As it buys up more papers and its revenues soar, Lee Enterprises tightens its grip on Montana's media. But what are the costs of corporate journalism?
For more than 30 years, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company owned, controlled and paralyzed much of Montana's print media. From the mid-1920s until 1959, Anaconda owned major newspapers around the state, including the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record, the Billings Gazette and the Montana Standard.
The copper company's ownership was apparent in every issue of every newspaper. Controversial issues and state and local news hardly ever appeared. Politicians out of favor with Anaconda didn't get covered. Editorial pages suffered with mundane commentary.
Journalists quickly learned that the only way to hold a job in a paper under Anaconda's ownership was to suffocate their news judgments and stifle their voices. Before long, the stranglehold that the mining company had on its reporters, its readers and Montana's media market became known as the "copper collar."
So when a Davenport, Iowa-based corporation purchased the copper company's chain of papers in 1959, a remarkable change swept through the state, one that was apparent on the first day of its control.
|Dave Fuselier, Missoulian publisher, says the paper is extending its regional reach and exploring new ideas in journalism.|
Photo by Chad Harder.
And it did. The amount of coverage devoted to Montana's people and issues soared, replacing Anaconda's usual fare of red-baiting columns, anti-labor diatribes and pro-industry bromides.
But as important as covering relevant issues and remaining objective were to the papers' owners, the bottom line was still ever-important. A.W. Lee, founder of the Lee Syndicate, emphasized each paper's need to make a profit. In fact, it became something of a promise, as a 1947 publication from the firm averred, "We pledge the best newspaper that can be published at a profit."
Indeed, Lee wanted to guarantee financial freedom so that the threat of buy-outs or bribes never loomed close. As their '47 pamphlet put it, "It was this recognition that newspapers not only print the news but must be maintained in a position where, if necessary, they could look any man or corporation or institution in the face and tell that man or corporation or institution to go to hell."
And to be sure, since its takeover of the Anaconda papers in 1959, Lee has lived up to its pledge to be profitable. Under the copper company's grip, only one paper, the Billings Gazette, made a profit. Under Lee, papers have continually remained in the black. Today, the firm owns four of Montana's daily newspapers, three of its weekly papers, and 13 so-called "specialty publications," including its classified circulars and its glossy Montana magazine. On a national level, Lee Enterprises realized a revenue of $517 million in 1998, an all-time high.
From one perspective, Lee's growing profits-and continued pressure to make more profits-promise that Lee's papers won't become financially dependent on mining, timber or other conglomerates. Publishers and editors don't need to worry about criticizing these corporations like they did when wearing the "copper collar."
However, for all its talk about remaining independent, Lee papers, and their staff members, still need to answer to Lee Enterprises-a conglomerate in its own right. And, though Lee freed Montana's readers from the oppressive presence of Anaconda 40 years ago, critics today suggest that Lee Enterprises is causing problems all its own. From money-driven writing projects to chronic staffing problems, they say, Lee's powerful profit motive is taking its toll on Montana's media empire.
Eyeing the Bottom Line
Jim Ludwick obviously has a few things on his mind when it comes to Lee Enterprises.
"Yeah, I could talk about Lee a little bit," begins Ludwick, a respected, careful business editor for the Missoulian for a dozen years. Ludwick, who moved to the independent Albuquerque Journal last September, logged time at a number of Lee's Midwestern papers and bureaus before coming to Montana. Now, while he stresses that his reasons for leaving were as much personal as professional, he also evidently has a backlog of thoughts about his former employer. Without much prompting, he talks about Lee and the Missoulian for nearly an hour.
"What we've seen in Lee is the abandonment of the notion that the different papers in the chain are independent," Ludwick says. "There was a time when we'd hear about the independence of the various newspapers, about how they were autonomous entities within the same company, each one with a free-standing newsroom. There was a lot of pride, in fact, in that concept.
"Then there was a change in leadership at the top of the company, and the old guard that had been running it was replaced by the current leadership, [Lee CEO] Dick Gottlieb and others. The new leaders represented a new generation with a different agenda."
That agenda, Ludwick suggests, revolves around the bottom line. He says a yen for profit undermines the ability of reporters and editors to do their jobs, as revenue-driven special projects suck up their time.
