the duration of his career, despite having opportunities elsewhere. It’s simply unlikely that another person with his talent will surface again and have the longevity to make a difference.”