When Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson received an email from Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick last month saying he'd be in Helena May 19 to discuss plans for Lee Enterprises' state bureau, Montana's top two political reporters figured the meeting would center on upcoming news coverage. Neither anticipated a conversation about revenue models, restructured job descriptions and an end to the bureau as they knew it. The first indication it wasn't just a story meeting, Johnson says, came when Ehrlick arrived with Jim Gaasterland, Lee's regional human resources director. At that moment, Johnson adds, "Mike and I both went, gulp."
In interviews with the Independent, Johnson and Dennison describe the meeting that has subsequently fueled news stories, letters to the editor and even floor speeches by Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. Ehrlick gave each reporter the opportunity to take a new position with Lee or accept a buyout. Taking the new jobs would have meant pay cuts. Both took the buyouts and officially left the bureau May 29.
"It's just kind of discouraging to work for a company as hard as we have and put in a lot of overtime you don't get paid for and do all that work and be kind of kicked aside," Dennison says. "At the same time, I don't say that with any malice because I recognize the financial position that Lee is in and I also recognize that working for Lee the last 10 years were some of the best years of my career."
While Johnson and Dennison harbor no ill-will over the bureau's closure, other Montanans were quick to chastise Lee Enterprises for what former state legislator Jim Elliott dubbed in an op-ed "another step in the wrong direction." Aside from an editor's note at the bottom of a May 27 letter from Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, in the Billings Gazette, Lee's only acknowledgment of the change has come directly from Ehrlick. Citing diminishing resources and changes in where readers are accessing their news, Ehrlick tells the Indy the two new positions were designed to "shift some away from the individual government meeting coverage and work more on an issue base." He claims the bureau closure is "not a complete divorce" from the current political reporting model as both positions will likely be stationed in Helena during future legislative sessions, but adds, "I don't think you necessarily have to be based in Helena to cover state issues."
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
"This is re-prioritizing our resources in a different way," Ehrlick says, "but we still intend to have two reporters covering statewide issues."
It's not the first time in his roughly 18 months with the Gazette that Ehrlick has found himself offering explanations in the face of harsh criticism. In spring 2014, a number of online news sources, including media blogger Jim Romenesko, questioned Ehrlick's decision not to post court records on the Gazette website relating to accusations of family member assault by state Sen. Jason Priest. A print version of the story claimed the documents would be available online but weren't. Ehrlick wrote a detailed defense in an editorial about a week later stating the documents were "too damning and too extreme to print."
State bloggers took aim at Ehrlick again last fall when he quoted then-U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke stating, "John [Lewis] plays the guitar. I waterboard." Ehrlick's quotation appeared in a Sunday column two days before the election, but Zinke had actually uttered the phrase in Ehrlick's presence while backstage at a debate two months prior.
"One might have expected the Gazette to follow up with a story about Zinke's actual views on waterboarding," David Crisp wrote on lastbestnews.com. "At the very least, the comment would appear to cast doubt on the political savvy of a candidate who based his entire campaign around his record of honorable military service."
Ehrlick acknowledges both those decisions "were my calls." Not so with the closure of the state bureau, he says. "The state bureau, because we all own it—Missoula, Helena, Butte, Ravalli and Billings—that was a decision that was made in Montana." Ehrlick adds since the two new positions will be shared resources as well, "the Lee editors are all going to be part of that hiring process."
Messages left for Helena Independent-Record editor Greg Lemon and Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin to verify how they were involved with the decision process were not returned.
Ehrlick is keenly aware Johnson and Dennison have left some "big shoes to fill." The two have more than 60 years combined experience reporting on Montana politics, from Dennison's dogged coverage of healthcare reform to Johnson's earliest days covering the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention for the Associated Press. They've both told the story of their departure with Lee not to badmouth the company but rather, as Dennison puts it, share "the unvarnished truth of what happened."
"I hope they'll say at some point, 'Gosh, that was a mistake. We should really reinstitute the state bureau,'" Johnson says. "But I don't know that that's likely in the near future."