Former Missoulian editor Gwen Florio discusses resignation, newsroom cuts with MTPR

Gwen Florio resigned as the editor of The Missoulian on Oct. 11 following the newspaper’s endorsement of Public Service Commission candidate Jennifer Fielder, who has anti-government militia movement connections. The endorsement and Florio’s resignation can be tied to job cuts The Missoulian has suffered.

The Missoulian is one of five Montana papers owned by Lee Enterprises — the others are The Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, (Butte) Montana Standard and Ravalli Republic. Lee has laid off or accepted buyouts from many employees at those papers in recent years, including three Missoulian journalists last month. The news does not slow down when papers lose reporters, editors, photographers and other staff members, so many of the people who still work in those newsrooms haven taken on larger workloads. The extra burden has led to issues like The Missoulian’s Fielder endorsement, which the paper retracted.

“Had we not been so short staffed, this probably never would have happened,” Florio told Montana Public Radio’s Sally Mauk on Tuesday. “Everybody is so busy kind of doing double and triple the work they used to do, that everybody’s moving at warp speed all the time.”

Florio’s full interview can be read or listened to here. In the excerpt below, Mauk and Florio discussed the dangerous effect newsroom cuts can have not just on individual papers, but also on communities and democracy.

Sally Mauk Well, as you mentioned, some readers were so incensed over the Fielder endorsement they canceled their subscriptions. And that’s certainly one way to protest, Gwen. But I’m not sure it’s the best way because it ends up putting the paper and its staff — who had nothing to do with the endorsement — in jeopardy. What are your thoughts about that?

Gwen Florio I absolutely agree with that. I get the impulse to do that. It certainly makes a statement, but it really hurts the paper. And you have a staff at the Missoulian who is just, they are top notch. They work so hard and they do so well under increasingly trying circumstances. And the last thing they need is more support taken away.

Sally Mauk And there are other ways to protest, certainly, without canceling a subscription.

These are perilous times for newspapers anyway. According to the Pew Research Center, American newspapers have laid off half their newsroom staff just in the last 12 years. So when your industry — It’s in real peril, as you mentioned earlier — the Missoulian has cut its staff a lot in recent years and it’s really putting the whole industry in jeopardy.

Gwen Florio Yeah, the cuts have been unbelievable. I came to the Missoulian in 2007, stepped away for three years in 2013, and I came back to a staff that was about half what it was when I first came. Just in the last year alone, we’ve lost another 20 percent of the staff that remain. And it’s just brutal. It’s really hard to cover the stories we should be covering and serve as a community watchdog under those circumstances. I think under these very difficult circumstances, the Missoulianis doing extraordinarily well. But we simply can’t cover the stories we used to, and that’s really painful.

Sally Mauk I think a lot of people don’t realize what it would be like not to have a local newspaper. I mean, people say, oh, well, there are other news outlets that you can go to, but the newspapers play a specific, integral role in being a local community watchdog. Talk a little bit about what you think that community loses if they lose their daily newspaper.

Gwen Florio Yeah, I think it’s just horrible. So, the Missoulian, even in its reduced state right now, still has the largest news staff of any organization in Western Montana. We are still at almost every city council meeting, school board meeting, Board of Regents meetings, things people are not going to take the time themselves to go do. People have busy lives. And that’s why we’re there, to record what happened, to put what happened into context, to tell people how actions that are taken by these various institutions are going to affect their daily lives. It is integral to democracy. I just can’t stress that enough. And that’s what I think is the main danger, is you don’t have the Missoulian reporters, other journalists, being your eyes and ears in the community.

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