The Erosion of the Franchise

Get any group of journalists together, and you’re likely to hear a lot of belly-aching about the end of news.

Newspapers, we so often tell each other, are an endangered species with a shrinking habitat and no good source of protein. I mean, what about the aging readers? What about the… gulp… Internet? Clearly, newspapers are finished.

That’s bull.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that newspapers are in financial trouble, but news corporations are stuck in a whirlwind of their own making. Newspapers and media companies haven’t been swept up by some freakish storm. News isn’t the victim of some unrelenting force of nature.

Every day, good journalists all across this great country—and I would contend that almost no field in America has such a depth of talent and professionalism as journalism—witness the slow erosion of the quality and integrity of the news organization that employs them. Each ding is small. Each new affront seems minor. Maybe the coverage of your state legislature gets cut back, or two old jobs get combined into one. Or what was once a flagship beat gets rolled into the beat of an already over-worked reporter.

Does this sound familiar?

And as the staff has shrunk, so the quality has always… sometimes slightly… declined. Fewer copy editors. Fewer designers. Oh, you’ve heard your editor, defensive, insisting that the paper will always be committed to the highest quality of… whatever kind of reporting has just been hamstrung.

That… and nothing else… pushes news organizations toward the brink. When I was a journalism student, one of the best young reporters in my class said, “We trade in our word,” and I knew when I heard it that, as a journalist, “my word” was my franchise. If I respected it. Grew it. Protected it. Developed it. Then I’d be all right.

And the same is true of the entire world of media. We trade in our word. When we erode our word, we erode our value. And without our value, well, we’re worthless.

And no amount of cost-cutting can prop up the value of a product in consistent decline. That’s just common sense. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a study about how fewer people trust news organizations.

Check this out. Here’s a story on “This American Life” about the outsourcing of local reporting.

Here’s another study about how advertising dollars continue to rise, but the short-sighted knuckleheads who run newspapers aren’t capturing much of that revenue.

And here’s a story about how Gannett cut costs aggressively to make its papers more “competitive,” and then turned around and gave those millions in savings to its top executives in bonuses.

Smart, huh?


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On Strike! The Montana Newspaper Guild in 1974

“We managed to get a pension…. What’s the pension situation like at newspapers now?”

Carla Beck, a former president of the Montana Newspaper Guild and a reporter at the Great Falls Tribune in the 1960s and 70s, posed the question to me about halfway through our telephone conversation, and it put the divide between past expectations and modern reality into sharp relief.

I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing!

“What? No daily reporters in Montana have pensions! Lee Enterprises doesn’t even contribute matching dollars to 401Ks!” I said, adding, “I don’t know about Gannett.”

Gannett owns the Great Falls Tribune, where employees had been members of the Local 81 of the National Newspaper Guild from the mid-1930s to 1993. Lee Enterprises owns all but one of Montana’s daily newspapers—the Billings Gazette, the Montana Standard in Butte, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic south of Missoula. I worked at both the Gazette and the Missoulian over the years as a reporter. I also delivered the Gazette as a teenager, and I helped my mom deliver the Missoulian sometimes back when I was in grade school.

Here’s something you have to understand: Lee Enterprises, based in Iowa, is an anti-union media company, by which I mean that the company’s policies include instructing managers to break the law by intimidating or firing any employees who try to form a union. Maybe that’s not surprising, but it should be.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I called Beck after I got a letter from Ralph Pomnichowski (another past president of Local 81) with her phone number. He had read this blog about union talk among some Montana journalists and thought I should talk to her. (It turns out that she doesn’t live far from me in Maryland. It’s a small world….)

I wanted to talk to her about the unsuccessful 1974 strike at the Great Falls Tribune.

By way of background, you should know that the Great Falls Tribune, like most newspapers, produced (and continues to produce) tremendous profits. It was the largest newspaper in Montana and was available everywhere in the state. The employees wanted fair compensation for the people who made the company so profitably, especially the workers in the classified advertising department.

“Those little ads made, oh my… you wouldn’t believe how profitable those ads were,” Beck said. “We wanted more for those people who pulled in so much money for the newspaper.”

At that time, Local 81 felt strong, partly because it represented workers throughout the newspaper, except the typesetters and the press workers. Plus, the teachers’ union in Great Falls had recently won a tough strike, and the solidarity within the Great Falls labor movement was complete. People would flock to picket lines in support of other unions. So when the Guild went to the table to bargain a contract with the Tribune’s owners, and the owners refused to even talk about decent raises, the members voted to strike.

