- Racist letter to the editor exposes problems at The Billings Gazette and Lee Enterprises
- Billings Gazette news staff loses 4 to buyouts
- After crying poor, Lee Enterprises spends big on state bureau
- Lee Enterprises continues to cut staff at Montana newspapers
- We are worried
- Billings Gazette news staff unanimously votes to unionize
- Former Gazette staff support unionizing efforts
- Billings teacher’s union supports Montana News Guild
- Montana News Guild election authorized, members meet with management
- Montana News Guild receives letter of support from Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society
- The Montana News Guild responds to management letters
- A letter to our publisher Dave Worstell requesting voluntary recognition of our union
- FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Newsroom staff of The Billings Gazette announce formation of the Montana News Guild
June 11, 2021
Racist letter to the editor exposes problems at The Billings Gazette and Lee Enterprises
The Billings Gazette published a letter to the editor from former Montana state senator Alvin Ellis Jr. on Tuesday entitled “Racism isn’t the problem, black culture is.” At 10:47 a.m. Wednesday, a Gazette editor added a note above the letter.
“The views expressed by letter writers do not necessarily reflect those of The Gazette. Alvin Ellis Jr. is a former Montana state senator,” the editor’s note read.
The word “necessarily” was deleted from the note at 10:48 a.m., then added back a minute later.
At 11:23 a.m., a new editor’s note was added. It read, “Alvin Ellis Jr. is a former Montana state senator from Red Lodge. The Billings Gazette finds his view wrong, dangerous and offensive. This letter was published to shine a light on a growing threat in our state from groups who share Ellis’ views.”
That note was deleted 11 minutes later, and no editor’s note has appeared in the letter since (the editor did add “Former Republican Montana state senator” under Ellis’ name at the bottom of the letter; the original version only included his name and “Red Lodge”).
This 36-minute stretch illustrates issues at The Gazette that extend beyond one bad decision to publish Ellis’ racist letter, issues that stem from bad decisions made by Lee Enterprises, The Gazette’s corporate owner.
Let’s be clear: the worst actor in this mess, which has sparked warranted outrage across Montana and beyond, is Ellis. He begins his letter with the claim that America is not a racist country because Barack Obama was elected president twice, an argument that is as weak as it is unoriginal (his letter also says that Obama was elected in 2008 and 2016; Obama was, of course, elected in 2008 and 2012, and Donald Trump won in 2016). Ellis cites unsourced statistics about household incomes and single-family households, believes that President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” was actually “a war on the American family” and compares President Joe Biden to Karl Marx.
The letter is unfocused, uses weak evidence and is blatantly racist. It’s sad that people still believe our country’s racial inequalities have more to do with individual mistakes and “the sexual revolution,” as Ellis put it, than the unmistakable racism that remains pervasive. These beliefs should not be given a platform in The Gazette.
As the now-deleted editor’s notes show, our editors don’t agree with Ellis, yet they chose to run his letter anyway. The decision to make this letter an “Editor’s Pick” was especially bad. From what we’ve gathered, our editors clicked the “Editor’s Pick” button because that pushed the letter out to The Gazette’s social media feeds. This gives the appearance that our editors cared more about getting clicks (mission accomplished) than silencing racist opinions.
It’s disappointing that our editors have done nothing to address this controversy publicly beyond those now-deleted editor’s notes, and several Montana News Guild members have not heard a word from Gazette management about the handling of this letter or its aftermath.
Lee Enterprises laid off Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick and Editorial Page Editor Pat Bellinghausen in February 2020, and neither have been replaced. Their responsibilities were delegated out to remaining staff members and management, some of whom have since quit or taken buyouts. Between layoffs, buyouts and people quitting, The Gazette has lost 10 staff members since February 2020, and an 11th staff member recently announced they will be leaving the paper.
While Lee deserves much of the blame for the Ellis letter debacle, Guild members also ask our editors to think more critically about which letters to the editor they publish. Many submissions never grace The Gazette’s website or newspaper, and Ellis’ should have been given the same treatment. Decisions like this reflect poorly on the entire Gazette, including Guild members who played no role in the publication of this letter and completely reject the harmful beliefs shared by people like Ellis.
