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Oct. 13, 2020

Local Journalism Sustainability Act

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA) was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in July, and it has received bipartisan support from 65 cosponsors as of Sept. 30.

The bill, H.R. 7640, would provide tax incentives to subscribers, small businesses that advertise with local newspapers and newsroom payrolls.

Local news is in crisis due to an ailing business model, greedy corporate owners, the coronavirus pandemic and other factors. Passing the LJSA would be a huge step toward invigorating newsrooms like The Billings Gazette that are so important to their communities.


Oct. 12, 2020

Lee Enterprises will slash any newsroom, even a one-person paper

UPDATE (10/13): Lee Enterprises has laid off the Floyd Press’ only full-time journalist, Ashley Spinks, for doing the interview with WWTF. Spinks’ wedding is in three days, which her supervisors knew, she wrote on Twitter.

“I got invited to a conference call, fired while they invoked this story, and was immediately locked out of email and the network. I don’t regret speaking to WVTF for one second; I’d do it again,” Spinks wrote. “I feel deep sadness for my community, which will no longer see the coverage it deserves.”


Lee Enterprises has consistently demonstrated a desire to cut its newspapers to the bone so it can pay off its debt and continue to hand out exorbitant salaries and bonuses to its executives. Montana is hardly the only state that has felt Lee’s wrath.

WWTF, a National Public Radio affiliate in Virginia, published a story last week about Lee’s impact on Virginia journalism. One newspaper, the Floyd Press, has just one full-time reporter/editor, yet Lee trimmed.

“I can’t believe that they can still find stuff to cut,” Roanoke Times reporter Alison Graham told WWTF.

An excerpt from WWTF’s story is below, and the full piece can be found here.

Like other reporters at Lee-owned papers (Ashley) Spinks was furloughed for a couple of weeks this Spring. And in one particularly infuriating day she, and others, were told their email storage would be slashed. She spent hours deleting messages in order to access her inbox. 

But the biggest cut of all for the Floyd Press has been the freelance budget. Spinks assigns and edits a handful of stories each month to freelance reporters. 

“Certainly like, if the readership were to notice something it would be I was filling more space with stories that I was pulling in from sister papers,” Spinks says. That means she was pulling stories from reporters in Roanoke or Richmond, and she says readers did notice. She got messages from folks wondering why there was less content about their community. 

When asked whether one person can really do it all, Spinks pauses before admitting it’s difficult.

“You don’t always have the capacity to do follow-up interviews, to add context and color to the stories,” Spinks says. “But even more important than that…what are you not reporting on?” 

It haunts her. She won an award last year for her coverage of ongoing issues with the county’s water system. She knows there’s more to dig into and she’s got the ideas and sources, but she seriously doubts that corporate would approve the $300 she needs to chase the story. That’s how much it would cost to do water testing at different locations throughout the county.

“And do I have the time to look into the science and consult the experts and do follow up interviews?” Spinks asks rhetorically with a shake of her head. “I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the water, but if there was that would be something that was really important for the community to know and right now they’re not being well served by me or the paper.” 


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:

https://www.mtpr.org/post/gazette-newsroom-layoffs-part-larger-contraction-journalism

https://billingsgazette.com/news/local/billings-gazette-restructures-newsroom-eliminating-management-adding-reporter/article_e166c210-c7d3-59e7-abb6-fb97ba7a18af.html

http://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/03/16/2001071/0/en/Lee-Enterprises-completes-acquisition-of-Berkshire-Hathaway-newspaper-operations.html

https://lee.net/about/executive-team/article_77c1ee62-054d-11e5-88c4-6314b12d914a.html

https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/58361/000143774920000470/lee20191216b_def14a.htm


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 mary.junck@lee.net.

Kevin Mowbray, Lee’s president and CEO, can be reached at kevin.mowbray@lee.net

Astrid Garcia, Lee’s vice president of human resources, can be reached at astrid.garcia@lee.net

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.

Sincerely,
Steve Regele
Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, President
https://yvaudubon.org


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. 

Respectfully,

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.

Sincerely, 

Phoebe Tollefson

Robert Rogers

Victor Flores

Juliana Sukut

Brett French

Tom Lutey

Charity Dewing

Mike Clark

Casey Page

Mike Kordenbrock

Matt Hoffman

Mike Scherting

Anna Paige

Tim Stover

Bill Bighaus

Mari Hall

Rachelle Lacy

James Goossen

Greg Rachac

Download a PDF copy of our letter to Billings Gazette publisher Dave Worstell here:

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