“Here’s what I’ve thought about a lot since that strike. All of us should have been a little scared,” Beck said. “We didn’t know what all that would be required. We should have known, because we were all basically researchers. I’m not apologizing, but when you go into a strike situation you need to educate your members so that they know what it’s really about.”

Carla Beck in 1971, photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild.

Beck explained that the workers at the paper figured that a short-term loss of a paycheck would be made up by good increases, and that the newspaper company would be anxious to keep making money.

You see, when Local 81 went on strike, the Great Falls Tribune couldn’t put out a paper. Instead, the employees wrote, laid out and printed a weekly strike paper called the Great Falls Pennant from the strike headquarters, which were on the second floor of a bar across the street from the Tribune’s offices.

But the company that owned the Tribune, which also owned the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, replaced the old hot-lead typesetting machinery in the printing plant with new technology that needed a fraction of the workers. Plus, the company had plenty of cash from its other holdings, but the employees—especially the lower-paid workers in the classified department—felt tremendous pressure from the lack of that paycheck.

The enthusiasm that marked the early weeks of the strike began to wane. After a few months, some members began to cross the picket line and return to work.

Truck drivers, teachers, heavy-equipment operators, electricians and others marched on the picket line alongside striking newspaper workers at the Great Falls Newspapers Strike in 1974. Photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild.

“Management knew what they wanted to accomplish, and they had the money to do it,” she said. “They wanted to break the Guild.”

It’s easy to understand why the corporate owners of Montana’s newspapers wanted to undermine the workers. Union workers in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s had negotiated good benefits and pay, and non-union companies like Lee had been obliged to offer comparably decent packages to forestall organizing drives.

In retrospect, the 1974 strike was the beginning of the end of the Montana Newspaper Guild, Beck told me, and that was especially true after Gannett bought the paper, “because they’re a union-buster all around,” she said.

The Guild continued to represent employees at the paper until 1993, when workers voted to disband as a union. Yet the Guild continued to have a strong positive effect on wages and benefits of journalists in Montana until 1993, and even for a few years afterwards.

By then, Carla Beck had long since moved on. She came to the DC area to work for Montana Sen. John Melcher in the 1980s, and now she’s retired in Maryland, living with her husband, who worked for decades as an Episcopal minister.

“Unions are a lot like churches. A lot of the work is done by volunteers, who all have jobs and busy lives with all sorts of time constraints. Just think of what the world is operating under today! Good Lord!” she said.

I asked her if she had any advice for people who were interested in organizing media workers in Montana these days.

“I’d stress the care and feeding of members,” she said. “You can’t have a successful union without a strong community of members. We shut down that paper for weeks, for a couple months, and yet we still lost. The members lost heart. The other unions lost heart.”

Still, the Guild managed to establish a pension and upped the health care coverage.

“That was a real winner,” Beck said. That’s when she asked about journalists’ pensions today. It was a subject on which we lingered for a moment, because neither of us have a doubt that Montana’s newspapers still produce incredible profits and could easily afford defined benefit pensions for retired employees.

Finally, Beck, who was a general assignment reporter, told me about some of her most memorable stories, one of which was a series in 1968 about how Alabama Gov. George Wallace had campaigned across Montana extensively as part of his presidential campaign.

“Oh, I tell you, he was up around the northeastern and north central part of the state. I interviewed all these people who told me the darnedest things, like what he can do and what he has done so well in Alabama, and, yes, quite frankly the racism would come out. The racism was there,” she said.

Then we talked about how Montana seems to have so many interesting political extremes, from socialist counties to right-wing separatists.

“That’s what makes the state such a wonderful place,” she said. “But maybe Montana’s not so different from anywhere else. I suspect that’s true all across the country.”

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A Reprint: America was Shamed Into Giving Indians Citizenship

This article first appeared in the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1999. I had been in the newsroom for about a year as a police reporter, but there was a lot of room for an enterprising and curious reporter who wasn’t afraid of screwing up from time to time, which I certainly did.  And yet… I’m sure glad I had fun reporting stories like this, which I turned up while searching for another story about an effort by one school district in northern Montana to keep Indians from voting. I’ll keep looking for the other story. In the meantime, here’s this:

Joseph Oklahombi, right. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

It wasn’t marches in the streets or boycotts that won U.S. citizenship for Native Americans 75 years ago.