"There has become more and more overt pressure to pursue projects that have nothing to do with reader demands and everything to do with generating money," he says. "You will see a number of special tabloid sections throughout the year, and most if not all of those spring from the knowledge that by publishing a particular section-whether it's on architecture or new babies or whatever-you'll be able to sell ads to businesses with the same interest or focus.
"They know no one is going to read these things. I mean, who gives a shit? So they fill the thing with copy that there is absolutely no reader demand for, but that doesn't matter. Reader interest isn't even germane; it's not discussed. The only reason they put stories in there at all is so they don't have to fill it up with Xs and Os."
Ludwick says that the resulting time crunch means the Missoulian often hits the streets with little more than a once-over-lightly from editors, at best. In fact, he says that staffers the paper calls copy editors are, in fact, primarily page designers trained to worry more about how a page looks than what it says.
"The paper operates under the illusion that there is an editing system in place, but in fact, the front-line editors are spending their time on all these revenue-driven projects that are incredibly time-consuming to manage. I've had stories, many stories, run in the Missoulian that only I had read. No one but me looked at those stories before they went out to readers, and that would be virtually impossible at most other papers. That's one reason why there's the gross lack of precision in so many stories and headlines."
Ludwick's criticisms echo those levelled by others, ranging from other former Lee employees-like David Crisp, a former Gazette editor who left to found the weekly Billings Outpost-to Nathaniel Blumberg, the irascible former dean of The University of Montana's School of Journalism. Blumberg self-publishes a newsletter, the Treasure State Review, which is essentially a broadsheet dedicated to attacking Lee.
"I've never attempted to hide the fact that I have nothing but comtempt for the way they run the company," Blumberg says. "I tried to persuade them to honor their total responsibility to put out a quality product that serves as a watchdog on local government, that's not completely oriented in favor of the extractive industries and all their many sins."
Blumberg is probably the dean of Lee critics (Ludwick insists that many of the ex-prof's critiques have been off-base), but he's not only one to spill ink against the company. Missoula-based environmental journalist Richard Manning devoted much of his first book, the now out-of-print timber industry expose Last Stand, to his struggles with Missoulian management in the late '80s and early '90s. After clashing repeatedly with higher-ups over his coverage of logging in Montana, Manning exited the paper in a storm of controversy.
"That's all ancient history," Manning says now. "Some of the stuff going on right now is much more interesting. It's the continued, excessive commericialization of the news. This Millenium project they're doing is worse than ridiculous. How that came about is, they came into the newsroom and said, we've figured out how to generate revenue. You will create a beat to make this possible."
A map of Lee Enterprises' holdings reveals what many readers around here already know-Lee has a muscular collection of newspapers in Montana. Lee's four major Montana papers, with a combined circulation of 113,500, reach about 64 percent of daily readers in the state. In 1997, the company acquired the Big Fork Eagle, a small weekly on the shores of Flathead Lake. The Eagle's fortuitous location allowed Lee to assemble a mini-group of community weeklies in northwestern Montana when it purchased the Hungry Horse News and Whitefish Pilot from Wyoming's Sage Publications earlier this year.
The company also has daisy chains of property in Oregon and Wisconsin, in addition to many other holdings across the land.
Assembling these regional groups-"clusters," as they're called, or "strategic business units"-makes a good deal of logistical sense for a company looking to trim expenses, as Lee officials acknowledge.
"Lee is doing what other media groups are doing-looking to make the most of regional holdings or regional properties," says Dan Hayes, director of Lee's corporate communications. "We want to reduce the behind-the-scenes expenses that don't have anything to do with serving customers."
The new group of three weeklies in the Flathead provides an object lesson in the advantages of clustering. The Eagle, far too small to own a press, now prints on Lee's News press in Columbia Falls. The three papers have combined distribution and advertising efforts, as well.
There's no doubt that clustering can increase a media syndicate's profits. But clustered newspapers also have a distinct editorial advantage. Small Lee papers lack the money to send their own reporters to the Legislature in Helena, for example, but they all benefit from the Lee State Bureau, a team of four reporters who cover the House, the Senate and other tentacles of state government. Smaller independently owned newspapers can't compete economically or editorially with that kind of coverage. For them, news staffs are small, resources are few, and sending a reporter to Helena for 90 days is simply impractical.
