Last Wednesday, May 30, was Joe Nickell’s last day at the Missoulian, the end of a nine-year stint as an arts writer for the paper. On Thursday, he was still writing about arts. Nickell is working on a book about Bill Ohrmann, a 93-year-old retired rancher and painter in Drummond. And, as he’s done every year for the last 22, Nickell is writing program notes for an orchestra in Indiana. “I’m a writer,” he says. “If I’m not writing for money, I’m writing in my journal. I’m writing something constantly. That hasn’t changed. That won’t change.”
Nickell’s is the third familiar byline to leave the Missoulian’s pages in as many months. In early May, Michael Moore, who worked at the paper for 27 years, most recently as city editor, accepted a buyout offer. So did education and arts reporter Jamie Kelly, who left in late March after 15 years. And education reporter Chelsi Moy, a five-year veteran, is planning to leave the paper in July. Together the four have accumulated more than 55 years of experience at the Missoulian.
Their departures shake up a newsroom in the midst of a significant reorganization, as Missoula’s daily paper, like all newspapers, struggles to find profit as the internet turns the publishing industry on its head and wrings out advertising revenue. The Missoulian, owned by Lee Enterprises, one of the country’s largest newspaper publishers, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy early in the year, offered buyouts to senior staff as part of an effort to cut costs. Shifts in the paper’s business model have included charging readers for access to online content.
Next week, Nickell, whose nine-year tenure wasn’t long enough to qualify for a buyout, begins a public relations gig with the Missoula-based marketing firm Partners Creative. Moore has gone to work for United Way of Missoula. Kelly enrolled at UM's College of Technology. Moy is heading to the University of California, Berkeley, to study investigative journalism.
Missoulian Editor Sherry Devlin says all four will be replaced with reporters “who will bring their own new talents and skills to the mix, particularly in the areas of the internet and social media.” One new hire, Ashley Klein, who comes to the Missoulian from the Great Falls Tribune to be an assistant news editor, starts June 11.
Devlin says readers should expect the same depth of experience and breadth and depth of coverage that they’ve come to rely upon from the Missoulian.” The paper’s publisher, Jim McGowan, calls the changes a “rejuvenation.”
Nickell had struggled with the industry-wide emphasis on the internet and social media, with the focus on becoming a “social media channel as opposed to a content producer,” he says.
“To see the transformation of what is expected of a print journalist these days, it’s something that you really have to embrace with both arms if you’re going to do it. And it wasn’t feeling like it was in me,” Nickell continues. “Obviously, the Missoulian itself is, like all newspapers, challenged by what’s going on in the advertising landscape, and so we have fewer and fewer reporters trying to do the same—or, really, more—work.”
He catches himself: “Not ‘we,’ ‘they.’”
Kelly also mentions the pressure of fewer reporters and more work. "The morale was dicey, at best," he says, referring to his final months at the paper. "We didn't speak about it much in the office, but I think that everyone felt that our collective morale was just being pushed to its limits. It was pretty low."
Devlin says the paper wants reporters “who feel comfortable and who are energized and excited about telling their stories across a wide array of platforms,” whether it’s the paper’s print edition, its website, Facebook, Twitter or Storify. “I think it’s a good thing, but certainly it demands that reporters and editors and photographers look at all those different ways that they can tell a story.”
Devlin also says that while the paper doesn’t plan to give any of its new hires the “city editor” post Moore occupied, the reorganization “is about getting more [editors’] eyes on the stories.”
Nickell, who moved to Missoula in 1997 when he was freelancing for West Coast technology and business publications (despite the fact that he hadn’t taken a single journalism class), says he’d never before felt like a job was a calling, “and I did feel that way about the arts beat at the Missoulian. It’s something that I truly cared, and do care, about, deeply. … It’s my community. And that part of the job always had great meaning to me.”
By moving from reporting to marketing, which frees him from a reporter’s conflict-of-interest issues, Nickell hopes to work closely with the local arts and culture organizations he covered for nearly a decade.
“There was a time a few years ago, when I had my son, I felt myself saying that once he’s old enough to go to the symphony with me, I’d like for him to experience that by seeing me playing, rather than sitting next to me,” says Nickell, a percussionist. “And I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but it’s kind of how the focus has shifted for me.”