It was national embarrassment, sparked by one man’s act of heroism in World War I, that pushed the United States to grant citizenship to Native Americans, said MSU-Billings Native American studies professor Jeffrey Sanders.

The story goes like this: Joseph Oklahombi, a full-blooded Choctaw from Bismarck, N.D., and a soldier in the U.S. Army, was one of a large number of Native Americans who volunteered for World War I.

Before 1924, Native Americans could become citizens in some instances if they were honorably discharged from the military, or if they sold their allotted reservation land.

In 1917 Oklahombi went through the German lines in France, dodged barbed-wire and overpowered a machine gun nest, Sanders said. He then single-handedly captured 171 German soldiers.

For that and for other acts of bravery, France awarded him the nation’s highest military honor.

“You see, he had not yet been discharged, so he was not yet a citizen. When that fact got out, it was extremely embarrassing to the United States,” Sanders said.

Over the next seven years, a small group of politicians on the East Coast lobbied for citizenship for the nation’s Native Americans. In 1924, the time was right, and a bill came through Congress and the Senate on the coattails of another, more controversial bill. The other bill would limit immigration from Asian countries.

In the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1924 – the day President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act – there was no mention of the act. Instead, the headlines were dominated by the trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb.Two days earlier, the two sons of Chicago millionaires had confessed to murdering a 13-year-old boy.

Farm aid was also a big issue in June, 75 years ago, but nowhere in the paper, or in the next week’s worth of papers, was there a mention of the act that gave citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.”

The 75th anniversary of the citizenship act has also received little attention, both on Montana’s reservations and off, said Gail Small, the founder and director of Native Action, a nonprofit organization trying to increase Native American voter participation across the northern Great Plains.

On the reservations, the date is sensitive because it brings up feelings of anger and frustration.

“Why Indians were not automatically citizens is still questioned by many,” Small said, adding that discrimination against Native Americans is still a very real thing.

“Indian people and their tribal governments remain an anomaly in the political system in this country. We don’t really fit in very well as dual citizens or as tribal government.”

Small said Native Americans are still in political limbo.

“Indian tribes and our homelands are not considered countries, states or truly sovereign nations,” she said.

So although Native Americans received the legal right to vote from the federal government 75 years ago, Small said the fight is still on for equal representation.

Sanders agreed but said in the last 10 years, partly as a result of work by Small’s organization, Native Americans have become an important swing vote in statewide elections.

“When Pat Williams won his last election, he won by the number of Indian voters in the state,” Sanders said. “You can’t exactly say it’s a direct correlation, but I think it would be fair to say the Indian vote can win elections and its influence will continue to grow.”


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The Return of the Montana Newspaper Guild

Steve Schnall in Great Falls in1983 pedaling to raise money for a Montana Newspaper Guild college scholarship, which happens to be named after my grandfather, also Robert Struckman. Steve is now assistant athletic director at San Diego State University in California.

It’s an uncertain and insecure time for journalists in Montana these days, what with unrelenting layoffs and buyouts at the state’s newspapers coupled with more than a decade of below-inflation raises, when the staff received any pay increases at all. There have been furloughs at the Great Falls Tribune, and staff at the state’s five newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises have had significant benefit cutbacks, estimated by one staff member to equate to a 7 percent pay cut.

But here’s the funny part. Montana’s journalists have consistently produced top-quality news, year after year. The papers themselves have been beautifully profitable, earning dependable millions every year.

I can actually remember when pay stalled for Montana’s reporters. I was a bumbling and excited new police reporter at the Billings Gazette in 1998. As I got my first raise, my supervising editor explained that the paper’s corporate headquarters had clamped down on raises, just the previous year. Instead of good raises—I’m thinking maybe 5 percent or so—I would receive a fraction over 1 percent. It wasn’t me, my editor explained. It was company-wide.

It’s interesting to look back at that time.

Five years earlier, in 1993, the members of the Montana Newspaper Guild at the Great Falls Tribune—scattered among pretty much the entire staff outside the press room and the drivers—had voted out to disband. The Tribune had been an open shop for about 15 years, which means that employees could get the good wages and benefits that the dues-paying union members had bargained for, but without contributing a dime. Still, the members of the Montana Guild were skilled negotiators who won decent raises when the paper made solid profits.

