An Outlook on Montana’s News Landscape
BY DENNIS SWIBOLD
Four decades ago, I drove a sputtering Toyota packed with everything I owned into a small northeast Montana town to take a job reporting for a twice-weekly newspaper in the oil patch. It was mid-winter, I was fresh out of college and my journalism degree from the University of Arizona would follow in the mail months later because I still owed a library fine. It was cold.
As for my qualifications, I could ask questions, take notes, read a police report, cover a basketball game and write an obituary. I knew little about my new home, but the people were friendly, if somewhat suspicious, so I slowly started asking about the town’s history, industry, people and passions that made it tick. Most folks played along.
My method was simple: Confessing my ignorance gave me an excuse to ask every dumb question. It worked well enough. After a few years, I became the Sidney Herald’s editor, only to jump ship to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, where I moved quickly from local government to state politics, covering two legislative sessions in Helena in the mid-1980s. That assignment allowed me to learn from some of Montana’s best reporters. Chuck Johnson, known even then as the “dean” of Montana’s statehouse reporters, introduced himself immediately. I joined a long line of young journalists he mentored while he led the Great Falls Tribune’s influential capitol bureau, which served a vast swath of the state.
By the early 1990s, Lee Enterprises, which owned dailies in Billings, Missoula, Butte, Helena and Hamilton, had enticed Johnson to head the Lee State Bureau, where he led another team of excellent reporters. In the small world of Helena journalists, the Lee State Bureau worked alongside a robust Associated Press Bureau, led by veterans John Kuglin and Bob Anez, who set a blistering pace for the rest of us and kept tabs on the state’s far-flung media. I’m not a big believer in golden ages, but surely this was one for Montana’s newspapers. The field then was nearly 90 papers strong, comprising 11 dailies and dozens of small-town weeklies where news is an intimate and crucial ingredient in the glue that binds such communities together.
Having started there, I have a soft spot for community papers. Years later,
I made my devotion to them official by marrying the fast-typing daughter of the publisher, editor and chief ad salesman of the Harlowton Times-Clarion, which still arrives each week at our Missoula home. Scanning through the paper one day, I made a flippant crack about it being a quiet week in Wheatland County, only to be told curtly by my wife that I didn’t know how to read it. She patiently explained that you could only follow small-town drama by connecting dots of news scattered throughout the paper. You had to read it all: the police log, the marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the legal ads, the sports scores, school board minutes and especially the reports of the paper’s social correspondents, who chronicled family reunions, visitors, status updates on children and former residents, and birthdays—down to blue icing on the cake. It also helped if you were related to half the town and babysat the rest.
Later, from my perch as a professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, I dove into the state’s newspaper history, built on the bones of scores of long-dead papers. Some existed briefly in towns that have faded from today’s maps. The earliest were often scrappy, full of partisan vitriol and boosterism. By 1918, at the height of the homestead boom, roughly 200 newspapers served Montana’s tiny population. Today, their names read like found poetry: the Light of the Valley, the Voice of the Range, the Age, the Silverite, Reveille, Liberator, Fair Play, Lookout, Outlook, Hornet, Bee, Post, Rustler and Miner. My favorites for sheer lyricism are Lewistown’s News-Argus, which still boasts that it covers central Montana “like the stars,” and the Vociferator, a short-lived Billings sheet whose slogan also served as its epitaph: “We did not come to Montana for our health.”
By then, the Big Money had rolled in, building railroads, mines, smelters, dams, sawmills and a collection of exceptional daily newspapers that brought the world to Montana while burnishing the reputations of their owners: Copper Kings Marcus Daly, William Andrews Clark and F. Augustus Heinze. Their hired-gun editors wielded their papers like battleships, blasting their rivals and cajoling their readers during the wildly corrupt fights for U.S. Senate seats and a permanent site for the young state’s capital. By 1904, newsboys covering Butte hawked four competing dailies and a changing cast of weeklies, each loyal to its faction or political cause.
Over the next three decades, industrial consolidation brought most of Montana’s significant dailies under the decades-long control of what would become the Anaconda Company. It finally sold the lot in 1959 to a group of loosely affiliated Midwestern publishers who would create Lee Enterprises, then a small newspaper chain, but today one of the nation’s leading providers of news. With that, all the state’s dailies were back in the hands of publishers whose main business was publishing newspapers. Lee’s newspapers served the most significant chunk of the subscribers, followed by the Great Falls Tribune and scores of smaller dailies and weeklies, survivors of their own boom and bust cycles.
