Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) The irony isn’t lost on the journalists of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: They’re constantly reporting on the housing challenges of Montana’s fastest growing area that has become the poster child for meteoric housing prices and workers struggling to survive in an economy where the median house pushes nearly $1 million.

But as the Yellowstone News Guild, which is comprised of journalists from the Chronicle, has engaged in contract talks with the paper’s owner, Adams Publishing Group, the economic struggles told daily on the pages of the newspaper have also crept their way into the lives of the journalists writing those stories.

This week, members of the guild report a stalemate in negotiations, saying the newspaper’s owner won’t consider raises to help offset the increasingly expensive cost of living in or around Gallatin County.

Talks are nearing an impasse with the company because it refuses to negotiate a minimum wage of more than $16 per hour, and it’s locked into a 37.5-hour work week.

The guild reports that it has reached a tentative agreement on other areas of the contract, but the union, which was officially recognized in May 2022, said the negotiations have stalled as company officials, including head of human resources Katharine Glass and attorney Michael Rybicki, have refused to budge on the pay.

Requests for comment from Glass and Adams went unanswered this week.

The Yellowstone News Guild reported that the contract proposal guarantees no raises for unit members, and depending on what metrics are used, the cost of living in Bozeman is more than 50% higher than in most other comparable areas.

“The proposal to pay poverty wages shows how little respect Adams Publishing has for its journalists. For (company chief executive officer) Mark Adams, we have one question: Why use your family’s wealth to buy newspapers if this is how you’re going to treat your journalists and the communities they serve?” the guild said in a written statement.

Nora Shelly, a guild member, said that most of the staff members have experienced the pay crunch in one way or another. Several journalists have had leases for their apartments renewed with increases of several hundreds of dollars more in rent per month. Some are living in housing meant for college students. And another is living in a trailer, despite icy cold temperatures.

Shelly, who covers city government and housing issues, said that typically, apartments rent for at least $1,000 per month per bedroom. A cursory glance of the market listings on Wednesday during a phone conversation revealed a three-bedroom apartment advertised for $4,650 per month, another 2-bedroom at $4,000 and one 2-bedroom apartment for $1,900.

“Those prices are pretty out-of-whack,” she said.

A journalist making $16 per hour for Adams’ workweek would earn $2,400 per month in gross pay.

Shelly said Adams’ approach seems consistent. A sister paper, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne, has been negotiating for a contract since its inception in 2020.

Shelly said many of the fast-food and other service industries in Bozeman are advertising $18 to $20 an hour. She said it may be difficult for a human resources manager who lives in Pennsylvania and an attorney in Chicago to understand the tough economics of Gallatin County.

“They’re not here on the ground,” she said. “But nothing we’ve said seems to make a difference.”

She said even a couple dollars per hour won’t solve the economic pressures the staff is facing.

“We didn’t get into journalism to make a lot of money, but now, with housing and inflation, it’s becoming impossible. We’re hoping to avoid an impasse. It’s not fair to play us along, and $16 is not a reasonable or serious offer. We’re not asking for the moon,” Shelly said.

She said many of the journalists at the Daily Chronicle want to be there because of they love the area and people.

“We believe the best newsroom is the one where we can stay and build up a career. We want to be there,” Shelly said, “but it doesn’t feel like they want to invest in the reporters. None of us are idiots. We know what is happening in the industry. But the company cannot use it as an excuse for underpaying us.”

Furloughs in Lee

Meanwhile, in newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises in Montana, the Daily Montanan has confirmed that employees making more than $20 per hour will be expected to take a two-week unpaid furlough. Two employees spoke to the Daily Montanan on condition of anonymity, concerned for retribution for speaking about the issue.

Lee Newspapers is Montana’s largest newspaper owner and counts The Billings Gazette, the Montana Standard, Missoulian, the Helena Independent-Record and the Ravalli Republic among its titles.

Victor Flores, a member of the Montana News Guild, which represents the journalists at The Gazette, said their unit has not been informed of furloughs, but other newsrooms in Lee Montana are not union members.

A spokeswoman for Lee Enterprises declined comment for this story.

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