Decades of research has shown that union wages raise standards at non-union workplaces. It’s easy to understand why. The Billings Gazette and other Lee Enterprises papers in Montana offered pay and benefits roughly comparable to the Great Falls Tribune, owned by the Gannett Company. Why? To retain and dissuade the staff from forming unions to gain the full benefits of collective bargaining.

If you don’t believe that Lee Enterprises fears the combined clout of its employees, consider this: Anti-union training is a centerpiece for all company managers, and anti-union videos are routine for new employees. I sat through an anti-union spiel at the Gazette in the summer of 1998. I remember it well. And, as I mentioned before, my editor didn’t hesitate when it came to breaking the law when he threatened to fire me just for talking about forming a union with my coworkers.

And here’s why Lee hates unions. It’s not rocket science. The company’s leadership doesn’t want any pressure to share any of the amazing profits it reaps. After the Tribune‘s union disbanded, Lee’s managers no longer even had to keep pace with the Tribune.

It’s abundantly clear to me now that while collective bargaining offers a rising tide, the reverse is also true. Without collective bargaining, employees experience a relentless race-to-the-bottom. It’s not a fun race, like that tricycle escapade above, but you don’t need me to tell you that.

And yet there is hope. As I’ve noted many times, Montana’s media corporations are profitable. News will also be important in Montana and across the country far into the future. In fact, media spending has been on the rise, even though the share spent on newspapers has been declining.

My point is simple. Newspaper employees—all media employees—from the press room to the advertising floor to the newsroom can still form unions. It’s possible. Membership in the Newspaper Guild doesn’t mean anything more than that each paper’s employees will be able to collectively bargain with management about pay, benefits and working conditions.

There are a lot of people in Montana who remember the Guild. I’ve been talking to quite a few of them. I’ll write soon about the 1974 strike in Great Falls, in which Teamsters, teachers, postal workers and even the young newspaper carriers helped Guild members in a long struggle with that paper’s management.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could form a union without taking an enormous personal and professional risk? Wouldn’t it be an amazing show of solidarity if those same truck drivers, mail carriers, teachers, electricians and public workers came together to help start a race back up from the bottom? The time is right.

And, actually, if anyone could identify the people in this photo, or share their stories, I’d sure appreciate it. More photos soon.

Both of these photos come from the files of the Newspaper Guild here in Washington. I’d appreciate any news about the photographs or the people in them. Feel free to email.


Filed under Family, News and Commentary, Raw Material for a Memoir

A Glimpse Into One Effort to Make Work Work for Workers

Into a megaphone held by New York Taxi Workers Alliance director Bhairavi Desai, Jamil Hussain, yelled, “End the isolation! Taxi drivers unite!”

The president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, opened the passenger front door of the taxi at the curb outside Queens Medallion in Long Island City, Queens.

Long Island City is the neighborhood that houses the taxi industry. Queens Medallion leases the second-largest number of taxi medallions in the city. Medallions are the permits required for cabbies to pick up street hails in New York City. Every one of the roughly 45,000 taxi drivers in that city must have one every day on the job, but they cost something like $30,000 apiece.

Trumka had come here, and I was with him, because New York’s independent cab drivers, who have been organizing for years, have put things into a higher gear. Since December, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has held more than 50 demonstrations against the companies with the highest medallion and car lease rates and fees. The Taxi Workers also received the first new national organizing charter from the AFL-CIO in more than 60 years. The new organization is called the National Taxi Workers Alliance. The Taxi Workers needed Trumka’s help. He jumped out of the taxi and into a light rain. I handed him his suit coat.

Speakers wired and bolted to the outside walls of Queens Medallion blasted rock music over the heads of about 40 taxi drivers, who chanted and shouted on the sidewalk. TV cameras recorded the scene from beneath umbrellas held by reporters, who also struggled to take notes at the same time.

“They think they can drown out the truth with those speakers.” said Bhairavi Desai, the director of NYTWA and the NTWA.

Then Desai, who stands about five feet tall and has an amazing ability to sum up the injustices of the taxi trade, began to shout into a megaphone to shame the managers of Queens Medallion, who stood stone-faced by the open door of the building’s garage just a few yards away.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, right, tells the taxi workers that they’re organizing for what workers want everywhere–fair pay, decent benefits and a chance to work hard and get ahead.

“The brokers don’t own the drivers,” Desai hollered. “You don’t have to pay personnel or expenses. It’s all gravy for you. But we’ve had enough! We’re sick of the lies! We’re sick of the exploitation! Shame! Shame! Take notice! Your days over thievery and exploitation are coming to an end!”

