The Missoulian opinion page has been comprised almost completely of guest columns since May. There has been no official comment on when, if ever, the paper will return to staff-generated editorials
Even the most unobservant reader of the Missoulian opinion page has probably noticed by now that guest columns have replaced in-house editorials. It’s not, presumably, that the Missoulian suddenly lacks opinions; it’s just that the paper currently lacks a designated staffer to write them.
In May, former opinion editor Steve Woodruff left the paper after 20 years and more than 6,000 editorials. He was only the second opinion editor at the paper since 1964. He now works with the Western Progress think-tank here in Missoula.
The Missoulian quickly began advertising for a replacement in print and on websites including journalism jobs.com. Then, suddenly, the advertisements disappeared. The position remains apparently unfilled and guest columns from community members and single-issue experts have been running nearly every day since.
The only capacity in which Woodruff has been replaced is his position on the Missoulian editorial board. His replacement there is Missoulian Controller Stacey Mueller. She works in accounting.
When approached for comment for this story both Missoulian publisher John VanStrydonck and editor Sherry Devlin declined, so it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s up.
But the change from staff-produced editorials to guest columns is a significant departure from the paper’s own longstanding tradition, and from historic and contemporary newspaper standards in general.
Media analyst Ken Doctor of California-based Outsell Inc., which studies the publishing business, says he’s never heard of a mid-sized daily eliminating its in-house editorial voice. He says the move could be part of the newspaper industry’s recent flirtation with user-generated content, but if it is, he says, it’s an approach he’s never heard of before.
“It would surprise me if [the Missoulian] completely abdicated their position [to make commentary],” he says.
But as long as there’s still commentary about local issues in the Missoulian, does the lack of an in-house opinion writer really matter?
Pete Talbot, a local blogger, filmmaker and former Montana Democratic Party executive board member whose father John was once publisher of the Missoulian, says it does. By mostly relinquishing their bully pulpit (the paper has published a few unbylined editorials since May), the Missoulian insulates itself from the heat of controversy. Signed commentaries and guest editorials, after all, “represent the independent views of the authors,” according to the Missoulian’s op-ed page disclaimer. Unsigned editorial board editorials represent the newspaper’s view.
“It sure is the easy way out,” Talbot says.
Another possibility is that the Missoulian is leaving the job vacant to save money. Since 2005, Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian, has reported a 60-percent decrease in the company’s stock price. By June, Lee’s total operating revenue had slipped 4.1 percent from the same period in 2006.
Woodruff’s predecessor, Sam Reynolds, still watches his former employer closely from his home in Polson, and suspects that Lee’s finances are the most likely factor behind the Missoulian’s new editorial absence. He speculates that the decision was probably arrived at locally, and not handed down from the corporate office in Davenport, Iowa.
“Lee Enterprises bought the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and all of its papers, and when you accrue that much debt you have to cut corners,” Reynolds says.
He’s referring to Lee’s purchase of the Pulitzer chain’s 14 daily papers and more than 100 non-daily publications in 2005. The deal cost Lee $1.46 billion, and Lee assumed responsibility for $306 million in debt that Pulitzer had acquired, after which the company’s stock began to plummet from $45 a share in February 2005 to roughly $18 today.
A corporate parent’s difficulties, though, don’t necessarily translate to hard times for the kids.
“Lee papers in your part of the country are doing comparatively well,” says Poynter Institute media business analyst Rick Edmonds. Like Doctor, Edmonds expressed shock at the Missoulian’s loss. He noted that a newspaper contest he recently judged involved papers with circulations as small as 2,000, all of which published staff-generated editorials. Every other Lee-owned paper in Montana continues to publish staff-produced editorials.
Carol Van Valkenburg, chair of the University of Montana School of Journalism print program, references still another theory that might explain the Missoulian’s current lack—a theory that gets an off-the-record workout in local scuttlebutt: Missoulian publisher John VanStrydonck may be holding out for a candidate better aligned with his own political leanings, which are reputedly a bit conservative by local standards.
And regarding his paper’s content––both news and advertising––VanStrydonck has been a hands-on publisher.
In 2005 he caused controversy when it became public that the Missoulian had pulled or refused ads placed by local would-be rival publications including NewWest.net and the Clark Fork Journal.
Oddly enough, however, the Missoulian later published a story about New West, which appeared on Missoulian.com, and disappeared shortly thereafter, leading to unsubstantiated rumors that VanStrydonck pulled the story personally.
VanStrydonck, as publisher, is also on the editorial board of the Missoulian, which is not uncommon. And according to Woodruff, VanStrydonck does exert influence over the content of editorials.
“The board discussed an issue and would try to come to a consensus as to what we wanted to say about it,” Woodruff says. He declines to discuss specifics about VanStrydonck’s input, though Woodruff does say his own personal opinion did not always make it to the page.
Regardless of whether the changes are based in finances or politics, they’re certainly not business as usual.
But that could be good.
“Maybe what you’re seeing is a step forward––something better,” Woodruff says. “Missoula will make them do something, whether it’s traditional or something new.”
As to what that something may be, the only people in a position to know—publisher VanStrydonck and editor Devlin—are clearly unified in their editorial voice: they’re not saying anything.