When it came time for Dick Gottlieb, Lee Enterprises' CEO, to sum up 1998 for the managers of the company's various properties, he didn't mince words.
"How in the hell ... how in the HELL ... how in the H-E-L-L ... did we let this happen?" That's Gottlieb, quoted in the corporation's in-house magazine, leading off his annual "feedback" address, describing a business year he called "the deepest disappointment of my career."
Gottlieb refers to corporate profits that disappointed shareholders and executives alike. While the company made money (lots of money, some might say), aggressive new investments-particularly the purchase of an arc of papers in Oregon-ate into the bottom line and didn't return the instant gratification Gottlieb and others in the company expected. Responding to a disappointing 1998, Lee's boss-of-all-bosses sought to rally the troops in his speech, issuing a stirring corporate call to arms.
"We are ready for a big win," he said. "A big win. A ONE HUNDRED-PERCENT WIN. Prove me right ... and do that. You know I love you. Prove me right ... and do that."
What Gottlieb means is, he and the company's upper echelon want all of Lee's disparate properties to "make plan," or achieve pre-set profit goals. While there are undoubtedly numerous corporate strategies for achieving that aim, the most significant is hard to miss. A photo of Gottlieb taken during this speech shows not only the CEO, but also a poster featuring a troupe of dancing pastel figures, a merry group that should be familiar to Missoulian readers by now.
The little dancing people serve as the logo for Celebrate 2000, the far-reaching millennium project Lee bought whole from the New York Times Company. According to Lee spokesmen, nearly all of the company's newspapers are participating in Celebrate 2000, using the project's packaged story ideas, graphics and marketing angles to mark their communities' voyage into the new century. The project seeks to fuse journalism, history, civic pride and advertising into a single potent dynamo designed to make an impact far beyond the news columns of any given paper.
David Fuselier of the Missoulian is quite clear about Celebrate 2000's importance to his paper.
"We've cleared the board for it, and it's going to absorb us for the next two years," Fuselier says. "It's the biggest thing we're doing, and it's possibly the biggest thing we've ever done as a publication."
Indeed, Celebrate 2000 is extraordinarily ambitious. The project's logo is already nearing ubiquity, appearing on local billboards, on the paper's website, on the flagpole outisde its office and frequently in its pages. Over the course of Celebrate 2000, the Missoulian will produce 11 special sections. Some will focus on the past, others the future. Fuselier acknowledges that the reporters and editors of the newsroom contribute plenty of time to Celebrate 2000, but he quickly makes clear that the stories and special sections the paper carries are only the beginning.
Celebrate 2000, he says, is really a "community envisioning project." In other words, the Missoulian hopes to inaugurate the brave new century by leading a major development project with city-wide implications. Before that happens, Fuselier says, a series of forums will generate a wide-ranging list of ideas. He says it could be anything from a new convention center to a network of bike trails to an effort to wire all of Missoula with new fiber optics cable. The final choice will be determined by a poll taken after the forums, when Celebrate will have a strong momentum built around its "brand identity."
"The real question here is, how do we lead in the next millennium? It's getting increasingly difficult to lead civic projects, even here in Missoula, which is nowhere near as divisive as some of the places I've lived."
That increasing difficulty, Fuselier notes, gives special weight to the influence of the project's sponsors. Smurfit-Stone, the multinational paper company that runs the Frenchtown mill, insurance giants Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Community Medical Center and The University of Montana are the primary sponsors of Celebrate 2000; television station KPAX joins in as well.
That confluence of advertising, community boosterism and reporting might make journalism traditionalists-and readers who want news served up without a commerical filter-nervous. Fuselier says, however, that escaping the limitations traditionally imposed on newspapers is a key aim of the project.
"This is civic journalism," he says. "Newspapers, which for so long have been neutral and stand-offish, need to get more active in the effort to find solutions for problems, instead of simply reporting on them. This is something people in the industry have been talking about for the last five or six years, and it seems to pay dividends."
Dividends, in fact, may be the key to the whole project, as the advertising motive behind Celebrate is overt and comes without apology. Still, Fuselier, a veteran newspaperman who has done tours of duty with papers ranging from the Cincinnati Enquirer to Kalispell's Daily Interlake, knows what he's talking about. Civic journalism, sometimes called "community" or "public" journalism, has indeed become a hot topic in a daily newspaper industry constantly fretting about its long-term survival. The general idea is to foster a tighter bond between newspapers and the communities they serve. Some papers have done wonders with civic journalism (the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for an aggressive anti-crime project). Others have been blasted for mellowing into bland, uncritical community cheerleaders.
While it's too early to judge Celebrate's journalistic quality and civic impact, Fuselier is very clear on the importance of the project's marketing facets.
"The brand identity is vitally important, so when we go forward with the final project it has real power and impetus," Fuselier says. "The forums are designed to get at people's dreams. There are going to be a thousand ideas. We have really great partners in this project, which will be important once we settle on a final project."
An Article of Faith
Whether Lee's community projects help Lee gain new readers, or give it an upper hand in the race to be the biggest media firm in America, remains to be seen. The only thing readers across Montana, Oregon and Wisconsin can be certain of is that Lee has established its stake its communities. From wooing advertisers with Celebrate 2000 initiatives to carefully setting a strategic profit plan at each paper, Lee has pursued an agenda that's sure to keep Lee firmly rooted in each of the regions where it has made its presence known.
To be sure, Montana's media landscape is much healthier than it was back in the days of the "copper collar." And yet, some would argue that, four decades later, there are still questions that need to be asked about where our news is coming from, and what motives have brought it to the page. At least Montana's news-consumers aren't in an unusual situation: As profit-driven companies continue to buy up independent media outlets across the United States, more and more readers are being faced with fewer and fewer options. And most of those options, it may soon turn out, will be corporate newspapers. For those who work in the industry, it's almost an article of faith.
"There's been a trend going for probably 30 to 40 years of family-owned businesses being sold to larger group organizations," former publisher John Talbot says. "I'm afraid the march toward-corporate owned media is inevitable."
By ANDY SMETANKA
Here's a partial list of golden photo opportunities I've missed by leaving my camera home during the past few months: 1) A hardcore band from Kalispell dousing their drum kit with starter fluid, setting it ablaze and then stomping it into smithereens. 2) Matt Svendsen, editor of Anxiety Disorder zine, lowering himself off the Higgins Street bridge with tied-together sheets to rescue a skateboard that had gone over the side. 3) Bob Wire, voluble mouth of the Fencemenders, leaping off a monitor at the Union Club and playing a solo flat on his back on a bar table while hooting fans poured beer down his throat. Without missing a note.
"Getting up there is such a visceral release for me," explains Wire-a.k.a. Ednor Therriault-in a recent phone interview, "I just never know what's going to happen."