Then Trumka, who wore a dark suit and tie, took the megaphone.

“I bring the greetings of 12 million workers in the AFL-CIO. They do everything to make this country run, just like you make this city run. God bless you for it,” he said. He drew parallels between the taxi workers and the plight of working people all across America. The taxi workers shoulder all the risk of rising gas prices and slow business. Credit card fees from the garages eat 5 percent of every transaction. It’s a whole system rigged for the owners, he said.

“This reminds me of the United Mine Workers,” said Trumka, who started in the labor movement as a coal miner in western Pennsylvania, just like his father and grandfather. “They made us pay for our tools. We only got paid for the coal we dug out of the ground, and they cheated us on that, too. But with our union, we changed those jobs into good jobs.”

The taxi workers cheered.

After about 15 minutes in front of Queens Medallion, the whole group walked down the street and around the corner to another garage, this one called SJS Jet. After more speeches and more chanting, the march continued to a third business, called Midtown Operating Corp.

Under the green girders of an elevated train track, the marchers chanted, “Lower the lease!”

The rain continued to drizzle. Low clouds obscured the tops of buildings. It was time for the afternoon shift change, so yellow taxis cruised in and out of the lot. Many of the drivers waved and honked. Two drivers left the queue in line for cabs and walked across the driveway, directly in front of the owners of Midtown. The drivers joined the march, turned around and shouted, “Shame! Shame!”

Many of the drivers said the managers at Midtown routinely refused to accept payment from some drivers at the start of the shift, and then penalized those same drivers with a $25 late fee later in the day.

“We’re your union! Taxi drivers unite!” hollered someone into the megaphone.

“Divided we beg! United we win!” yelled Desai in her clear voice. “We’ll be back!”

A few minutes later, the marchers began to disperse, so the drivers could work for a few more hours before the end of the day. Trumka patted his pockets but couldn’t find his reading glasses. He checked the taxi we had been in, to no avail. He asked me if I had noticed them in his suit jacket when I handed it to him. I had a sinking feeling that I had. One of the drivers, a Bengali immigrant named Jamil Hussain, jogged back along our marching route to Queens Medallion with me. Sure enough, the glasses—bent and scratched—lay there at the graveled base of a sapling in the sidewalk. Mortified, I picked them up, and we jogged back.

Gamely, Trumka sat in the taxi. He bent his glasses back more or less into shape and dried the lenses on his shirt.

“I’m sure I dropped them. I’m sorry I’m so damn clumsy,” I said. I felt terrible.

“It’s my fault. You didn’t know they were in the pocket. I should have said something,” he said. He put the glasses on his face. “They’re scratched, but they’ll do.”

The taxi pulled away from the curb and headed toward Manhattan to the first fundraiser of the National Taxi Workers Alliance. You can read more about the taxi workers forming a union on the website of the AFL-CIO here.


Filed under News and Commentary

For Those Who Suffer for the Trust…

Check out that look of concentration as I asked questions and scribbled down the answers into my narrow reporter's notebook. Photo, I believe, by Scott Martin, one of Montana's delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

I’m sure you’ve had this experience—you catch a lyric in a song, and it suddenly embodies your struggle. This was my line: “They don’t pay me enough to suffer for the trust, I’ve got to take what’s mine before the cause gets just.”

The song was “Suffer for the Trust,” by a Chicago band called the Ike Reilly Assassination. It was the summer and fall of 2006. Early the next year, I quit my job as a reporter at the Missoulian, a job I dearly loved.

I don’t know what the musicians meant with those lyrics, but I sure as hell know what those words meant to me. “They” was Lee Enterprises, and “the trust” and the “cause” were daily journalism. That summer, I had learned that my annual raise would be something like half a percent, all and more of which would be eaten by the rising cost of our middling health insurance, even though the Missoulian had taken more than $5 million in profits that year.

The painful truth—that Lee Enterprises bled me every day because of my love of journalism—became like a bit of grit in my heart, an irritating piece of something that never gave me peace. I had a vision that my future was slowly being taken away from me. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. Instead of getting closer, my dream that I could raise my family and someday help my kids through college was slipping away.

You need to understand just how much I loved being a reporter. It’s deep within my blood. Before I could write or spell, I drew pictures and dictated stories to my mother, who then bound the pages into books with her sewing machine. And, believe me, I could bore you all afternoon with polemics about the importance of narrative, of accurate language, of the stories of a community.

