June 14, 2020
As a former Gazette feature writer of more than 30 years, it’s distressing to see the Gazette staff having to take unpaid furloughs during a pandemic, when local coverage is vital to the health of the community. With declining advertising revenues, the resources devoted to local news have declined precipitously during the last decade. As devoted readers know, the paper has become a shadow of its former self. Reporters have gone for years without all but the most meager of raises while shouldering increasing healthcare costs.
I believe the young, underpaid newsroom staff needs a union to advocate for them and for the community, which needs and deserves a strong local news presence. The newspaper needs to re-invigorate its role as a watchdog and to keep residents informed of actions that have long-term consequences for the entire state.
June 8, 2020
To Dave Worstell and Lee Enterprises leadership:
I worked as a reporter at the Billings Gazette for three years and did some of my best journalism there, but one of my favorite newsroom moments came when I was off the clock.
I’ll never forget when Greg Gianforte bodyslammed reporter Ben Jacobs on the night before a 2017 special Election Day. This was in the evening, and a few of us reporters instinctively headed down to the newsroom to follow whatever ensued and get a little of that breaking news rush. I wasn’t on collecting my hourly wage that evening, but I did get a comment from the Yellowstone County Republican Party. The county unit stood by its candidate. I don’t think it went into any story, but I reported that fact.
Journalism is hard work that requires a lot of time. In my case, sometimes the job required more than 40 hours in a week, and newsroom management would strike a bargain. Why don’t I work a bit more this week and shave a few hours next week? It took a while for me to realize that the company skirted overtime pay this way.
When buyouts, layoffs and cuts to the paper happened once or twice a year, managers repeated lines about how the industry had changed. Tough choices needed to be made. Eventually my colleagues and I went to work every day wondering when the axe was going to fall on us.
But the axe doesn’t hang over everyone.
Executive leadership brandishes reductions like a sales pitch. In a 2016 presentation, Lee Enterprises’ then-CFO Ron Mayo said that the company had “changed the way we operate our business and have achieved significant cost reductions through centralized services, consolidation and outsourcing.
We have centralized design centers, finance, human resources, digital fulfillment, circulation sales, marketing and subscriber retention. At the same time, we have outsourced or consolidated many of our print operations, providing the opportunity to sell some of our real estate assets.” And so goes the spin of “cost management” in quarterly financial reports and investor calls.
In 2010, just emerging from a difficult recession, Lee reported to have 6,098 full-time employees. The CEO made a modest $833,654 and no bonus.
In its latest annual report, Lee had 2,786 full-time employees. The CEO made $1.8 million in compensation, including nearly a half-million dollars in bonus pay. The executive team got raises for a year in which operating revenue dropped by $34 million. As Cannell Capital pointed out while asking Lee to change its business strategy, executive pay heavily leans toward cash salary and bonuses instead of stock awards. It’s eerily similar to the vulture capitalist owners that suck cash from newspapers while the people and product suffer.
The industry is indeed changing, but who is bearing the burden?
This is why unionization is growing among hardworking journalists, and it’s why my former colleagues at the Billings Gazette must unionize. From the small overtime bargains to continued layoffs and ballooning executive pay, the regular workers need someone in their corner. The union puts a hand between the newsroom and the company cutting costs with impunity.
I fully support the Montana News Guild and urge Lee leadership to formally recognize the union.