We know our editors also reject those beliefs. We wish they would demonstrate that with thoughtful editorial decisions instead of hastily written editor’s notes a day after publishing a racist letter.
Jan. 4, 2021
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.”
Dec. 7, 2020
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.
Nov. 2, 2020
Montana News Guild ratifies first contract
The staff of Montana’s only union newspaper has approved its first contract in a historic vote.
After three months of negotiations during a pandemic and following mandatory two-week furloughs, a majority of the Montana News Guild’s 20 members voted to ratify a one-year contract with the Billings Gazette and Lee Enterprises. The company agreed to many, but not all, of the Guild’s proposals.
“The Guild’s bargaining committee did a great job under extremely difficult circumstances,” said Brett French, outdoors editor at the Gazette.
Citing the uncertainty of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee would not agree to a two-year contract.
“It is bittersweet, but I’m so proud of this,” said Rob Rogers, Gazette government reporter.
Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa, owns the Gazette as well as the Ravalli Republic (Hamilton), Missoulian, Helena Independent Record and (Butte) Montana Standard.
The Montana News Guild negotiated several benefits for the Gazette’s news staff, including:
- Raises for the staff’s three lowest paid employees and a base starting salary for all future employees;
- A requirement that the newspaper interview at least one qualified woman and/or member of traditionally under-represented groups for any job openings;
- Health insurance premium rates memorialized for 2021;
- A grievance procedure, overtime and severance guarantees.
“This is a good contract that will make our newsroom better,” said Victor Flores, Gazette sports reporter. “We wanted more, but we aren’t going to let perfect be the enemy of good.”
The Guild was unable to achieve even minimal cost of living increases for 17 members of its staff — despite seeking only a $13,000 annual increase for all 20 employees combined. The union was also unsuccessful in its quest to guarantee no layoffs beyond mid-December.
“We even offered to take furloughs to avoid more layoffs, but were turned down,” French said. “With layoffs inevitable, we argued that the remaining staff should receive a minimal cost of living increase since they would be covering for their former colleagues. Lee denied that request, too. This may be why the contract vote wasn’t unanimous. Some people were likely upset with Lee’s intransigence.”
In October, contract talks had stalled and Lee Enterprises indicated it wasn’t planning to budge.
“The company wasn’t going to give us anything better until we pushed outside of talks with emails to executives and social media posts,” said reporter Phoebe Tollefson. “I think that shows the importance of a union in fighting Lee’s decisions about how it treats employees.”
In the end, the company agreed to the Guild’s doubled severance buyout with a maximum of 26 weeks for up to three employees available for 45 days after the contract is ratified. This buyout also includes $2,400 cash that may be used for two months of COBRA health insurance payments.
If there are not three employees who seek a buyout, the Gazette and Lee Enterprises have said they will lay off employees to meet their budget targets.
The contract also has no guarantees there won’t be more layoffs even three months from now. That’s the precarious and uncertain situation all Lee Enterprises’ employees continue to face.
The reduction of the Billings Gazette’s staff will come in the wake of layoffs, resignations and retirements at other Lee Montana newspapers this fall. The latest came when the newly established States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, hired Lee Montana’s capital reporter, Holly Michels, and Helena Independent Record reporter and assistant editor Tom Kuglin. States Newsroom’s Montana bureau is being led by former Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick.
“The sad thing is, and this is a Lee tradition, as great people are walking out the door management often asks them what it would take for them to stay,” French said. “The company is blind to the value of its employees until they are leaving.”
Lee editors have said both Helena positions would be filled even though their Montana newspapers will now be able to use their former reporters’ and editor’s stories for free.
States Newsroom will be the third entity in Montana providing free newspaper content as the industry attempts to find an alternative to the traditional corporate model offered by companies like Lee Enterprises. The other nonprofit news outlets include Montana Free Press and Kaiser Health News.
“What does it say about corporate journalism when nonprofits can hire away talent by offering better pay and benefits?” French questioned. “The current corporate funding model is broken — paying executives six- and seven-figure salaries with increased subscription and advertising rates while denying many employees a living wage or annual cost of living increases.”
