Montana’s upstart news outlets filling the void left by the slow collapse of Lee

By Martin Kidston

Given the state of Montana’s corporate media, it’s a good time to be a politician, but not so good if you’re a voter looking to make an informed decision this November.

It’s been little more than 15 months since Larry Abramson, dean of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, broke the news in a tweet that Lee newspapers in Montana was shutting down its state bureau in Helena.

The tweet went out at 4:41 p.m. on a May afternoon. The Great Falls Tribune, Last Best News and KXLH had the story later that day. Montana Cowgirl, a popular political blog, and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle weren’t far behind.

But the news was slow to come from Lee itself. In an interview with the Montana Television Network, Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick later said the company was changing the way it provides state coverage. Instead of focusing on government and politicians – as the state bureau had done for decades – it intended to look at news on an “issue and regional level.”

By doing so, the state’s largest media company chose to leave the daily political coverage up to someone else. Sadly, few media outlets, including the Missoula Current, have yet to muster the resources needed to fill that void, though some are trying.

To be clear, the two journalists hired to replace Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison have done a fine job meeting their company’s new focus. But sadly, it’s that focus that has left a gaping black hole in Montana’s political coverage, and at time when voters need insight over silence.

One would never realize we’re in the middle of an election season.

Our first-term congressman, Rep. Ryan Zinke, is looking to keep his seat in a hotly contested race against Denise Juneau. Our first term governor, Steve Bullock, is also looking to keep his seat in what’s shaping up to be an expensive race against Republican challenger Greg Gianforte.

What’s more, the balance of the state Legislature will be decided in November, as well as the Montana Public Service Commission. Seats on the Montanan Supreme Court are up for grabs, as well as several state offices, including state auditor and superintendent of public instruction.

Where do the candidates stand on issues such as public access, selling off federal lands, equal pay for equal work, or education? What’s their plan to tackle infrastructure? What about climate change, equality and health care? What about their voting record?

This is where the crickets begin chirping.

Shortly after Lee finally confirmed the closure of its state bureau, state Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell in Helena speculated in a letter to the editor that Lee’s decision would leave “the public with more information noise and less journalism.”

Another writer said the public’s right to know was “circling the drain.” He called it the public’s collective loss. The editor of the Great Falls Tribune called it “a hit to the watchdog role of Montana media.”

I suppose what’s done is done and there’s little chance that Montana’s voters will have any success changing Lee’s mind. But the trend runs deeper than Lee’s decision to drop its state political coverage. It also has trickled down to the community level.

The Missoulian, for example, has left its local government reporter position empty since early January. For the sake of disclosure, I left that job on Jan. 4 to launch the Missoula Current. Over beer, several reporters have suggested that the Missoulian’s decision to leave such a significant position dark for so long has made it possible for the Missoula Current to gain traction.

They may be right to a small extent, though I believe our success runs far beyond that and stands as a credit to the readers who are looking for something more. In the eight months since we launched, the Missoula Current has forged a niche reporting on issues of local importance, and we’re proud of that.

As Montana’s media continues to evolve, new media outlets will find a way to fill the void left by a collapsing corporate giant. The best part is, they’ll be free to do so without the interference of a corporate monopoly that’s more focused on the interests of its shareholders than its readers, let the alone the state of Montana’s democracy.

Martin Kidston is the founding editor of Missoula Current.