Lee Enterprises Tests New Model of State Politics Coverage in Montana

When Lee Enterprises pulled two of its most senior political reporters from Helena in May 2015, concern grew over the health of Montana’s political watchdog.

The loss of Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison from the state’s largest newspaper chain spurred political bloggers, tweeters, editors and readers around the state to rant, reminisce or speculate about the future of political coverage in Montana.

Johnson said he and Dennison were called into what they thought was a meeting about story ideas in their state bureau coverage. Instead, they learned their work in the state bureau was no longer a part of Lee Enterprises’ plan.

According to Johnson, he and Dennison were told the revenues of Lee Enterprises’ newspapers in Montana no longer supported the kind of state bureau they’d had.

“The editors wanted to make changes and they offered Mike and me jobs as roaming reporters,” Johnson said. “We were offered those jobs at a substantial cut in pay, or a buyout.”

The pay cut ranged from 40 to 45 percent, Johnson said. Both reporters took the buyout.

Johnson’s 40 years of state political coverage began in the 1970s, and he covered the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972.

In August 2015, Montana Governor Steve Bullock appointed Johnson to the state Historical Society Board of Trustees.

Dennison clocked over 30 years as a reporter with more than two decades in the state capital and the last 10 years with Lee Enterprises.

In the later years of their work in Helena, Johnson and Dennison contributed their knowledge of the state capital to discussions with Sally Mauk of Montana Public Radio, bringing listeners the political analysis program, “Capitol Talk.”

After they accepted the buyouts, Johnson retired and Dennison went looking for other work.

“The older reporters are probably making more money, they have more vacation time, it costs a lot more to have a longtime reporter working than a young reporter,” Johnson said.

It’s Lee Enterprises’ prerogative to change directions, Johnson said. They’re the ones paying the bills.

Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick broke the news to Johnson and Dennison about the new direction Lee Enterprises was going in their state and political coverage.

Ehrlick told Montana Journalism Review he couldn’t talk about what happened in a private conversation with employees and said the reason for the changes stemmed from reader expectations and changes to the Lee business model.

“I would say that we have two state reporters and they are covering the state,” Ehrlick said. “Are they covering the state in the old bureau form, no, we’ve changed the way we’re doing it.”

According to Ehrlick, the change involves two reporters traveling around the state gathering stories that aim at shifting Lee Enterprises’ content on state and government to the perspective of people being governed, rather than the politicians in the government.

While this change may be driven by a new strategy of telling stories, it comes at a time when Lee Enterprises is struggling to stay afloat in journalism’s digital age and state bureaus around the nation are shedding reporters.

In December of 2011, Lee Enterprises filed for protection against bankruptcy. The company has since reorganized and is paying down its debt, aided by a strategy of stringent cost cutting.

Between 2010 and 2014, the newspaper chain reduced its total workforce by 26 percent, according to company fiscal year reports. Lee Enterprises reported a total of 4,700 employees in their 2014 annual report. It didn’t specify how many of those employees work in its newsrooms.

Nationwide, newsroom numbers have been declining, Associated Press Western Regional Editor Traci Carl said.

Carl oversees the AP’s news coverage in 13 states.

“It’s been unfortunately dwindling across the nation. It is something we are very aware of,” she said.

Since 2000, more than 18,000 full-time professional news jobs at newspapers have been lost, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in 2013.

“That leaves the industry at 38,000 full-time professional editorial employees,” the Pew report said. It’s the first time that figure has dropped below 40,000 since 1978.

The number of statehouse reporters has declined by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.

“We’ve seen it from everywhere from California to smaller states like Montana,” the AP’s Carl said. “There just isn’t as many journalists in statehouses as there used to be.”

While traditional reporter numbers dwindle, others aim to fill the gap. Non-traditional media outlets now account for about 17 percent of all the reporters in statehouses, while students account for 14 percent, according to a 2014 study by Pew.