“A Lee executive in Davenport, Iowa, is not worth 14 to 28 times more than a reporter in Montana,” he added.
The Montana News Guild is encouraging other Lee newspapers in the state, and nation, to follow intheir footsteps and unionize to create a united voice for reform. Members of the bargaining committee are willing to help other newspapers through the process in whatever ways possible.
Unionizing isn’t undertaken alone.
“We couldn’t have done it without the constant, thoughtful help of Denver News Guild administrative officer Tony Mulligan and Omaha World-Herald union organizer Hunter Paniagua who guided us through the complicated process,” French said.
The Montana News Guild also had vocal support from many readers, past Billings Gazette journalists and fellow media who reported the story.
“You always find out who your friends are when faced with a difficult situation,” French said. “So many good people have worked — and continue to work — at the Billings Gazette, and many of our readers have been loyal supporters of the staff even as they’ve seen subscription prices climb and news staff cut.”
Such support cheers the Montana News Guild, knowing that local news and photos still matter at a time when journalism is undergoing tremendous challenges.
“This entire process has been incredibly revealing for me,” said French, a 35-year newspaper veteran. “I had no idea until we organized some of the problems my fellow workers had encountered. So many of us have been beaten down by the continual cuts and inexplicable corporate decisions.
“What’s been really heartening throughout this, though, is the people who have worked extremely hard to get this union off the ground,” he added. “Rob Rogers, Victor Flores, Tom Lutey, Juliana Sukut and Anna Paige are genuinely kind, intelligent, courageous people who do great work.
“Lastly, but maybe most importantly, reporter Phoebe Tollefson stepped up throughout this process with her organizational skills, smarts and tenacity to keep us moving forward,” French said. “It is young journalists like her who give me hope for the future of our profession, no matter what form it takes.”
Oct. 8, 2020
Lee Enterprises continues to cut staff at Montana newspapers
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.
Links to related stories:
Oct. 2, 2020
We are worried
The 20 unionized members of the Billings Gazette newsroom are your neighbors, customers, friends and relatives, and we are concerned. We recently learned of at least four layoffs at newspapers around the state and more than 40 around the country owned by our corporation, Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa. These layoffs come in the wake of companywide two-week furloughs mandated for all Lee employees early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our staff has not yet been cut because we have formed a union and are involved in contract negotiations, so the company is precluded from layoffs until bargaining is completed.
We understand these are difficult times for businesses, but Lee has been making cuts like these for years even before the pandemic began, continually reducing staff while its top executives earn anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million a year, as well as hundreds of thousands in bonuses. This skewed corporate culture needs to change.
Newspapers and other legitimate press outlets are unlike any other businesses in the United States, enshrined in our Constitution under the First Amendment. This protection is even more important in these uncertain times as we write about the COVID-19 outbreak, how it is affecting families and communities, as well as our increasingly divided political system.
We need your help to protect this important institution in Montana and across the United States. Please write, text or tweet your government representatives and Lee executives (listed below) demanding that the press not be continually downsized in the name of corporate executives profits. There needs to be a change in corporate culture. Please help us affect that change.
Mary Junck, Lee’s chairman, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin Mowbray, Lee’s president and CEO, can be reached at email@example.com
Astrid Garcia, Lee’s vice president of human resources, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee Enterprises’ general phone line is 563-383-2100, and its Twitter account is @LeeEntNews.
July 2, 2020
Billings Gazette news staff unanimously votes to unionize
Hourly employees at Montana’s largest daily newspaper formalized their bargaining unit in a unanimous vote on Thursday.
After announcing their plans on May 28, members of The Montana News Guild participated in a mail ballot election administered by the National Labor Relations Board through its regional office in Denver.
The ballots were counted Thursday and all 18 showed yes votes. Two employees did not return mail ballots in time to be counted.
“It feels good to have this nailed down,” said Gazette public safety reporter Phoebe Tollefson. “Now we’ll get to work on getting a contract proposal the group is happy with, and go from there.”
