Lee Enterprises, which owns four of the state’s major daily newspapers, cut at least 15 newsroom positions at its papers across Montana during the past week — a move employees said has shrunk already skeleton staffs and battered journalists’ morale.
“Morale was already low, but it’s going to get lower,” said Victor Flores, Lee’s sportswriter covering Montana State University and co-chair of the Montana News Guild, a union representing news staff at the Billings Gazette. “It was the death knell of any hope we had that things were improving.”
“In my 23 years [at the Gazette], it’s the largest single layoff at one time that we’ve seen,” added Brett French, the Gazette’s outdoor editor and other co-chair of the guild.
Lee, headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, owns the Gazette, the Missoulian, the Helena Independent-Record, the Montana Standard in Butte and the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton.
Lee’s top Montana editor, Jeff Welsch, referred any questions to corporate communications, which could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
“We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.” —Montana News Guild organizing committee
Several weeks ago, Lee told some Montana newsroom employees they’d have to take unpaid two-week furloughs in the wake of poor earnings reports.
Then starting last Friday and continuing into this week, the company axed newsroom positions at all five newspapers, sources told Montana Free Press.
The cuts include a net six positions at the Gazette, at least four at the Missoulian, two at the Standard, two at the Independent-Record and one at the Ravalli Republic. The positions eliminated include reporters, sportswriters, photographers, news clerks and layout editors.
Most employees in those positions were laid off. Some decided to quit and their positions will not be refilled, sources said.
Among those cut were the Missoulian’s education reporter, Skylar Rispens, and University of Montana football reporter Lucas Semb.
On Twitter Wednesday, Rispens said she returned from her two-week furlough to be told she was laid off.
“I am absolutely heartbroken to announce that I have been laid off from my position with the Missoulian in a wave that took out so many talented, dedicated newsroom staff across Montana,” she wrote.
She called her position her “dream job” as a reporter.
Semb also took to Twitter to announce his layoff.
“I don’t know whether this means Griz football coverage is done or they just needed one less sports reporter, but I’m out,” he said.
Lee has been steadily shedding newsroom staff in Montana for at least a decade, usually in response to revenue shortfalls plaguing most newspapers, as more and more ad revenue moves to digital platforms.
But the cuts announced this week are especially devastating, Flores said, because they came after the corporation had shown some willingness to invest more money in news coverage, including some raises for employees.
“If you talked to me a couple of months ago, I would have said Lee isn’t too bad,” he said Wednesday. “But this one shook me more than any other round of layoffs.
“This sort of signals an end to what we had to hold onto, in terms of investing in local news. It was just sort of a skeleton crew [already], but now, what is even left?”
French said corporate officials cited less-than-expected retail advertising sales when they announced the unpaid furloughs, but have given no explanation for the sudden layoffs this past week.
“The biggest concern is, what’s the plan going forward?” he said. “We haven’t heard anything from corporate.”
Disclosure: Mike Dennison worked for 10 years as a political reporter for Lee newspapers in Montana until he was laid off in 2015.
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