But Lee Enterprises’ state bureau isn’t gone, according to Holly Michels. Michels, 31, is one of the two new reporters taking on the state and political coverage for Lee’s Montana newspapers’ new strategy.

“There were two reporters covering Montana and there are two reporters now,” Michels said.

She was frustrated with reports that announced the departure of Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison as a closure of the bureau.

“That’s not what’s happening,” Michels said.

Michels, along with 25-year-old Jayme Fraser, will continue covering the Montana Legislature when it’s in session.

According to Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick, there isn’t a designated office space for Michels and Fraser to work in the state capital, but there will be room for them in the Helena Independent Record offices.

When the 2017 legislative session kicks off, Ehrlick says Lee Enterprises will have housing arranged for them.

Michels is looking forward to the traveling aspect of her job. In the new style of coverage, she said Lee Enterprises encourages her to find people outside the capital who are impacted by the decisions made in Helena.

“I think it is such a cool opportunity for our readers,” Michels said. “Where they can’t go, I get to go there for you and bring you that story.”

Jayme Fraser thinks that because the legislature is only in session every other year, this move made sense.

During the lull in the legislative cycle, Fraser and Michels will have opportunities to report on the ripple effects of the last legislative session.

“This is the part where we hold the government accountable for the legislative decisions and also for the things they’ve failed to get done,” Fraser said.

For example: the legislature’s inability to pass an infrastructure bill. While Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison did report on infrastructure legislation, and were scheduled to continue coverage in the fall of 2015, Fraser is coming at it from a different angle.

During her first few weeks on the job, Fraser focused on various Montana communities that don’t have the capacity to grow due to infrastructure problems like old, decrepit water plants.

“That’s a practical effect of the legislature not being able to come up with their share of the funding,” she said.

Fraser and Michels both report to Montana Standard editor David McCumber, who said writing about legislative issues in this way is effective.

“I think that the idea here is that it really doesn’t make sense to lock reporters in an office in Helena year-round when the legislature is in session 100 days every few years,” McCumber said. “It makes much more sense, I think, to have these reporters out around the state seeing how government is affecting Montanans and reporting on it.”

Dennis Swibold, who supervises University of Montana student coverage of the state legislative session for a network of Montana papers, said while Johnson and Dennison didn’t drive all over the state for their work often, they were telling Montanans how government played a role in their lives.

“They were telling the governed what was happening so they could participate,” Swibold said. “I am the governed. I want to know what the governors are doing.”

Swibold said the UM’s student coverage in the capital may increase with the addition of a photographer in the future, but that’s not a sure thing. He said it will be a big test to see if Lee’s new strategy for covering legislative sessions works.

In August, Montana Television Network hired Mike Dennison as their full-time chief political reporter for their network. He’s based in Helena.

“The only entity that has beefed up the reporting is TV stations,” Dennison said.

Along with the recruitment of Dennison, two years ago MTN hired print political reporter Sanjay Talwani to cover Montana’s capital.

“The appetite for political coverage in Montana, I think, has always been strong. And it still is,” Dennison said.

While the appetite for political and state coverage remains, readers won’t have to wait for Lee Enterprises’ new flavor of reporting.

Holly Michels and Jayme Fraser are already in their new positions.

Fraser graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2012, when she was named a Hearst fellow. The fellowship took her to the Houston Chronicle, where she was a data-driven and multimedia journalist.

Michels also graduated from the UM journalism school and has worked for nearly every paper owned by Lee Enterprises in Montana. She was the city editor at the Billings Gazette, as well as the managing editor of the Helena Independent Record.

As their bylines are added to Lee Enterprises newspapers, which circulate 90,000 papers around the state, it will be up to readers to decide if Montana’s watchdog has lost any of its bite.

Corin Cates-Carney works for Montana Public Radio as the Flathead Valley Reporter. His work has also appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, National Native News and the Last Best Stories podcast. He is a 2014 graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.

This article has been corrected.