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Newspapers in Montana lose a few more pounds

Late last month, two Lee Enterprises-owned Montana newspapers announced they were consolidating their editorial operations under a single editor. The move, which ousted Helena Independent-Record editor John Doran, placed both newsrooms under the leadership of Montana Standard editor Gerry O'Brien, in Butte.

Randy Rickman, the publisher of both papers, cited declining revenues and the loss of several major Helena advertisers as the impetus for the consolidation. Readers responded with concerns that news coverage in the state's capital city would suffer for lack of a local editor. Rickman attempted to counter such fears by assuring that city editors would keep coverage at both papers focused locally. He declined to comment for this story.

The question of what the IR-Standard consolidation means for Montana media consumers could remain unanswered for some time, but it's a question many feel warrants asking, especially considering the increasingly tenuous financial position many large news companies like Lee have found themselves in lately.

"It's not just Lee," says Dennis Swibold, a University of Montana journalism professor and former managing editor of the Bozeman Chronicle. "It's a lot of newspaper groups that are in this situation...I think there is a concern that you're losing local coverage, and to the extent it's lost, I think that's one of the prices people are going to pay."

In April, Lee announced plans to sell junk bonds to repay the company's $1 billion debt. But the company retracted its offer a month later after reporting a $1.47 million loss in the first quarter of 2011 and deeming the bonds too tough a sell. "We will continue to pursue alternatives and fully expect to refinance our long-term debt before it matures in April 2012," Lee CEO Mary Junck wrote to stockholders after the retraction. She added that the company was continuing to pay down its debt rapidly. "We are not, as some in the national media have imagined, staving off bankruptcy." Junck also disclosed in early May that she purchased 100,000 shares of Lee stock.

According to Poynter Institute researcher Rick Edmonds, the first three months of 2011 were hard times for most major newspaper companies. Advertising fell nearly 7 percent, Edmonds wrote last week, and the search for alternative revenue streams continues to languish. On the last day of 2010, Lee stock traded at $2.46 per share. By June 30, 2011, that value had dipped to 89 cents. In a special report July 7, The Economist wrote that "for American regional and metro-area newspapers, further job cuts, closures and consolidation now seem likely."

Poynter's Edmonds also shed light last month on troubling developments for another major media company with ties to Montana. Gannett announced 700 layoffs nationwide in late June. Edmonds referred to the layoffs as "a vote of no confidence in the future of print by America's largest newspaper company." It was the company's fourth round of staff cuts since 2008. Gannett also ordered furloughs at 81 newspapers this January; the Great Falls Tribune was among them.

The IR-Standard restructuring isn't Lee Enterprises' first nip-and-tuck job in Montana. Last year, the company shifted newsroom oversight of the Ravalli Republic to Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin. No employees were laid off as a direct result of the editorial merger.

Wayne Adair has followed the Republic online since the merger. He is now the managing editor of the Lone Peak Lookout weekly newspaper in Big Sky, but served as editor of the Republic from June 2001 through July 2005. He says he was fired over disagreements with the publisher over how he ran the newsroom. But he still has an emotional connection to Hamilton's daily. And he says space devoted to Bitterroot coverage on the Republic's pages has already eroded. "When I was editor there, we had a standing rule that all the front-page stories would be local," he says. "We didn't use any AP, we didn't use any of the Lee news wires. We'd use those inside, but the front page was pretty dedicated to just local news stories, local bylines."

Adair fears a similar erosion of local news in the wake of the IR-Standard consolidation. Of now-regional editor Gerry O'Brien, Adair says he's worked with him for years and has "great respect" for him. "But he's only human, and there's only so many hours in the day. When these positions are consolidated, it's just virtually impossible for one person to do as good a job as two people."

Amy Cannata, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Helena and a former reporter for The Spokesman-Review, in Spokane, Wash., isn't as quick to cast a shadow over Lee's latest Montana consolidation. The ACLU relies heavily on media in Helena and across the state to spread its message, she says. Although it's preferable to have an editor at the IR who "is intimately familiar with what goes on in the community" and although it's "a huge loss to lose John Doran," Cannata has faith that readers will continue to see a quality product. But, she adds, "It's hard all around in the print world these days, and I think communities really rely on these print media to have their issues covered. People really don't understand how much they lose when print outlets have to cut back."

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