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Billings Gazette Newsroom Layoffs Mirror Nationwide Trend

Billings Gazette mast head
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Billings Gazette recently announced a reduction in its print pages, along with a handful of layoffs.

The Billings Gazette laid off three people from their newsroom earlier this month. The latest string of cutbacks in Billings mirror widespread newsroom layoffs in Montana and across the nation.

The Billings Gazette gave former copy editor Steven Funk one week notice before he was laid off.

"Mine’s an empty desk, there’s another empty desk at sports," Funk said. "And if you’ve looked at the paper recently it’s like halved in size recently, have you noticed that? So Local got bumped into mixed in with Nation and, I don’t know, it’s a huge reduction."

The empty desk at sports belonged to Joe Kusek, a reporter covering high school sports and rodeo. Photography intern Ryan Berry was also laid off. Kusek started work at the Gazette in 1987 while Berry had only been working for 2 months. Funk started in June.

"One of my first question was why did they hire me? You know? Why did you hire somebody for a full time position in the summer if you thought this could happen?" he said.

At the same time the Gazette announced the layoffs, the paper also cut 50 pages a week, which Funk said shocked him.

"If it were my paper I would want to focus more on local content," Funk said. "I would want to cut out some Nation and World because we live in a society where most people are getting that through their smartphones anyways. The news that’s really hard for them to get is local reporting, local investigative stories."

An editorial published by the Gazette on November 10 addresses changes to the print version of the paper. Editor Darrell Ehrlick wrote that shifts in advertising and media more broadly led to a reduction in the amount of the paper’s pages. The editorial did not address staff layoffs.

Ehrlick declined to comment for this story.

Steven Funk said Ehrlick is the last person he would "throw under the bus" for cutbacks at the Gazette.

"Of course people are at fault. There would never be one person at fault," Funk said.

The Casper News Guild, a journalism union based in Wyoming, placed blame for the cutbacks on executive leadership at Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers nationwide, including the Billings Gazette and Casper Star Tribune. In a statement released November 12 the guild says Lee executives should look at cutting their own salaries and bonuses before making cuts in their newspapers to make up for falling revenue.

The joint statement released by the Casper News Guild and two other journalism unions points out Lee Chairman Mary Junck received a $391,000 bonus last year, more than the entire Casper union’s salary.

Seth Klamann covers education and health for the Casper Star-Tribune and is a member of the Casper News Guild.

"I get paid a much lower salary than Mary Junck and then she gets to make the big decisions about how we’re run. I guess I would argue that this isn’t sustainable," Klamman said.

Lee Enterprises owns four of the six newspapers for the largest cities in Montana: the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and The Montana Standard in Butte. Lee executives could not be reached for comment.

The Gazette isn’t the only Lee paper experiencing cutbacks in the state. The Missoulian laid off an employee outside the newsroom last Thursday. Over the past few years most newspapers have experienced reporter losses but also losses in other departments like advertising and layout.

Nationwide the journalism industry has lost more jobs than the coal industry, according to an article published by the Boston Globe in 2018. That same article said about 1,000 journalists get laid off every month.

Dennis Swibold, a journalism professor at the University of Montana, says Montana has experienced newsroom contractions in the past. Swibold found in 1918 there were 200 newspapers across the state, many of which went boom and bust with the towns they published in.

"You also saw contraction every time there was sort of a new big media brought into the picture. You know when radio came in, when television came in you saw a contraction in bigger markets. So yeah, it’s something that’s been happening for a long time I guess and it’s always particular to what's going on in the economy and the environment," Swibold said.

He says different strategies have emerged to adapt to and combat against lower numbers of employees in newsrooms. Collaboration between news organizations has started to become a more common practice.

"It makes everybody sort of stronger right now if they can share and collaborate on stories. That’s kinda been a project or something that’s been happening in a lot of places for a long time. But it’s particularly important right now," he added.

Swibold says another solution involves reaching out to readers for financial support.

"If you care about local news you need to support it. If local news organizations don’t have the wherewithal or the support of their local communities, it's really hard for them to do their jobs the way the community wants. So get out there, engage with local media and support it."

After finding out about cutbacks, Steven Funk said some readers have misconceptions about where newspapers get their funding.

"I just recently found out that some community members think that the newspaper is paid for by their taxes," Funk said. "So clearly we have an issue of people being uninformed about how this works. And if they don’t support their local news, they’re not going to have it."