But those very facts are what help ensure the success of Lee's clusters. Seen from a local perspective, for instance, there's little disputing that Lee's move into the small-town weekly market aids the Missoulian's efforts to become a regional daily paper. The Garden City daily has long worked to push into the semi-rural hinterlands around Missoula; now the paper's circulation campaign targets a far-flung range of cities and towns to the north, south and west.
Missoulian publisher David Fuselier, an obedient and long-time soldier for Lee, is the first to admit that the heart of Missoula is just a small part of his domain.
"Most of our readers, now, live outside Missoula," Fuselier says. "Oddly enough, Salmon, Idaho has become one of our best, fastest-growing circulation areas. Libby, Montana, too. One part of it is, Missoula is full. There's no housing growth in Missoula, really, so we have to go where the growth is. It's working, too-the Missoulian's circulation has grown 6.6 percent in the last year, which has to be one of the best records in the nation."
Fuselier says that, ideally, a regional daily and community weeklies under the same company should be able to work hand-in-glove. "Lee will also work to come in under that regional umbrella with local reporting in the weekly papers," he says.
Even as Lee looks for regional synergies (the company has projects in Oregon and Wisconsin comparable to, though not exactly like, the Missoulian's territorial expansion) some worry their larger papers risk losing the local angle. A reporter in Helena, the logic goes, can't always write a story that is relevant to four cities hundreds of miles apart, such as Helena, Missoula, Billings and Butte.
This can create a tension that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Jackman Wilson, an associate editor at the Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard, has covered Lee's expansion in that state. He notes that in one particular case-an ongoing fusion of the Corvallis Gazette-Times, a long-time Lee property, and the newly purchased Albany Democrat-Herald-two papers that are close geographically but distant editorially have been yoked together, with results that discomfit readers in both cities.
"Historically, Albany and Corvallis have been very different places," Wilson says. "Albany is a traditional, blue-collar town and Corvallis is a college town, probably a lot like Missoula. They are not inclined to think of themselves as a single community at all, so I don't know about the wisdom of treating them as such editorially. Speaking as a guy who grew up in Corvallis, it feels awkward."
Expansion can lead to other problems as well, not the least of which can be a staffing crunch.
"There are times when there are profit pressures," says former Missoulian publisher John Talbot, "and the major effect is not enough people in the newsroom. There is a constant tension between keeping a newspaper profitable and having enough people to do the job. But that is a criticism we could level at any newspaper, even the New York Times."
Nonetheless, it's a criticism often leveled at Lee newspapers in Montana. No one suggests that Lee reporters perform inadequately; critics merely blame a lack of staff members for a dearth of in-depth reporting, follow-up stories and "hard" news, even as the Missoulian, for its part, tries to cover a territory roughly the size of West Virginia.
"We are somewhat short-staffed here," says Bob McGifford, professor emeritus at UM, referring to the Missoulian. "I don't think you can cover city and county government on a daily basis with just one reporter, especially when he's developing in-depth pieces. I don't think you can cover schools and the university with one reporter. As a result of being understaffed, they do a lot more puff pieces."
Deni Elliot, former journalist and director of UM's Practical Ethics Center, insists that large media owners could in fact be doing exactly the opposite-ensuring that reporters have the resources for in-depth reports and investigative pieces. Elliot, who has worked as a practical ethics counselor in several newsrooms, says that syndicates could actually capitalize on their size and strength, if they so choose.
"Corporate ownership has the potential of allowing for riskier ventures-more emphasis on local news and investigative reports," she says. "And investigative reports should be allowed to fail because when you start reporting, you don't know if a story will come out. All these things could happen, but it's up to the corporate owners and stockholders to say, this is important to us."
Unfortunately, large media conglomerates have a track record of choosing profits over staff members.
As Lee's communications officer, Dan Hayes, succinctly puts it, "Family newspapers can decide not to take as much profits as shareholders might want. We can't."
And shareholders seem to want more and more profits each year. Lee's revenue reached an all-time high last year-$517 million-and the company's profits have increased more than $25 million since 1993.
As Deni Elliott sees it, that drive for the bottom line can often cloud a newspaper's broader vision-that of news as an essential component of a community's well-being.
"As long as corporations that own news organizations act as though news is like a production organization that makes widgets, there's not going to be an alternative," Elliot says. "It's essential that corporate owners of news organizations, like corporate owners of managed care, realize that what they are about is the health of a community-that has to take priority over profits."