Following two-week furloughs of all of its Montana employees this spring, Lee Enterprises has laid off at least three members of its news staff at two of its five newspapers in the state.
Details of the layoffs are unclear since the corporation never makes the dismissals public.
Veteran Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman reportedly took a buyout after working 46 years at the paper, and Lee laid off a Missoulian copy/design desk employee and a part-time photographer, according to one of the paper’s reporters. Helena Independent Record sports reporter Ryan Kuhn resigned after two years rather than take a transfer to the Montana Standard newspaper in Butte. In a tweet announcing his decision, Kuhn wrote, “I never felt valued or appreciated by my company.” Sources also confirmed the dismissal of a Helena online editor, a Helena sports columnist and a Butte part-time copy/design desk employee.
Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa, owns the Ravalli Republic, Missoulian, Helena Independent Record, (Butte) Montana Standard and Billings Gazette newspapers in Montana.
“Lee should stop laying off its employees for simple business reasons: the more good journalists it employs, the more good journalism it can sell to readers and advertisers,” said Victor Flores, Billings Gazette sports writer and an organizing member of the paper’s newly formed Montana News Guild.
At the Gazette, members of the Guild are involved in contract negotiations. Because the company is precluded from layoffs until bargaining has been completed, no one has been dismissed from the news staff, but negotiations have stalled over economic and layoff protection.
“What’s disheartening about the talks is that Lee’s negotiator says times are tough and uncertain because of the pandemic, but Lee was slashing its newsrooms years before it had COVID-19 as an excuse,” said Gazette outdoors editor Brett French. “We agree times are tough for newspapers. What we can’t accept is the unequal pay distribution within the corporation where top executives earn six- or seven-figure salaries and hundreds of thousands in bonuses while the people producing the photos, news and sports stories can’t negotiate minimal annual cost of living increases. The corporate executives are tone deaf to the disparity.”
In counter offers to the company during bargaining, the Guild has agreed to give up pay increases in return for protections against layoffs. The Guild also offered to agree to furloughs to protect employees’ jobs.
“We aren’t asking for much,” Flores said. “Just don’t lay us off for six months, we’ve requested, so we can get through what is shaping up to be an awful winter. Lee won’t even give us that. It’s infuriating. We’re tired of being treated like budget items.”
The paper has, however, quickly replaced one of its two news editors. City editor Alyssa Small resigned at the end of September to take another job. She has already been replaced by Gazette photographer Casey Page.
Page will work with managing editor Chris Jorgensen. He and Small took the reins locally after editor Darrell Ehrlick’s position was eliminated in February. Ehrlick’s dismissal came at the same time the Gazette forced opinion page editor and 37-year news veteran Pat Bellinghausen out following the layoff of three other employees in November 2019.
All of Lee’s Montana newspapers are now being overseen by one regional editor, David McCumber, who has been in charge of the Montana Standard since 2015.
In the Gazette story announcing McCumber’s promotion, he was quoted saying: “We are lucky to have outstanding journalists at The Gazette and at all of Lee’s Montana newspapers. My job will be to support them however I can; to try to make each day’s print and digital products the best they can be; and to make sure we continue to give our Montana readers the excellent news coverage they need and have come to expect.”
At the time McCumber spoke, the Gazette also noted it was cutting news pages and the frequency of the Opinion page from seven days to three.
The recent cuts come in the wake of Lee Enterprises’s $140 million acquisition of Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media Group in January. At one of those newly acquired papers, The Tulsa World, Lee has eliminated 10 members of the news staff. According to a report by Poynter, Lee has laid off at least 50 employees at its newspapers this fall, many of them at the newly acquired BH Media Group.
Lee Enterprises owns 75 newspapers in 26 states. The company is overseen by CEO Kevin Mowbray and chairman Mary Junck.
UPDATE (10/11): Yellowstone Public Radio published a story about the Lee Montana cuts and the Guild’s contract negotiations.
UPDATE (10/14): The Missoula Current also wrote about the Guild.
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