Big Sky's Big Player

By Shepard, Alicia C. | American Journalism Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Big Sky's Big Player


Shepard, Alicia C., American Journalism Review


Lee Enterprises owns nearly half of Montana's dailies (with 65 percent oft he state's circulation), not to mention weeklies, shoppers and a state magazine. Does domination make a difference?

THE RAVALLI REPUBLIC IN HAMILTON, Montana, is one of the state's smallest dailies, with a circulation of 5,200. Dorinda Troutman worked there for 18 years. Ruth Thorning was there for a similar stretch and had won a passel of awards for her reporting, including three Silver Gavel Awards from the Montana Bar Association, before becoming the paper's managing editor.

On the morning of May 10, Troutman, who headed the classified department, found a message from the publisher on her desk. "If you'd like to know about your future, come to a meeting in the mailroom at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow," it read.

The next morning, Troutman, Thorning and about 30 other employees gathered in a low-ceilinged room filled with binding and folding machines to learn they were losing their jobs.

The 110-year-old, Monday-through-Friday paper had a new owner. Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa-based company that already owned four of Montana's 11 dailies, was buying the Republic from Pulitzer Publishing.

When Pulitzer bought the Scripps League newspaper chain in 1996, it acquired the tiny Montana paper among 16 daily papers and 30 nondaily publications. By the time Pulitzer approached Lee, the once-profitable paper had been losing money for a year and a half, Troutman says.

But the Republic was attractive to Lee. For one thing, it's in Ravalli County, the state's fastestgrowing area. And its historic Main Street office is only a little more than an hour from Missoula, where Lee owns the state's third-largest newspaper, the Missoulian, circulation 32,378. "This is a good market for Lee," says David Fuselier, the Missoulian's publisher, who was involved in the purchase.

Between the announcement and May 21, all Republic employees were invited to interview for jobs at the paper. Only eight out of 23 full-timers and 23 part-timers were hired.

Troutman and Thorning weren't among the lucky eight. Thorning, who had been the Republic's managing editor for $11.81 an hour, says she was told the chemistry wasn't right for her to remain. "I loved being a reporter and was willing to go back to being one," she says. "I feel like I've lost two decades of my life and was made to feel like I'm worthless."

LEE ENTERPRISES HAS BEEN ON something of a buying spree in Montana and elsewhere in the West in the last few years.

In January, Lee bought two Montana weeklies, the 7,000-circulation Hungry Horse News newspaper ever to win a Pulitzer Prize) and the 4,000-circulation Whitefish Pilot, as well as a shopper about two hours north of Missoula near Flathead Lake. In April 1997, the company bought another weekly, the Big Fork Eagle, paid circulation 2,800. (That same year, Lee also bought eight newspapers in Oregon from the Walt Disney Co. for about $185 million. Included in the deal were shopper and specialty publications in eight markets in Oregon, Utah, Nevada and Washington.)

While Lee owns nearly half of the daily newspapers with 65 percent of the circulation in the vast, lightly populated Big Sky state, company officials say the goal is not dominating Montana's news coverage but maximizing moneymaking opportunities. For example, Lee publishes a western Montana visitor's guide. "Now we have the ability to do regionwide publications," Fuselier says. "There's no real cash flow from the little weekly papers. They're not big profit generators. What they offer us is the opportunity to do a lot of new stuff because of the assets--reporters, presses, ad sales. Now we have ad sales people in Flathead and Hamilton. That's the advantage of expanding your presence."

Since Lee also owns shoppers in Deer Lodge, Bozeman and Great Falls, he continues. "that gives us the ability to launch new products. …

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