Missoulian editor Gwen Florio resigned from the paper recently, in the wake of the editorial board's controversial endorsement of PSC candidate Jennifer Fielder — an endorsement the paper retracted the very next day. Florio's journalism career spans over 40 years working for large and small newspapers, including covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She's also the author of seven novels. She spoke this week with MTPR's Sally Mauk.
Sally Mauk Gwen, you had nothing to do with the paper's initial endorsement of Jennifer Fielder, but tell us why you felt the need to resign over that endorsement.
Gwen Florio You know, as you noted, I had stepped aside because I had gone back to reporting to fill in for our political reporter who was on medical leave. It would have been a complete conflict of interest for me to weigh in on an endorsement when I was also reporting on the political races. However, I'm still editor at the newspaper, and I just felt that that endorsement was so out of line that it seemed like there was nothing to do but step down.
Sally Mauk Tell us a little more about why you felt it was so out of line, the endorsement.
Gwen Florio You know, we've covered Jennifer Fielder over the years with some of the things she's been involved with. She, most notably I think, the one people are familiar with, spoke at a forum where Ammon Bundy also spoke. You know, the Bundys are the folks who were involved in the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. She also spoke at the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, and they're a group that really tries to undercut tribal sovereignty. She favors transferring public lands to state control. Just a lot of things that are anathema to a lot of the people, I think, in Montana and certainly to our readers who made their displeasure known.
Sally Mauk Well, the paper retracted the endorsement. Did you consider retracting your resignation in the wake of that?
Gwen Florio No, I had already — and this had not been announced yet. — but I had talked with my supervisors; I was planning to retire anyway after the election. I really wanted one more election night, especially this election, which I think is one of the most consequential in my lifetime. However, at that point, it just seemed like best to stay away. I was very happy that that paper retracted its endorsement, though.
One more thing I wanted to say about the endorsement: Monica Tranel was so clearly qualified, and I think that also played in. You had a candidate with many, many years of experience in this particular area.
Sally Mauk I think readers might still be a little confused about the retraction in that the reasons given for the retraction existed at the same time that the paper endorsed Jennifer Fielder. They're kind of wondering what led to the retraction outside of the pressure the paper obviously got to do that.
Gwen Florio You know, I think it was a matter of reconsidering. My sense, without knowing what happened, is that beyond the candidate interviews — and again, I did not sit in on those because I wasn't taking part in the endorsement process — I don't know that enough research was done into both candidates' backgrounds. Again, that research, that evidence, was available in the reporting the Missoulian had done over the years. One thing I said to someone was that had we not been so short staffed, this probably never would have happened. Everybody is so busy kind of doing double and triple the work they used to do, that everybody's moving at warp speed all the time.
Sally Mauk Well, as you mentioned, some readers were so incensed over the Fielder endorsement they canceled their subscriptions. And that's certainly one way to protest, Gwen. But I'm not sure it's the best way because it ends up putting the paper and its staff — who had nothing to do with the endorsement — in jeopardy. What are your thoughts about that?
Gwen Florio I absolutely agree with that. I get the impulse to do that. It certainly makes a statement, but it really hurts the paper. And you have a staff at the Missoulian who is just, they are top notch. They work so hard and they do so well under increasingly trying circumstances. And the last thing they need is more support taken away.
Sally Mauk And there are other ways to protest, certainly, without canceling a subscription.
These are perilous times for newspapers anyway. According to the Pew Research Center, American newspapers have laid off half their newsroom staff just in the last 12 years. So when your industry — It's in real peril, as you mentioned earlier — the Missoulian has cut its staff a lot in recent years and it's really putting the whole industry in jeopardy.
Gwen Florio Yeah, the cuts have been unbelievable. I came to the Missoulian in 2007, stepped away for three years in 2013, and I came back to a staff that was about half what it was when I first came. Just in the last year alone, we've lost another 20 percent of the staff that remain. And it's just brutal. It's really hard to cover the stories we should be covering and serve as a community watchdog under those circumstances. I think under these very difficult circumstances, the Missoulian is doing extraordinarily well. But we simply can't cover the stories we used to, and that's really painful.
Sally Mauk I think a lot of people don't realize what it would be like not to have a local newspaper. I mean, people say, oh, well, there are other news outlets that you can go to, but the newspapers play a specific, integral role in being a local community watchdog. Talk a little bit about what you think that community loses if they lose their daily newspaper.
Gwen Florio Yeah, I think it's just horrible. So, the Missoulian, even in its reduced state right now, still has the largest news staff of any organization in Western Montana. We are still at almost every city council meeting, school board meeting, Board of Regents meetings, things people are not going to take the time themselves to go do. People have busy lives. And that's why we're there, to record what happened, to put what happened into context, to tell people how actions that are taken by these various institutions are going to affect their daily lives. It is integral to democracy. I just can't stress that enough. And that's what I think is the main danger, is you don't have the Missoulian reporters, other journalists, being your eyes and ears in the community.
Sally Mauk Well, I think a huge part of the erosion of trust in journalism that is so pervasive now is this phrase 'fake news.' I don't think there's some phrase I hate more anymore than that phrase. How do we combat that, Gwen, and gain that trust back?
Gwen Florio I think 'traditional journalism,' I'm putting, like, air quotes around 'traditional' when I speak. But the journalism we most ... often think of: the newspaper, public radio, the local TV stations, really have to do a better job of informing people why we do what we do, how we do what we do. What is very unnerving to me, there is a New York Times story that came out yesterday building on reporting by Columbia Journalism School about the proliferation of these 'fake news' sites, these sites that look like local news sites but are actually kind of canned journalism that is frequently funded primarily by right wing groups. And they they push a very specific agenda. And if you are not an informed consumer of news, you could look at that — the sites look very much like a traditional news site — you might think that that person has actually sat in the Missoula City Council meeting, when actually they've not. They could be hundreds of miles away, and again, almost writing off a script. It was really, really disturbing to read that story.
Sally Mauk You mentioned earlier that you wanted to do one more election night. You will be missing this election for the first time in a long time. What are you planning to do election night and how do you think that's going to be?
Gwen Florio Oh, I think it's going to be awful. I'm going to eat pizza, as we do in the newsroom. I keep telling people the advantage is that I get to have a beer with my pizza. But I can tell you that I will have the television on, the radio on, I'll have my laptop open and I'll have my phone going looking at Twitter. So I will be just a complete maniac that night and unable to really contribute in any way. But at least I'll be watching.
Sally Mauk Well, I've been speaking with journalist and author Gwen Florio. And Gwen, thank you so much. Congratulations on a great career. And I look forward to your new novel.
Gwen Florio Thanks a lot, Sally. I have a deadline in about a month, so that'll be cranking.