While the bargaining unit will cover 21 hourly photographers, copy editors, reporters and other news staff, just 20 of them were mailed ballots. Reporter Paul Hamby began work after the group filed its petition with the labor board, so he was not given a vote.
Now that the bargaining unit has been formalized, the Montana News Guild will begin writing its proposed contract, which it will present to Lee Enterprises when bargaining begins.
No dates have yet been set for contract negotiations between the union and the company, but Denver News Guild representative Tony Mulligan said negotiations could begin within roughly one month.
The Montana News Guild will become a member of the Denver News Guild, which also represents two newspapers each in Colorado (The Denver Post and Pueblo Chieftan) and Wyoming (Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and fellow Lee paper Casper Star-Tribune), as well as the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska, also a Lee paper. The Denver News Guild also represents five non-journalism labor unions and nonprofit staffs in Colorado.
Contract negotiations can take several months.
June 10, 2020
Montana News Guild election authorized, members meet with management
An election has been authorized by the National Labor Relations Board allowing 21 members of the Billings Gazette news, sports, editing and photography staff to vote on forming the Montana News Guild.
Ballots are going out Thursday and will be counted in early July. Nineteen of 21 news staffers had signed a letter requesting voluntary recognition in May.
The Gazette is Montana’s largest daily newspaper. Only one other state newspaper has ever unionized, the Missoula Independent, which was purchased by Lee Enterprises and summarily closed. Lee Enterprises is a Davenport, Iowa, based company that owns The Gazette, Missoulian, Ravalli Republic, Helena Independent Record and (Butte) Montana Standard newspapers.
Three members of the Billings Gazette’s management team met with Montana News Guild organizers on Monday in an attempt to dissuade them from voting to unionize. On Tuesday the managers met with the rest of the newsroom, and Lee executives spoke to all of the editors and reporters.
Lee vice president John Humenik spoke for most of the meeting, praising the work done at The Gazette and other Lee newspapers. He also asked Gazette staffers questions about the work we’ve done. The word “union” did not come up in the hour-and-a-half meeting.
Gazette President Dave Worstell, whose title was recently changed from publisher to reflect his wider role over sales, voiced his strong support for the newsroom but said unionizing will do nothing to improve the staff’s current situation. They are already compensated at a rate higher than the state average, Worstell argued. Raises, although not given to everyone, were higher than any negotiated by other Lee newspapers that unionized, including the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming and the Omaha World-Herald, he argued without providing any evidence. He also did not know if raises for either newspaper were higher or lower after unionizing than they were before.
Regional editor David McCumber, who now oversees all Lee Montana newsrooms since the layoff of Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick this spring, said in his 50-year career in the newspaper business unions had only clogged the lines of communication between management and their staff.
“I just don’t think this is the right step,” said McCumber, who is based in Butte, a city that used to be the stronghold of unions in the state.
Rob Rogers, city council reporter, said management’s concerns may be valid but questioned what would happen when they were gone? A contract, he pointed out, would guarantee the newsroom certain protections when the newspaper’s president or editors retire, are laid off or leave.
Members of the Montana News Guild organizing committee stressed their continuing frustration at not being heard when they’ve offered comments or suggestions on newsroom improvements, or at simply having to toe the line to the latest whims of their Lee Corporate bosses. That frustration has been exacerbated by continued layoffs and outsourcing of duties.
“We understand what’s going on” with the decline in newspaper staff, said Anna Paige, arts and entertainment reporter. “But we have long been left out of the conversations on what happens to our team. It’s hard because Lee is not transparent at all.”
Sports reporter Victor Flores said Lee’s corporate officers have already clogged up communications between employees and managers, not the formation of any union. The employees are the union, Juliana Sukut, general assignment reporter, pointed out.
“For me, it can’t be understated that small measure of security we’ll feel” by unionizing, said cops and courts reporter Phoebe Tollefson.
