Stop the presses 

Rough times force rare cuts at the Missoulian

When Lee Enterprises released its latest quarterly report projecting lower profits, employees of the local Lee daily knew the axe would fall. They just weren’t sure where.

On Aug. 27, the Missoulian front office started cutting, reducing its workforce by seven in a broader plan to reorganize the paper’s resources. The layoffs, effective that day, included two advertising representatives, a circulation worker, two part-time telemarketers, business writer Pamela J. Podger and environmental reporter John Cramer.

Almost immediately, public officials and community activists expressed concern that the cutbacks might negatively impact coverage of important local issues.

The Missoulian’s move comes just three months after Lee Enterprises released Noelle Straub, the correspondent in its Washington, D.C., bureau who specialized in Northern Rockies issues. Some credit Straub’s reporting for bringing to light the involvement between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Sen. Conrad Burns, whom Jon Tester then defeated in the 2006 general election.

Media circles also speculated on the fallout, particularly on how the loss of the environmental beat might affect coverage of major news on the natural resources front, like the Milltown Superfund site. The Missoulian listed among the first dailies in the nation to dedicate a staff spot to eco issues—now common practice.

Missoulian publisher Stacey Mueller says she’s aware of the concerns and wants to assure readers the paper’s established coverage will not change and be distributed through the newsroom.

“That was a reduction in force; it was not a reduction in our beats,” Mueller says. “We do not have any intention of cutting those beats.”

Background sources within the paper say more changes have been discussed. Most notably, they expect the Entertainer, a Thursday arts and entertainment supplemental tabloid, to slowly phase out.

Mueller says the Entertainer will no longer appear on racks as of Oct. 1, and, following an upcoming focus group study, the content will be repackaged and inserted into the Unwind lifestyle section, which runs on Fridays. As for the absence of the Entertainer on racks earlier this week, Mueller chalked that up to some “delivery issues.”

“The Entertainer’s going to be alive and well,” she says. “We don’t have plans to cut any of our content. Our goal has all along been to do things that least impacted our readers, subscribers, advertisers and employees. It’s not an easy thing—it’s been a gut-wrenching week.”

Podger and Cramer, married, came to Missoula from Virginia last October with their two adopted children. Podger joined the University of Montana Journalism School as an adjunct professor earlier this year. The couple declined to comment on the layoffs or the status of their beats.

“We’ve been really heartened by the supportive comments and calls of everyone—from now-former colleagues at the Missoulian to sources in the environment and the business beats,” Cramer says. “We’ve been really heartened by offers of support from the community in general.”

UM Journalism Dean Peggy Kuhr says the human cost of cutbacks is always clear, but argues staff reductions don’t unequivocally diminish the quantity or quality of news coverage.

“Many newsrooms are at a point where they can’t do more with less, so then you have to do something different,” she says. “My guess is the Missoulian will have to reexamine how it’s doing what it does and say, ‘What is our mission? Can you be all things to all people these days?’”

The situation began a little more than a month ago when the Lee head office in Davenport, Iowa, announced pending cutbacks across the national chain. According to that statement from Lee CEO Mary Junck, “We are focusing on rigorous cost reductions through staff reorganizations, narrower page widths, newsprint conservation programs and other efficiencies, as well as reduced capital spending. In our fiscal year that begins this fall, assuming no new surprises in newsprint prices, we are aiming for a further reduction in cash costs of 5–7 percent.”

Longtime and former employees of the daily have noticed the paper’s size slimming and narrowing for quite some time. However, the job cuts within the actual Missoulian staff marked the first in more than five years.

Like all American dailies, Lee publications face rising paper costs and a temporary lull in advertising revenue because of the stale economy—this in a market already depressed by declining readership trends. Still, the corporation’s tax filings show the chain’s stock in a more precipitous decline than its peer market index, despite its ability to generate 9 percent net profits in 2007.

Soon after Junck’s announcement, Lee stock prices dipped below $3, down from $43 at this time in 2005. By comparison, the oft-troubled Gannett chain, which owns the Great Falls Tribune, lost a smaller but still significant 74 percent of its stock value over the same term. Gannett also announced major cutbacks this month; it plans to slash roughly 1,000 jobs.

Mueller says the situation for the Missoulian could be a lot worse and credits her own cost-reduction strategies in minimizing the forced job cuts. According to available media reports, many other Lee papers took a much harder hit. The chain has shut down a total of five Idaho newspapers, including its second-largest holding in the state, the South Idaho Press, which turned out the lights Aug. 17.

Other Lee publishers in Montana, including those at The Montana Standard, The Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent-Record and the smaller Ravalli Republic have not said, as of press time, how they plan to address their share of chain-wide reductions.
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