Billings Gazette news staff loses 4 to buyouts

The shortest day of the year marked the departure of three Montana News Guild members from the Billings Gazette newspaper, further darkening an already dim time of year.

On Dec. 21, buyout agreements were authorized for education reporter Matt Hoffman, special publications editor Charity Dewing and arts and entertainment reporter Anna Paige, marking their last day at the publication.

Editorial administrative assistant Rachelle Lacy’s buyout agreement was enacted on Dec. 31.

Parent corporation Lee Enterprises authorized four buyouts, although three were initially offered, due to interest from guild members and despite Paige’s request to be kept on under new terms.

“In negotiations with (regional editor) David McCumber, I was told that the company had zero flexibility,” Paige said. “With rising health insurance costs, stagnant wages and higher cost of living expenses, I told him I couldn’t afford to stay anymore, financially or emotionally.”

Lacy, after accepting the offer, learned her position would be rehired but the three journalists and their roles would be eliminated.

“I went through with my acceptance because with those eliminations, it feels next to impossible to continue to help uphold the breadth and quality of journalism we’ve been known for, especially since more layoffs can — and probably will — happen at any time,” she said. “We simply can’t keep doing more with less.”

The buyouts were one of the items the Montana News Guild negotiated for in its first one-year contract with Lee Enterprises. Lee also approved an extra $2,400 incentive to cover two months of COBRA insurance for those who voluntarily resigned.

Lee Enterprises downsized other newsrooms in Montana earlier in the year but could not make changes at the Gazette while contract talks were underway.

In addition to the buyouts, the Gazette’s news staff lost three other members in 2020. News editor Darrell Ehrlick and opinion page editor Pat Bellinghausen’s positions were eliminated. News editor Alyssa Small resigned and was replaced by assistant photo editor Casey Page. Former photo intern Ryan Berry was hired to fill the vacancy left by Page’s promotion.

Consequently, the Gazette’s news staff enters 2021 reduced by five positions.

“It’s always sad to see talented people leave our newsroom,” said Brett French, the Gazette’s outdoors editor. “We’re lucky, though, that under the union agreement our four colleagues chose to leave on their own terms.”

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