June 8, 2020
Montana News Guild receives letter of support from Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society
To: Billings Gazette management and newsroom staff
From: Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society
Date: June 8, 2020
Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society supports and appreciates the exceptional newsroom staff and journalists of the Billings Gazette. YVAS and many other nonprofit organizations and entities have been able to depend on getting their news, events and opportunities out to the public via these local reporters. That is because these experienced newsroom folks have the institutional knowledge, history and skill to meet the reporting needs of local and regional organizations, readers and community. Local groups and individuals have unique projects and accomplishments that are of specific value to our community. It takes journalists and a newsroom staff that are very attentive to and knowledgeable of these unique circumstances to get the journalistic job done right.
We hope the Billings Gazette management team and the Gazette’s readers support and back the newsroom staff and journalists, including the current cadre, of the Billings Gazette in their efforts to best provide necessary, accurate, personal and insightful journalism.
Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, President
June 4, 2020
The Montana News Guild responds to management letters
On Wednesday, employees of The Billings Gazette newsroom received two emails from management hoping to weaken our support for unionizing.
Anti-union campaigns often rely on the same distorted ideas from company to company, and newsroom to newsroom, and the letters sent Wednesday bore out that predictable messaging.
Gazette employees were told that forming a union would “drive a wedge” between them and local management, complicate workplace relationships and require all decisions and disputes to be funneled through some new outside entity, or third party.
In reality, there is no third party. When The Montana News Guild members vote to unionize in the coming weeks, we will do so knowing we’ll pay dues to the Denver News Guild, which will in turn provide legal and organizational support to us while we negotiate with the company. All decisions and priorities for the bargaining unit (the group of unionized Gazette employees) will be made by the members of the unit. We will continue to work hard every day under the direction of the same editors who currently oversee us and address editorial disagreements the way we always have.
Every union-eligible employee in the newsroom is approaching this process in good faith. We have no intention of wasting our energy or capital filing petty grievances, as one of the letters suggests.
The print news industry was in trouble before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and is now several weeks into a deep economic recession. Every Billings Gazette employee — both union-eligible and management, both on the news side and on the advertising side — recognizes this basic fact.
Those of us pushing to unionize have no delusions, as one of the letters suggests, that doing so will miraculously solve those same long-standing, structural problems we are all so familiar with, which Lee Enterprises management itself cites when announcing cuts to staff or the print product. Classified ads moved to free online platforms, lucrative pre-print inserts died out as big box stores shuttered, and the number of people who pay to pick up a copy of the paper on their front stoop each morning drops every year. No publication is immune, and attempting to scapegoat 21 hardworking newsroom employees planning to unionize with the future financial woes of the company is absurd.
Finally, it’s frustrating to see some resort to naked scare tactics in an effort to deter unionization. Violence is indeed a part of labor history but not a part of its present.
In addition, one of our close readers notes that a sentence used in one of the management letters bears a close resemblance to the phrasing on a Wikipedia page. The letter notes that the editor left the San Francisco Examiner before a strike took place in 1994, but that during it, “…a nonunion newspaper delivery driver suffered a fractured skull when he was hit with a lead pipe, and a Teamster driver was electrocuted scaling a power pole.” On Wednesday, the Wikipedia page for the strike read, “…and one non-union driver was hit on the head with a lead pipe, suffering a fractured skull. One teamster driver was killed by electricity when scaling a power pole.” We respect our colleagues and higher-ups but are concerned about both the content and the phrasing of this message.
The Billings Gazette is the largest daily newspaper in Montana and has long been one of the company’s profitable operations. Its union-eligible news employees have put thought and care into their work and believe unionizing is a step in the right direction.
We look forward to joining the ranks of some of the best daily news workers in the country who are unionized, including staff at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, as well as at smaller outlets like the Casper Star-Tribune, The Omaha World-Herald and The Southern Illinoisan.
The Organizing Committee of The Montana News Guild
Juliana Sukut, Rob Rogers, Victor Flores, Brett French and Phoebe Tollefson
Read or download the management emails here:
May 28, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Newsroom staff of The Billings Gazette announce formation of the Montana News Guild
The news staff of Montana’s largest daily paper requested on Thursday that its employer, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, voluntarily recognize formation of the Montana News Guild.
If not, the staff has submitted the necessary information to the National Labor Relations Board to seek a majority vote authorizing the union’s formation.