I loved reporting and writing in Missoula, a town where I had spent much of my childhood and where two of my grandparents were buried. In those days, I taught a class each fall at the University of Montana’s journalism school. At that newspaper, I was able to do my life’s work….

The Missoulian is one of five Montana newspapers owned by a publicly traded company called Lee Enterprises. The company is based in Iowa, which gives an inkling of its small market roots. In 1998, with a fresh master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s journalism school, I got my first reporting job at the Billings Gazette (which I had delivered every morning during junior high school). Back then Lee owned a couple dozen daily and weekly newspapers mostly in the Midwest and the Great Plains. Rumor had it the Gazette‘s annual profit margin was an ungodly 40 percent, or at least the high 30s.

You’ve got to remember that by the late 1990s, pundits had been declaring newspapers “dead” for years, but nobody told Lee. If you retain one truth about this company, make it this: It’s leaders know how to squeeze dollars out of its papers. A lot of dollars.

For decades in smaller markets across the country, newspapers practically printed money. Prudent stockholders saw them as wise investments, with steadily rising stock values and generous dividends in good times and bad.

Yet almost every newspaper also held a special trust—a balance against its function as a business—as a community’s public record, the Fourth Estate. And publishers often felt that trust personally, its obligation. During the 1980s, that dynamic began to change.

Interestingly enough, Lee Enterprises—this chain of smallish backwater newspapers—helped lead the trend on the national media landscape toward a profits-at-all-cost approach. For instance, Wayne Schile, the publisher of the Billings Gazette in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, dramatically cut staff, raised subscription and ad rates and produced ballooning profits. The stories I heard about him… how he sacked the newspaper’s long-serving and dedicated librarian and then sent her life’s work of file cabinets and carefully cataloged clippings to the landfill… how he’d call one group of reporters into one meeting and fire the remaining, were moves that seemed designed to trash morale and heighten reporters’ innate paranoia.

This model of the no-frills newspaper spread throughout the Lee holdings, and across the industry.

Media was diversifying fast. The Internet was becoming a part of our everyday lives. News delivery seemed to shift overnight. And yet Lee continued its incredible profits, even as other newspapers in the early 2000s went dark in markets like Seattle, Denver and San Francisco, despite a real estate bubble that buoyed overall media incomes.

In June of 2005, Lee was the minnow that swallowed the whale when it purchased the venerable and ailing Pulitzer chain of newspapers. The purchase transformed Lee from an unknown, insignificant chain into one of the nation’s largest. It now owned the St. Louis Post Dispatch, one of the nation’s premier newspapers, and dozens of others, including some which had probably not been profitable for a decade.

The purchase was amazing because it was entirely financed, all $1 billion.

What was going to repay that debt? The incredibly profitable newspapers in Missoula, Billings, Helena and other places, like Sioux City, Iowa.

The logic was, if Lee could make such major cash in these small towns, just imagine what could be done on a larger scale!

And yet the opposite was true. Lee Enterprises thrived in isolated markets against little or no competition. In a market like Missoula, the newspaper has a handful of competitors for ads. In major urban areas, a newspaper has hundreds of quality competitors.

The summer of the Pulitzer purchase, I had been working as the business reporter at the Missoulian for a year and as a journalist for six or seven. My Lee stock, which was my retirement plan, was almost $50 a share. I remember checking the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission that June or July, and seeing a filing that said the Missoulian publisher had sold something like 100,000 of his own shares. That didn’t seem to bode well…. I wondered about that….

The details of the Pulitzer repayment plan required huge balloon payments to Deutsche Bank. Each of those payments seemed really big, as I recall, like a hundred million dollars or more. To amass money for those payments, our already austere paper got even tighter. Nobody could clock overtime. Reporters drove their own vehicles, and got reimbursed at less than half the government rate even as gas prices went through the roof.

Companies can only pull this kind of crap with an insecure workforce, and we were. I knew back then that the only way we’d have a fair shot at a decent life was by joining together. Without some leverage, none of us could negotiate for jack. Yet after only a few evening conversations with my fellow reporters about the nuts-and-bolts of forming a union, I got a wave from my editor Mike McInally (a man for whom I somehow still have tremendous respect and affection) calling me into his office. After asking me to close the door, he said, “I’ve heard you’ve been talking to people about unions. If I ever hear that again, you’re fired.”

