“In what is likely the most consequential election of my lifetime, I won’t be in a newsroom.”

Gwen Florio: “I’m luckier than most.”

From a story on thenation.com by Gwen Florio headlined “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers: Fewer and fewer reporters cover the local institutions whose decisions most directly affect their neighbor’s lives”:

On November 3, what is likely the most consequential election of my lifetime, I won’t be in a newsroom.

It’s just starting to sink in that I’ve joined. . .the great mass of unemployed journalists in this country. I’m luckier than most. I managed four decades in a business that seemed determined to kick me to the curb from my first job at a daily newspaper, The Philadelphia Bulletin, in 1980. . . .

I’ve worked for The News-American in Baltimore, which closed within two years. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, which folded a couple of years after I left. The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Denver Post, once Pulitzer-rich powerhouses, now shells. Two years ago, the Post printed an editorial pleading for its hedge-fund owners to sell and deliver its journalists from the hell of unending cuts.

Overall, half the country’s newspaper jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2019, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Amid the 2020 news trifecta of election, pandemic, and massive protests over racial disparities, more than 1,800 communities now qualify as news desertsdefined by the University of North Carolina as communities “where residents have very limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feed democracy at the grassroots level.”

Translation: No longer do reporters who live in those communities cover the institutions whose decisions most directly affect their neighbors’ day-to-day lives.

Those are oft-cited realities. Here’s what it was like to live them.

When I arrived in 2007 in Missoula, a western Montana university town of about 75,000, the Missoulian’s was one of the smallest newsrooms I’d ever worked in, not much larger than some of the Inquirer’s suburban bureaus. . . .

We covered seven western Montana counties, an area larger than Massachusetts and Vermont combined, with bureaus in three outlying counties. . . .

In 2012, my own reporting spurred a federal Justice Department investigation into alleged sexual assaults by University of Montana football players and others, in cases later detailed in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. This did not go over well with a significant segment of the community. . . .

But there was also an undercurrent of support: A tiny cross-stitch sampler arrived in the mail: “Don’t read the comments.” Notes and telephone calls, some tearful, from women saying, “Thank you,” and then, “Me, too,” years before it became a catchphrase.

The paper kept publishing those stories even as it lost advertising, and despite a jittery publisher who asked at one point, “We aren’t going to break any more stories, are we?” (We did.) Because of the support for that sort of reporting, along with our location in an outdoor recreation paradise. . .the Missoulian attracted talented journalists who could have worked at far larger news organizations—and kept them, something reflected in the awards that crowded a newsroom wall and cluttered a shelf.

Then Lee Enterprises took it away. . . .

Lee doesn’t have the national name recognition of other large newspaper chains—Gannett, Hearst, McClatchy—nor does it evoke the mustachio-twirling Snidely Whiplash villainy of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund inflicting misery upon The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, and others.

For decades Lee flew under the radar with its stable of newspapers in small towns and midsize cities. That changed when Lee acquired big-city muscle—and crushing debt—with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the other Pulitzer-winning papers in 2005, two years before I arrived at the Missoulian with the 2008 recession looming.

Given my history, I should have known what was coming. In 2011, Lee filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Two years later, I took one of Lee’s early buyout offers, and spent three years writing novels and teaching at the University of Montana Journalism School, rejoining the staff as city editor at the behest of newly hired editor Kathy Best, under whose stewardship The Seattle Times had won two Pulitzers.

I barely recognized the newsroom to which I returned. Empty desks abounded. Gone were several editors, reporters, and a photographer. Lee had fired two longtime, highly respected capitol correspondents, replacing them with decades-younger reporters.

Positions went dark and bureaus shuttered as staffers retired, took buyouts, or opted for the financial security of public relations. Our pay was abysmal; one reporter told me the Missoulian’s initial offer was what he earned as a dishwasher at Outback Steakhouse; others worked second jobs to cover living expenses.

But we were the Missoulian, damn it. We had a tradition to uphold.

David Erickson’s reporting on foreclosures of mobile homes whose owners sometimes owed less than $100in back taxes changed laws and lives; as did a Missoulianteam’s yearlong investigation into abuses at unregulated for-profit programs for troubled teens. Reporter Rob Chaney was awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, hanging out with journalists from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and the like.

With the zeal of upending sofa cushions for loose change, we went after grant money to fund our work. Success allowed Missoulian journalists to report from Zambia and Botswana, China, Nepal, Brazil, and New York City on stories with relevance to Montana. Within Montana, grants funded trips to the state’s far-flung Indian reservations for necessary reporting on the effects of the pandemic and challenges to voting.

We held our heads high, collected regional and national awards, and tried to avoid the quicksand sucking at our feet.

I moved into the editor’s job in spring 2019 when Best departed to become the first director of the new Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. In the months that followed, layoffs and attrition cost us 20 percent of our remaining staff. Interns filled in on some of our biggest beats. . . .

Then came the endorsement.

Here’s the only good thing about the Missoulian’s October 11 endorsement of a state public service commission candidate who’d spoken at a forum featuring the anti-government Bundy family and groups favoring the transfer of federal lands to states and undercutting tribal sovereignty.

The community cared. . . .

People canceled subscriptions. Businesses yanked ads. The only worse reaction would have been a collective shrug.

Because I’d stepped back into reporting when our political reporter took a medical leave, I’d recused myself from the endorsement process, but as top editor, the buck landed atop the litter of notebooks and papers obscuring my desk. I resigned, hastening an already-planned retirement after the election.

After my departure, the paper retracted the endorsement and printed a full page of outraged letters to the editor. . . .

Many people blame the fiasco on some sinister corporate mandate: Endorse some Republicans or else. Without full knowledge of what happened, I suspect it had more to do with everyone being so overworked that proper vetting—beyond candidate interviews—went by the wayside. I doubt corporate gives a good goddamn about what we write unless, as with the endorsement, it affects advertising and circulation. . . .

Due to Lee decisions, North Dakota and Wyoming no longer have a seven-day-a-week print newspaper. . . .

At Lee papers, the response to unions has been swift and merciless. When Lee bought the alternative (and perennially money-losing) Missoula Independent in 2018, reporters there organized—and Lee shut it down with no notice. After the Casper Star-Tribune’s successful union vote that same year in Wyoming, Lee fired three staffers and suspended a fourth who wrote about it.

Reporters at the Billings Gazette organized earlier this year after Lee laid off the editor and editorial page editor, leaving the Missoulian the only paper in Montana with a full-time opinion editor. Billings reporters are in contract negotiations now.

I fear for their jobs, but cheer their willingness to go down swinging. . . .
Gwen Florio is the former editor of the Missoulian newspaper and the author of seven novels.

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