Lee Enterprises owns four other newspapers in Montana: the Missoulian, Helena Independent Record, Montana Standard (Butte) and Ravalli Republic. The Billings Gazette news staff is the second in the state to unionize. In 2018, the 27-year-old Missoula Independent voted to unionize after being purchased by Lee Enterprises. The alternative weekly was summarily closed with workers notified by email and voicemail.
“The Montana News Guild was founded to protect and nurture the future of The Billings Gazette’s journalists,” members of the organizing committee said in a press release.
Since 1885, The Billings Gazette has published in what is now Montana’s largest city, documenting the lives of a diverse citizenry in one of the largest newspaper coverage areas in the nation.
“In the course of that 135 years our newsroom has educated and advocated for its readers while holding those in power accountable to a democratic society,” the guild said in a letter it presented to publisher Dave Worstell.
Newspapers have struggled with many challenges in recent years, mainly due to the loss of revenue to online sites, such as classified advertising lost to Craigslist. As a result, “Newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers dropped by about half between 2008 and 2019,” according to Pew Research, declining from about 71,000 workers to 35,000. The Billings Gazette’s staff has mirrored this national trend, falling from about 50 employees to 25 in the past 20 years. In the process, page design has been outsourced to an understaffed out-of-state central facility, the Gazette’s editor and editorial page writer were recently laid off, the in-house accounting and bookkeeping staff was eliminated, and starting in April all staff were required to take two weeks of unpaid furlough. The Gazette’s large building that dominates the corner of Fourth Avenue and 27th Street now stands more than half empty.
Meanwhile, Lee Enterprises’ executives have continued to make salaries that far outpace the average of their employees. Before 20% salary reductions were enacted, in 2019 Kevin Mowbray, CEO of Lee Enterprises, earned more than $1.8 million; former CEO and chairman of the board Mary Junck earned more than $959,000; and three other top executives took home paychecks ranging from $541,000 to $842,000. In comparison, the average annual take-home pay of a Montana journalist is $34,250 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bonuses to the top five Lee executives in 2019 ranged from $96,000 to $449,000.
“For too long we have seen our corporate out-of-state employer, Lee Enterprises, cut our staff and raise our medical costs while providing few, if any, cost of living increases,” the organizing committee said. “We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.”
Download a PDF copy of our press release here:
May 28, 2020
A letter to our publisher Dave Worstell requesting voluntary recognition of our union
Dear Mr. Worstell
We, the undersigned members of The Billings Gazette newsroom, come to you today to request that you recognize our formation of the Montana News Guild.
We are the inheritors of a proud tradition in a great state. Since 1885, The Billings Gazette has published in what is now Montana’s largest city, documenting the lives of a diverse citizenry in one of the largest newspaper coverage areas in the nation. In the course of that 135 years, our newsroom has educated and advocated for its readers while holding those in power accountable to a democratic society.
Our newsroom has covered the effects of combat on families and soldiers from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve published stories and editorials advocating for our Jewish community following racist attacks, and held law enforcement and political officials accountable for failing to investigate missing and murdered indigenous people.
Our sports coverage is recognized as the best in the state, thanks to the night and weekend coverage of a dedicated team of writers, photographers and editors. Others in our profession have recognized the Gazette staff’s efforts by naming us Montana’s top daily newspaper for the past four years.
With this honorable heritage in mind, the Montana News Guild was founded to protect and nurture the future of The Billings Gazette’s journalists. For too long we have seen our corporate out-of-state employer, Lee Enterprises, cut our staff and raise our medical costs while providing few cost of living increases. We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.
We recognize newspapers are facing difficult times in a quickly changing digital environment, but corporate decision makers have seemed unwilling or ill-equipped to invest in our strongest asset — the Gazette’s journalists.
Consequently, we have chosen to unionize to advocate for our newsroom and its talented and dedicated group of page designers, writers, editors, photographers and office administrators. Our aim is to create a more secure work environment while negotiating in good faith.
Download a PDF copy of our letter to Billings Gazette publisher Dave Worstell here: