Late Thursday afternoon a news story broke on the Great Falls Tribune website that spread across Twitter like wildfire, and struck some people like a death in the family: Lee Newspapers, which owns five of Montana’s largest papers, is closing its state bureau, and its two reporters, Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, are leaving the company.
Dennison says he and Johnson got the news earlier this week.
“They’re deciding to close the state bureau and do things a little differently with a couple of new reporters," Dennison said. "We were offered a shot at taking those jobs at a somewhat lower pay scale or offered to take a buyout and both of a us chose to do the latter, and that was probably the best thing for us to do."
Dennison says he’ll be looking for another job. Chuck Johnson is retiring. He declined an interview last evening, as he was on his way to event in Missoula. Both reporters confirmed that the state bureau is being closed, but their boss, Billings Gazette editor Darrel Ehrlick, prefers to say the company is re-focusing the way it covers the state.
"We are still keeping the two positions and we are looking at ways that we can cover the state differently," Ehrlick said. "We still intend to cover politics, we still intend to cover the legislature. We will be in Helena and we will still have two state reporters.”
Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison are well respected in the media community, not just for the way the covered politics and government, but also for what they did for other journalists. The state capitol beat has been the launching pad for many careers in journalism. Montana Public Radio News Director Emeritus Sally Mauk debriefed Johnson and Dennison every week for a feature called Capitol Talk. She calls the news of their departure “devastating."
“On a professional level I think it’s a huge loss for the state," Mauk said. "And on a personal level I’ve worked with Chuck and Mike since the 1980s when I first covered the Montana legislature and met them then, and they were mentors to me and hundreds of other journalists who moved through Helena as state capitol reporters."
One of those journalists who were mentored by Johnson and Dennison is Dennis Swibold, who started covering the Montana legislature in 1985, and now teaches journalism at the University of Montana.
“Chuck, and the people at the Associated Press and Mike at the time, sort of realized that I needed to learn and they helped introduce me to people," said Swibold. "They helped introduce me to issues. They made, in some cases, their files available and I was a competitor, and Montana’s statehouse reporting group is pretty small, so anybody who is new and interested and wanted to do it, they were more than generous with us."
Swibold worries that Montana will lose more than just two experienced journalists when Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison leave, it will lose a great deal of its institutional memory. The journalists who replace them, at lower salaries, will likely be far less experienced in covering Montana politics and government. Billings Gazette editor Darrel Ehrlick says a new crew covering the state will allow the papers to take a fresh approach.
“One of the ways that we see us changing and evolving in what we want to cover is not just covering government, not just covering meetings all the time, but covering issues, getting out, talking to more people, more profiles, and trying to broaden our reach beyond just the places where the five Lee Montana newspapers are at," Ehrlick said.
Dennis Swibold agrees that media have to change with the times, especially as the newspaper industry is struggling to survive when many people are getting their news from Twitter and other social media. But traditional reporting, the kind Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison did, still has its place.
“Well I think you have to cover meetings to know what’s happening," Swibold said. "And it may be boring and there’s a lot of time spent by reporters actually digging up stories and actually listening to what people are talking about and how ideas come to be, and that process is important for reporters to follow, not just the end result."
Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison will end their employment with Lee Newspapers one week from today.