Q&A: New Missoulian Editor Matthew Bunk Talks Desk Changes, New Approach with Former MTPR News Director Sally Mauk

Sally Mauk retired as news director of Montana Public Radio in 2014 and still does political analysis for the station. For many years, she worked with Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson on a weekly political radio program. Prior to her journalism career, she was a wilderness ranger.

Matthew Bunk became editor of the Missoulian in August 2015. The 37-year-old North Dakota native has worked at a number of small and large newspapers and most recently was publisher of the bi-weekly Western News in Libby, Montana. Bunk talked with Montana Public Radio news director emeritus Sally Mauk about the changes Missoulian readers can expect to see under his leadership.

SALLY MAUK: What do you think is the difference between a small-town weekly newspaper and a daily paper that serves a large population in terms of the paper’s role?

MATTHEW BUNK: Traditionally the community papers are far more, a lot of times they’re more informative. And you’re doing a lot of “here’s what’s going on this week” type of news. And at some of the daily papers I worked at, you’re focusing more on the watchdog journalism and you’re doing a lot of investigations, and that’s really tough in a small community.

MAUK: Because?

BUNK: Well, you’re so close to your sources. You have to sometimes do things that make people uncomfortable. In a small paper, you’re going out to get your groceries and you run into the people that you are writing about. You see these folks everyday so there’s a huge responsibility to be fair, accurate and all that, but there’s a lot of pressure also to keep things positive and that’s not something journalists generally like to think about as positive or negative news.

Matt Bunk, Missoulian editor-in-chief, in the Missoulian newsroom on Friday, Oct. 28, 2015. (Tommy Martino)
Matt Bunk, Missoulian editor-in-chief, in the Missoulian newsroom on Friday, Oct. 28, 2015. (Tommy Martino)

MAUK: Do you see bringing that sort of approach of being informative and positive about the community to a paper that has been historically a watchdog paper?

BUNK: I think what you’re going to see is the Missoulian continuing to be a watchdog and probably even more so under my direction. I think that we do a great job in many, many areas, but there are a lot of behind-the-scenes stories I think that aren’t being told.

MAUK: Give me an example of the stories you’re talking about.

BUNK: I think we just need to follow the money a little bit better sometimes. There’s a lot of moving parts right now with the Mountain Water case with the city of Missoula and a lot of unanswered questions there and it’s coming out little by little. It’s just one area where there’s just a lot to dig into and I think that might be a good example of where we want to look a little bit more deeply into some of the machinations of what’s going on with that purchase.

MAUK: Lee has undergone a lot of changes – Lee Enterprises your corporate owner – and some of the changes they’ve made in Montana have made news as you well know. The two veteran statehouse reporters, Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, were essentially let go, and that got a lot of blowback from the public. And they’ve been replaced with two younger reporters.

BUNK: We’ve got two really good journalists. Holly Michels is one of them that’s going to be based in Butte. Jayme Fraser is the other person that started recently with us at the Missoulian. She’s going to be a data-driven reporter, do investigations, but largely a lot of data work.

MAUK: The coverage of state government though obviously is going to change for your paper and the other Lee papers because they’re not going to be based in Helena. How will they cover state government from Butte and Missoula?

BUNK: That’s one of the things we’re working on right now. I think they’re going to be down there for sure during the legislative sessions.

MAUK: Which is four months every two years.

BUNK: Correct. And then they’ll be down there quite a bit for any kind of interim committee hearings that they’re having. A lot of that is viewable online as far as legislative hearings, so there’s that option. But I think our focus is getting them to Helena as much as possible. While they’re not based there full-time, I think after a few years, a few sessions, they’ll be pretty tapped in.

MAUK: So, the coverage of state government in your opinion won’t change all that much – or will change? And if it does change, how do you see that change?

BUNK: During the session you’re still going to be getting good daily updates on what’s going on at the legislature. The thing that we think is going to be an enhancement to it, is that these two reporters both have a very deep background in enterprise work, telling a larger story, answering the “why.” We do a good job of who, what, when and where a lot of times, but we don’t always answer that why. We’ve done a lot of reporting from the talking heads down at the Capitol, you know, lawmaker X says this, lawmaker Y says something else. What these reporters are really going to focus on is finding the real people out in the world that are affected by this stuff and letting those people drive the story. And so I think you’re going see the same type of information coming out but maybe told in a more engaging manner than we have in the past.

MAUK: In addition to the change at the Lee state bureau, you’re replacing a longtime editor at the Missoulian. There is some public perception that Lee has made these moves, both in Helena and here, to save money at the expense of news content. How do you answer that perception?

BUNK: I don’t think that’s the case at all. I’m not going to talk about people’s salaries, but that’s not, I don’t believe, part of this mix. I think the readers are going to like what they’re going to get out of this, actually, more than what we had from the state bureau and beyond. I know I can tell you for sure that as a journalist, as a reader and as an editor, I am thrilled at the direction we’re going.

(Update: Subsequent to this interview, Holly Michels relocated to Helena.)