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.