After crying poor, Lee Enterprises spends big on state bureau

On Sunday, Lee Enterprises announced that it will form a brand new state bureau in Helena with four reporters. Their combined salary will be around $200,000, according to sources. 

While it means more journalistic resources devoted to issues of statewide importance — undeniably a plus for news coverage — it has caused concern and frustration among several of us at The Billings Gazette.

Lee Enterprises told the Montana News Guild repeatedly for weeks during recent contract negotiations that it was not in a position to provide raises, even as the percentage increase demanded fell from a reasonable pay scale per job title and years of service to a very modest cost-of-living increase, which would have totaled $13,000 for the entire 20-person bargaining unit.

The company met subsequent pleas to freeze layoffs for even just six months with a hard “no.” It would hamstring the company during an undeniably difficult economic time to commit to something like that, we were told.

“The reality of the situation is we’re in a very bad economic environment,” Astrid Garcia told the Guild in July. “If you don’t have the revenue coming in, you can’t have the people.”  

That intent was repeated several times throughout bargaining.

“We can’t tie our hands because this is a big expense,” Garcia said in September when the Guild requested a health-care cost freeze. “We need to maintain our flexibility.”

Later that same month Garcia told the Guild, “There’s too much uncertainty. … I can’t do any better with wages. I can’t do any better with health care. It’s just a really bad time.”

We were glad the company ultimately agreed to enhance its severance pay through a one-time buyout offer for the upcoming round of job cuts at The Gazette. But to learn a little more than two weeks later that the company did in fact have money to spend on Montana journalists was a real slap in the face. In essence, the Gazette and other Lee newsrooms across the state have been cannibalized to support a larger state bureau presence.

The exact dollar figure being committed to fund the new bureau in Helena likely cannot be paid for solely using cost savings from the three job cuts Billings will soon see. Those reporters in Helena will be compensated better than many of the employees in Billings. They deserve good pay. So do we.

The company should be faulted not only for adding jobs at better pay than many of its unionized employees in Billings currently see while simultaneously insisting job cuts were a necessity. It should also be faulted for not giving employees in Billings an opportunity to apply for those positions.

In negotiations, the company repeatedly told the union that continued downsizing in the future was inevitable. We have no reason to doubt that, having seen it play out at least annually for the past several years.

By denying existing staff a fair shot at the new, decently paid jobs the company hastily created in Helena, the company failed to ensure a level playing field and a transparent hiring process. It turned its back on a recently unionized newsroom with hardworking journalists who were willing to step up and take on additional statewide coverage in order to spare job losses.

Corporate pays plenty of lip service to the importance of local journalism. Look no further than its Black Friday subscription sales pitches.

But actions speak louder than words, and sustaining the new bureau could easily accelerate the rate of job cuts to the local journalists at the five Montana papers that Lee has already cut to the bone.

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