Thursday, April 14, 2016

Without any editors, Missoulian gets relief from Billings

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 3:02 PM

The Missoulian is getting help from its sister newsroom in Billings as the company scrambles to replace former editor Matthew Bunk, who resigned Monday after being suspended for bringing a handgun to the newsroom.

Darrell Ehrlick, the top editor at the Billings Gazette, confirms he is in Missoula this week, where sources within Lee Enterprises, the Missoulian's parent company, say he is helping get the daily paper out in a newsroom left without any local news editors.

Ehrlick referred questions to Missoulian publisher Mark Heintzelman. Heintzelman declined to comment, citing "personnel matters."

The paper, in a brief story Monday, announced that Bunk had resigned his editor post. He also oversaw news operations at the Ravalli Republic. 

Bunk's indefinite suspension stemmed from an incident in which employees saw him carrying a pistol in the office, a violation of company policy. Bunk later claimed the weapon was an antique gift from his fiancée that he forgot to leave in his car, as the Indy reported earlier. The editor also said he often carries a weapon for self defense.

Company sources say Ehrlick's temporary relief was announced last week, before Bunk resigned. Bunk's suspension coincided with the resignation of the Missoulian's city editor, its only other news management role.

Job listings for both positions were posted online Thursday.

For staff at the Missoulian, trouble during Bunk's seven-month tenure extended beyond a gun mistakenly brought to the newsroom. His hiring produced a civil lawsuit, prompted several staff resignations and spawned a rival news outlet.

Current staffers and former reporters who spoke with the Indy this week describe a newsroom that was nearing revolt against an editor who they say bullied reporters and routinely threatened their jobs during disagreements. Some say they expected further resignations, or even a walkout, had Bunk been permitted to return.

click to enlarge Matthew Bunk's resignation leaves the Missoulian without any newsroom managers. Current staffers and former reporters say working conditions deteriorated under Bunk's leadership. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Matthew Bunk's resignation leaves the Missoulian without any newsroom managers. Current staffers and former reporters say working conditions deteriorated under Bunk's leadership.

Bunk was in a difficult position when he took over in August, having been hired by Heintzelman to replace longtime editor Sherry Devlin, who was demoted at the same time. At 37, he was much younger than Devlin, as she later pointed out in a wrongful discharge lawsuit, and came to the Missoulian from Libby without previous experience managing a daily newspaper.

Almost from the beginning, conditions in the newsroom degraded, current and former employees say. Devlin quit a few months later, alleging in court documents that she had been made to work in an "intolerable" environment for half her previous pay.

Former reporters Kathryn Haake and Martin Kidston both tell the Indy that their resignations stemmed from Bunk's management after incidents in which they say he threatened their jobs.

Kidston says he decided to launch a competing online news magazine last October after disagreements with Bunk about how to cover the city's controversial proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases.

"I had invested almost two decades into this job and have developed a method to which I report, and if he was going to be the future of the Missoulian I decided that I wasn't going to be a part of that," Kidston says.

He began publishing content to the Missoula Current upon giving two weeks' notice in December, and later broke the news of his former editor's suspension.

Bunk did not respond to requests for comment, but he acknowledged his departure in a Facebook post Wednesday.

"As many of you know, I have left the Missoulian," Bunk wrote. "I will miss working at such a prestigious paper with so many talented people on staff. It was an honor to be a part of the team, and I look forward to bigger and better things for all involved."

Haake, now with The Associated Press in Idaho, faults company leaders for not hiring an editor with more experience and hopes they will seek more qualified candidates in the future.

"I think that Lee failed the community and failed the newsroom by bringing in somebody who is not qualified for that position," she says.

An online job posting for the Missoulian's "top editor" says the company is "seeking a proven leader" who is "looking for the opportunity to prove yourself." Qualified candidates must possess a bachelor's degree and three to five years of news management, reporting, and editing experience.

"If you are a highly motivated, aggressive individual looking for the opportunity to prove yourself, this is the position for you," the post reads.

The job description is identical to the one posted last April.

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