Lee newspapers decide to stop covering state government. Here’s what you can do about it

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

-Thomas Jefferson

Lee Enterprises closes Helena bureau
In a shocking move, Lee Enterprises in Montana has dumped two of the state’s leading political reporters and closed the company’s Helena Bureau. The move will affect all Lee newspapers in the state:

Mike Dennison (l) and Chuck Johnson. Photos: Great Falls Tribune

Mike Dennison (l) and Chuck Johnson. Photos: Great Falls Tribune

The two reporters are Chuck Johnson, who has covered the Capitol since the 1970s, and Mike Dennison, a reporter for over 25 years. The two were given the option of re-applying for their jobs at a 40% pay cut or taking a buyout.

The move reflects a change in the way Lee newspapers will cover government. According to Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick, instead of focusing on state government and politicians, it will look at news on an “issue and regional level.”

Since this site is concerned with local issues regarding oil and gas development, I’m going to look at how Lee’s move impacts residents concerned about protecting their rights and their communities. If you’re interested in the gory details of the cuts, I recommend checking out Ed Kemmick at Last Best News, JimRomenesko.com or the Great Falls Tribune (one of the four dailies in Montana that is not a Lee paper).

The role of newspapers
Newspapers serve several critical functions in a society: they inform, they entertain and they present opinions. Perhaps most importantly, they shine a light on those with power and the institutions they represent. In Helena, Johnson and Dennison were beat reporters who interviewed, fact checked, investigated and reported on public meetings. Without them, these functions will be severely diminished.

“It’s a loss for everyone who cares about informed civic discussion of statewide politics. Their decades of institutional memory and experience are unmatched,” said Dennis Swibold, a University of Montana School of Journalism professor. “It’s a terrible loss.”

fourth estateThere are many reasons to be concerned about how the loss of a public watchdog will impact our awareness of oil and gas issues. Over the years we’ve seen the legislature give a huge and apparently endless tax holiday to the oil industry that robs local governments of the ability to pay for the infrastructure costs of drilling. They have refused to pass laws that adequately protect precious water, to require wells to be set back from homes, and to establish testing programs for water, soil and air quality.

And now, with dark money invading Montana politics and a national movement to strip landowners of their rights to regulate drilling locally, it is more important than ever to make sure that legislators and state agencies operate in the sunshine, not in the darkness.

If Lee Enterprises is going to abdicate its watchdog role, citizens need to take responsibility for keeping themselves informed.

What you can do
If you’re not willing to accept that the newspapers you’ve always depended on are declining in quality and abdicating their watchdog roles, there are things you can do about it. But if you limit yourself to a daily reading of the Billings Gazette and a weekly perusal of the Stillwater County News or the Carbon County News, you’re probably going to have to step up your game.

The development of the Internet has brought many options for information, opinion, and entertainment. Once you find a site you like, you’ll find links to other sites with complementary information. You can subscribe to receive updates from sites you find worthwhile.

I’ve listed some sites below that I read frequently, trying as best I can to list some from different ends of the political spectrum. Check them out, and if you’re interested in more let me know.

General Montana
Flathead Memo
Forward Montana
Intelligent Discontent
Last Best News
Montana Street Fighter
Montana on the Ground (New blog by former Bozeman Chronicle reporter Laura Lundquist, 6/16)

State Government
Big Sky Political Analysis
Montana Budget and Policy Center
Montana Cowgirl
Montana State Government Website
Montana Watchdog

Oil and Gas
Inside Climate News
Montana Environmental Information Center
Northern Plains Resource Council

Peak Oil
Sky Truth

Montana daily newspapers not owned by Lee Enterprises
Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell)
Great Falls Tribune
Livingston Enterprise

Update 6/3, 11am: Good follow up and summary of reaction to the Helena Bureau closure this morning at Last Best News.


About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
This entry was posted in Community Organization, Politics and History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lee newspapers decide to stop covering state government. Here’s what you can do about it

  1. The people are the losers…. and land….and water….and animals…all wildlife.

  2. Pingback: Lee cuts solid reporting, beefs up click bait, and more | Last Best News

  3. Pingback: Great Falls Tribune interview with Jim Halvorson of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas | Preserve the Beartooth Front

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