Billings Gazette

HELENA — Staff at the Billings Gazette, Montana’s largest newspaper, announced May 28 that they are seeking recognition as the Montana News Guild, marking the first public union push at a daily Montana newspaper as journalists across the region look to labor organizing as a way to shield their jobs from the newspaper industry’s ongoing financial woes.

“For too long we have seen our corporate out-of-state employer, Lee Enterprises, cut our staff and raise our medical costs while providing few, if any, cost of living increases,” members of the Montana News Guild organizing committee said in a release. “We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.”

Neither Billings Gazette publisher Dave Worstell nor regional editor David McCumber immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday. 

Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, is a publicly traded company that owns 75 daily newspapers in 26 states. In Montana, Lee also owns the Missoulian, the Independent Record in Helena, the Montana Standard in Butte and the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton, making it the state’s dominant newspaper chain.

Neither the Lee papers in Montana nor the state’s three other large urban newspapers — the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell — have unionized newsrooms.

Journalists and business staff at another Lee-owned property, the alt-weekly Missoula Independent, voted to unionize in April 2018 following the paper’s sale to Lee by its local owner. The company ultimately shut the publication down that September.

At the Gazette, management now has the option of voluntarily recognizing the newsroom union or letting staff take a formal vote on organizing in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Following the successful formation of a union, Gazette staff and Lee managers would enter collective bargaining negotiations. 

A letter to Worstell requesting the company voluntarily recognize the union was signed by 19 Gazette staff members: Phoebe Tollefson, Robert Rogers, Victor Flores, Juliana Sukut, Brett French, Tom Lutey, Charity Dewing, Mike Clark, Casey Page, Mike Kordenbrock, Matt Hoffman, Mike Scherting, Anna Paige, Tim Stover, Bill Bighaus, Mari Hall, Rachelle Lacy, James Goossen and Greg Rachac.

A staff directory on the Gazette website lists 24 newsroom, sports and photography staff, including several mid-level editors who could be classified as non-union management positions.

Newspapers including the Gazette and other Montana publications have endured years of newsroom cuts as they lose advertising revenue to internet platforms like Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Those economic struggles have been compounded in recent months by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further decimated advertising revenues and triggered staff furloughs at every large paper in the state.

In their release, the Gazette staff write that the paper’s newsroom staff count has been halved in the past 20 years, and that page design being shifted to “an understaffed out-of-state central” facility. They also cite the elimination of in-house bookkeeping staff and the February layoffs of the paper’s longtime editorial page writer and chief editor, which means the Gazette newsroom now reports to a regional editor based in Butte.

“The Gazette’s large building that dominates the corner of Fourth Avenue and 27th Street now stands more than half empty,” staffers write.

The announcement comes amid a wave of unionization efforts at newspapers in states surrounding Montana. Staff at the Lee-owned Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, for example, unionized in early 2018. The resulting Casper News Guild has said it’s been able to negotiate a contract with modest raises and negotiate the terms of furloughs made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elsewhere in the region, staff at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne voted to unionize in March, and staff at the Idaho Statesman in Boise voted to unionize in April. The Tribune is owned by Adams Publishing Group, which also owns the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Gazette staffers said Thursday that they don’t see unionizing as a silver bullet for the paper’s economic woes, but do hope that legal protections for organized labor will give them a chance to be involved as their managers weigh tough business decisions.

“We’re not expecting to eliminate every bad thing that’s coming down the pike,” said Victor Flores, a sports reporter. “We know that’s the reality of the business.”

In his year and a half with the Gazette, Flores said, he’s already sat through three staff meetings announcing layoffs. 

“We really just want a bit more protection,” he said.

Disclosure: Montana’s newspaper industry is a small world. MTFP editor Brad Tyer was the editor of the Missoula Independent at the time of its union push and closure. As a management employee, he wasn’t included in the bargaining unit.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.