At least, that’s how I found it by the 1990s, as the Internet was cresting, bringing waves of unthinkable changes to media. Today, I read, watch and listen to nearly all my news online, subscribing to my local digital “paper” along with national news sites and podcasts. I donate to public media and nonprofit news organizations, skim a couple of social media feeds, thumb through texts and emails, and still sift through an array of magazines in the mail. It’s overwhelming, more than anyone can consume. Having the world’s information at your fingertips is mind-blowing, but it also comes with exhausting amounts of outrage and disinformation.
For many, it’s bewildering. A few years back, I started talking to groups around the state about what was happening to their news. The questions I get are earnest and thoughtful, but at some point, someone’s exasperation boils over. “I just want one place where I can go to get all the facts,” they say. I share the frustration, having grown up in a time of relatively scarce news offerings, but there’s no going back to the days of Walter Cronkite and “That’s the way it is.” I can’t imagine any journalist today having that many listeners or as much authority.
As for finding all the facts, you can still find some of them on any given day, but pulling together the tiny “t” truth—or knowable truth—of events is more complicated. Media literacy today demands a curious and open mind tinged with the skepticism necessary to fend off squadrons of misinformation. It requires a healthy and varied diet of verified news and the mental bandwidth to accommodate a certain amount of uncertainty. News is nothing if not a process of discovery.
The fragmentation and economic upheaval that followed the digital revolution have forever changed how news is delivered, altering the business model that supported it for so long. The change is reflected most dramatically in the nation’s newspapers, 2,500 of which have closed since 2005, creating “news deserts” and shrunken staffs in many that remain. The consequences for community and democracy are concerning. “Truth of the matter is, who I elect to the school board affects me much more than who I vote for for president,” news researcher Penelope Muse Abernathy told The New York Times. “That’s why we’ve got to get back to rebuilding local news in these struggling communities.”
Montana has lost only a few small papers over that time, but that doesn’t mean those remaining are without concern. The most imminent crisis for a daily’s survival is in Great Falls, home of the Tribune, owned since 1990 by the Gannett Co., America’s largest newspaper chain. Thirty years ago, dozens of journalists worked for the Trib, and today, that number is down to one stalwart editor and two reporters.
Cascade County, Montana’s fifth largest population, barely merits a notice from Gannett, which focuses now on its most prominent properties as it struggles to staunch the bleeding of advertising revenue, making it little better than the hedge funds nipping at papers’ heels. You can argue about economic reality, but it’s a lousy way to treat a community that has supported the Trib for more than a century.
To some degree, the challenges facing Gannett face most of the investor-owned media properties in Montana, many of which are scrambling for what’s left over after the tech giants siphon away most of the digital advertising dollars. But the pressures are uneven, and the survival of news organizations hinges on how much debt they carry and their ability to innovate, form partnerships and rethink their business models.
For all its struggles, news remains a primal human need. So it won’t surprise you that I’m bullish on journalism. Its forms will change, but the function is enduring. I see new players on the Montana scene and a renewed spirit of collaboration, so I’m hopeful. For instance, coverage of state government is as good or better than ever, thanks in part to the efforts of the digital- only Montana Free Press and The Daily Montanan, two nonprofits that helped fill the gap left by The Associated Press’ dwindled presence. Meanwhile, the Lee papers have revamped their state coverage, establishing a strong Montana State News Bureau, though a new round of layoffs back at Lee’s local newspapers raises fresh concerns for local coverage.
Regarding state news, I also see a greater willingness among media organizations to share and welcome credible contributors like the nonprofit Kaiser Health News. Montana’s public media—especially public radio—remains a strong and innovative player in the daily news. And with help from the Montana Newspaper Association, Kaiser, and The Greater Montana Foundation, I’m proud to say a trio of journalism students under the editorship of veteran journalist Courtney Cowgill is providing valuable legislative coverage to a statewide network of dozens of weekly newspapers and radio stations.
I’m encouraged too by the “hyperlocal” reporting of Jenn Rowell, do-it-all editor of The Electric, who is providing news her Great Falls subscribers can’t find elsewhere. Similar efforts by Martin Kidston’s Missoula Current and others in smaller media-poor communities are filling crucial gaps, often partnering with social media and local civic authorities struggling to get basic information to the residents they serve.
It’s not always sexy stuff, but it’s crucial to providing readers with what Cowgill calls “newstrition.” Nobody in Montana’s news media understands that better than the state’s venerable weeklies, the best of which describe what they do as a lifestyle built around an ethic of service—not chasing clicks.
Fact-based public service journalism, not angst-ridden diatribes, is what communities need to last long term. The boneyards of Montana journalism are filled with partisan publications that never got that message.
Dennis Swibold is a professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism and a former editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the twice-weekly Sidney Herald. He is the author of Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press, 1889-1959.