“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.”
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:
- Billings Gazette
- The Montana Standard (Butte)
- Independent Record (Helena)
- Ravalli Republic (Hamilton)
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.”
There 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.
Update 6/3, 11am: Good follow up and summary of reaction to the Helena Bureau closure this morning at Last Best News.