As word spread last Wednesday that Lee Enterprises had purchased the Hamilton-based Ravalli Republic, the news came as a devastating-if not entirely unexpected-blow to the paper's staff, advertisers and readers. Meanwhile, a collective shudder could also be felt among the few remaining newspapers in Montana that have not yet been herded like wayward children into the outstretched corporate arms of Lee's smothering embrace.
The Davenport, Iowa-based corporation has been on an inexorable crawl to gobble up what little remains of its competition throughout western Montana. Lee, the parent corporation of the Missoulian, already owns four of the seven largest daily papers in the state, reaching about 64 percent of Montana's daily readership. Lee also owns the Whitefish Pilot, the Bigfork Eagle, the Hungry Horse News, and the International News Network, a statewide news agency.
"It's hard to see [Lee] have the monopoly in Montana," said Denise White, business manager for the Ravalli Republic, who will be staying with the newspaper for two months until the transition is complete. "They have it all in the Valley now."
As was reported in this paper in April, ("The Rules of the Game: A look inside Lee Enterprises' Montana media empire") (April 8-April 15), Lee Enterprises has been pushing to become a more prominent player in an industry already dominated by enormous media conglomerates. The purchase of the Ravalli Republic, the Bitterroot Valley's only daily newspaper, is consistent with the company's policy of "clustering"-that is, buying several papers in one region in order to streamline costs.
Nationally , Lee operates 21 daily newspapers, more than 75 weekly newspapers and specialty publications, nine network-affiliated television stations, and seven satellite stations, among other media enterprises.
|"It's hard to see [Lee Enterprises] have the monopoly in Montana," said Denise White, business manager for the Ravalli Republic. "They have it all in the Valley now."
But for the 23 full-time and 23 part-time employees of the Republic, the announcement landed like a kidney punch. Unlike previous changes in the paper's ownership, Lee gave virtually the entire staff less than two weeks' notice that they were being terminated. Employees were informed at a May 12 meeting that they could reapply for the 14 jobs that will open up once the paper consolidates operations with the Bitterroot View, Lee's semi-weekly publication which will discontinue publication after May 22.
The response from Republic staffers was to be expected: morose, angry and understandably tight-lipped. Though many of its employees have been with the paper for more than 18 years and see the Missoulian as the Goliath to their David, very few were willing to speak on the record for fear of compromising their chances of future employment.
"It's very devastating. We all worked together as a family to build this paper," said White, who noted that the paper immediately began receiving phone calls from upset customers and advertisers. "One woman even prayed for us over the phone."
"It certainly worries me that [Lee Enterprise's] commitment to the Ravalli Republic won't be as good as it is to the Missoulian," said Wayne Hedman, owner of Bitterroot Drug in Hamilton, the oldest continually operated pharmacy in Montana. "I care very strongly that it remains a community paper."
Hedman, a long-time advertiser in both the Ravalli Republic and the Bitterroot View, expressed his disgust at the way Lee Enterprises treated the paper's employees.
"I thought it was very callous and very shabby," said Hedman. "There are far more humane ways of handling your employees. That was their first mistake. I hope it is their last."
Hedman said the change in ownership will not necessarily be a bad one. However, he said that the future of the Ravalli Republic will depend in large measure on whether Lee brings in a new publisher who is willing to assume a more active role in the community , and "doesn't just sit in a damn office somewhere looking down his nose at the rest of the world."
Hedman's comment may be a reference to outgoing Pulitzer publisher, Thaine Shetter, who was described by one staffer at the Ravalli Republic as "a non-entity in this town."
Russ Lawrence, owner of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, another advertiser in both the Bitterroot View and the Ravalli Republic, said the Bitterroot Valley will suffer not only the loss in an advertising outlet but also in the depth and scope of news coverage.
"Any time you lose diversity in an ecosystem it's a bad thing," said Lawrence. "My suspicion is that we'll be losing something."
The obvious question remains: Why would Lee buy the Ravalli Republic rather than expanding its coverage of the Bitterroot View, which already has many of the same advertisers, covers virtually the same geographic area, and already has an editorial staff in place? Repeated phone calls to Missoulian publisher David Fuselier and Randy Miller, vice president of Lee's Midwest/Rocky Mountain Publishing Group, went unanswered.
"Montana is a great newspaper state, but Lee is gobbling it all up," said Carlotta Grandstaff, editor of the Bitterroot Star, a small, independent weekly which now stands to benefit by one less competitor for the Bitterroot's advertising dollars. "That's how corporate America does business on Main Street, USA."