His words (a textbook example of illegal workplace coercion) stunned me, my shit-eating grin frozen on my face. To save my job, I shamelessly disavowed my intentions, while my editor insisted that he loved my news stories and positive attitude and didn’t want to get rid of me. A few minutes later, humiliated and furious at myself, my heart pounding and my hands shaking, I returned to my desk and stared at my computer screen. I promised myself that I was done trying to help anyone else. From then on, I would do for me.

So maybe it’s no wonder that “Suffer for the Trust” became my anthem, that I left my job a few short years later, that wonderful job that didn’t feel like work at all, for a high-paying gig at a hateful little boutique communications firm where I didn’t last a year.

Later, as I bounced around in search of a new way to follow my calling, Lee Enterprises hit snag after snag. Each time it punished its workers—several of them my closest friends, and many for whom I have tremendous admiration and professional respect—with layoffs and benefit cuts. Still, Lee’s stock value kept dropping until it reached its nadir, a few cents over a quarter. My retirement portfolio—and more importantly, the portfolios of my friends and former co-workers—had become basically worthless. In late 2011, the corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

So it came as no surprise early this year when rumors foretold of more job losses. The news hurt, last week, when 10 of the company’s Montana employees confronted the sudden prospect of unemployment in this bleak economy, especially as word of the latest bonus of $500,000 for Lee’s CEO Mary Junck came out at almost exactly the same time.

It’s easy and appropriate to blame Junck and her thuggish clutch of publishers, including my old editor Mike McInally who served as publisher for a pair of papers in Oregon, last I heard. That class will never do right by journalism.

And yet the reporters and copy editors, the support staff and press operators continue to do as much as possible. In fact, I think the Billings Gazette, which has a fantastic editor and incredible writers, has been producing better journalism, including thoughtful and provocative editorials, than it ever has.


Filed under News and Commentary, Raw Material for a Memoir

Buyouts, Layoffs and… for the CEO who caused it all… A Fat Bonus

The biggest national news story of the past four years is playing out in miniature among the Montana newspaper holdings of Lee Enterprise–the top boss gets a huge chunk of change while the people who actually do the work get the shaft.

Mary Junck, CEO of Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, dragged the company into a financial mess until the company finally sought bankruptcy protection… and this week she got a $500,000 bonus! For steering the company through these tough economic times!

And on the  same day as news of Junck’s bonus hit the Web, 10 of the chain’s workers in Butte, Helena, Billings and Missoula have been laid off or accepted cheap buyouts–one week’s pay for every year worked.

The three employees who took the buyouts face a mixed blessing. Sure, they’ll get after-tax final checks in the neighborhood of $20,000, but the buyout-receivers won’t be eligible for unemployment insurance. Plus, continued health insurance through COBRA will cost more than $600 per month, and none is near the age of eligibility for Medicare.

Award-winning reporter Donna Healy of the Gazette in Billings, who accepted a buyout, looked with fondness over her career. “I’ve had the sweetest beat in the newsroom for a very long time. I’m grateful for that,” Healy said today. She hopes to land a job with a Billings-based nonprofit.

Two were laid off in Butte. One of the five who was laid off in Helena yesterday said today that her head was reeling, especially because she was scheduled to work for two more days. (I don’t feel like including her name right now, unless you want to pass along job ideas. If that’s the case, email me.)

“I feel like I got dumped, but I’ve still got a bunch of stuff at the guy’s house,” she said.

Nobody I talked to had more than a vague idea of what would come next.

Oh, and the bonus for Mary Junck? That and the $250,000 bonus for the company’s CFO would have been more than enough to keep those workers on-the-job for more than two years.

And I should pass on a few more tidbits. Since Junck engineered the debt-leveraged purchase in 2005 of the Pulitzer chain of newspapers, Lee’s stock has performed a stunning dive from a high monthly average of $48.98 in June of 2004 to a low of $.29 in February of 2009. Lately, it’s been hovering a dime or so over a dollar.

Meanwhile, over the past five years the company has slashed its staff and benefits across all of its papers.

One Lee employee put it best, likening the raw deal to being hit by an exploding “shit balloon.”

You know journalists…. Always cracking wry jokes.

*A previous version of this post directed readers to another blog called “Lee Watch” which has gone dark. I’ll check more closely before steering you to inactive sites. Also, this version has the updated number of layoffs.


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