Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) In Montana, the state’s largest newspaper publisher, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, has announced that it’s cutting the number of days it prints a newspaper to three and switching the delivery from paper carriers to the U.S. Postal Service in most locations, but the corporation promises the three print editions will have a “Sunday feel.”

But in Montana, unionized newsroom employees have a message for readers: That’s just not how it is.

The unions of Lee Enterprises have begun to push back against the daily chain of newspapers that now counts 77 publications. Lee announced plans to reduce publishing days in most of its markets except for its largest holdings, which includes Billings. In Montana, the Montana News Guild represents the editorial employees of The Billings Gazette, one of the few titles that has – so far – be spared the print cuts. However, readers in Butte, Missoula, Helena and Hamilton will see the substantial change.

Even though The Billings Gazette will continue a seven-day-a-week printing schedule, union members there — it’s the only Lee Montana newspaper that has union representation — say staff hasn’t been spared other cuts. Now, union members are speaking out against the move, saying while the digital format may be the future of newspapers, the company’s sales pitch, including the marketing around the publication day switch, doesn’t address the “numerous damaging cuts.”

The Daily Montanan reached out to Lee Enterprises for its perspective, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

As early as April, the Daily Montanan was among the first to report that Lee would be slashing its printing days. In its properties across the country, a column, usually with an editor’s byline, characterized the move as a way to create a “Sunday feel” three times per week, and as well as adding to the digital experience.”

“When you pick up your newspaper, you’re going to literally feel a difference. That’s because every print edition will be an expanded edition, with more content, more sections and more pages,” many editors columns throughout Lee said.

However, the unions of Lee said the plans and details of how that will be done haven’t been shared with the employees producing the newspapers. The newspaper in Hamilton had published five days a week, and newspapers in the other three affected cities had published daily.

“The three-day-a-week model has not been clearly laid out to newsroom employees who are expected to implement it,” the press release said. “Neither has it been accurately communicated with readers and subscribers. Lee marketing claims that readers will be offered ‘expanded coverage’ under the new model are fundamentally dishonest. The entire process feels ill-conceived and rushed.”

Sports reporter Victor Flores of The Gazette said that previously he’d been hopeful that Lee situation had stabilized with successful contract negotiations that included significant raises in November 2022.

But with the recent round of cuts that has taken union membership in Billings to around 11 with the total number of news staff hovering around 16, he said the trajectory is “not sustainable.”

He said that the cuts have taken place across all newsrooms, and he’s not just worried about how the papers will look and survive after the changes, but also in the future.

“I am not sure they care about the ramifications or the communities,” Flores said. “Anyone with business acumen can tell you this is not how you grow the business long term. The print reduction is not the worst move they’ve made because digital is our future, and I don’t think there’s going to be a print revival in any meaningful way.”

Yet Flores said he and his colleagues have seen further cuts to staffing and resources, with virtually no additions or strategies to enhance digital products.

“We haven’t had a lot of reason to trust them because recently we heard them talking a lot about digital growth, but it seems like they’re more focused on cutting and selling properties for parts, kind of like Alden (Global Capital),” Flores said.

Alden is the hedge-fund controlled newspaper company that has staked its reputation on massive cost cutting measures, including selling property, while squeezing money from the advertising operations.

“On the digital news delivery side, Lee has touted its growth in digital-only subscribers, but how many of those are readers who gave up on receiving a print edition as the company hikes prices and makes cuts to the product,” the united unions asked in a press release. “The switch isn’t a net gain.”

Staff members like Flores said he also shares his frustration with the bad user experience the corporation’s templated websites.

“The website templates all Lee papers are required to use makes local news hard to find,” the press release said. “The websites and social media pages are crowded with nationally syndicated content, burying the local news that readers come to us for. Expecting readers to keep paying the same price or more for less journalism is an insult to their intelligence.”

A note printed in the Missoulian in the lead up to the July 4 holiday in 2023.
A note printed in the Missoulian in the lead up to the July 4 holiday in 2023.

A cursory look of the Helena Independent Record’s Twitter posts on Friday showed 13 of 23 posts were based on Montana news. A check of the Missoulian’s homepage at the same time showed seven different stories, all Montana based. And, in Butte during the same, its Facebook account showed 13 posts, six of which were focused on Montana.

“If you look at our sports section, there’s a lot of (Associated Press) and other wire content and one local story sprinkled around a lot of national news. Some of the content in news is politically charged, and people get mad at us, but we’re not doing it. But how would the readers know that?” Flores said. “They’re not concerned with giving the readers good digital products.”

On Friday, during the same time period, The Billings Gazette showed a mix of mostly national sports stories, including its lead story about a Britney Spears video from Las Vegas.

On social media, readers and residents have demonstrated a number of gaffes recently that appear to be the result of corporate coordination, not necessarily under the direction of local staff. On July 4, an online promotion highlighted the text of the Declaration of Independence, but it was attached to the photo of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. An advertisement telling Missoula readers the offices would be closed said it was so employees could celebrate Memorial Day.

Inside the Lee newspapers, Flores said that positions are often cut without explanation or regard to strategic importance. He said that as people have left, few positions were filled, and instead, staff members have often been shuffled to new positions with a growing list of things to do.

“You can’t give more by cutting print days and cutting staff,” Flores said. “I am pretty cynical that this is just cost savings. If money was coming in better, they wouldn’t be doing this.”

Flores said that the cuts have had the unintended benefit of showing both readers what coverage is most important, while also forcing local staff to re-order and rethink priorities.

“We just don’t have the bodies to get to all those things,” Flores said. “We can’t or shouldn’t do more with less.”

Throughout the changes, which have come rapidly recently, including a printing format that makes the most sizeable cuts since the papers were founded, Flores has also been chagrined at the lack of communication from the leaders of the company.

“Any communication, including the big decisions of layoffs to moving positions to printing, Lee hasn’t sent a single employee announcement,” Flores said. “We are doing this fake PR campaign, and that’s the same thing we fight against in our own lives as reporters, and now we have our own company doing it to us.”

He said most readers would welcome more communication from leaders, and he doubts any readers are oblivious to the struggles in the newspaper industry, which mirror larger troubles in the economy. However, Flores said staff are upset that leaders of the company are still “making six or seven figures” in bonuses.

Flores isn’t alone in his frustration.

The letters to the editor in Missoula, Helena and Butte contain evidence of readers throughout the state apparently displeased with the decision.

Missoula resident Wendell Beardsley wrote in the Missoulian letter-to-the-editor section that he didn’t trust the new plan.

“Reading the e-edition is an exercise in frustration,” Beardsley said. “Despite the editor’s assurances, I expect further reductions in subscriptions and gradual loss of vital local journalism. Sad to see it go.”