More Analysis on Newpaper Woes

by jhwygirl

A while back, I asked: How would you improve your local paper?

Today, former gubernatoral candidate and every liberal blogger’s favorite, Pogie, of Intelligent Discontent, puts forth a nicely detailed analysis of the general problems, as he sees it, with newspapers. He goes further and talks about what he sees in Helena with the Independent Record.

He hits on the lack of detail in local news. In our previous post here, the lack of local news was generally agreed upon. Pogie’s post goes one step further, citing the lack of detailed analysis. Perhaps a valid statement – which may be why us new junkies here pointed to the lack of local news as one of the Missoulian’s problems. Maybe it isn’t so much the lack of local news, but the lack of meat-and-potatoes to the local news. Issues don’t die after the vote – and beyond that – why are we only hearing about stuff within days of hearing. Isn’t the paper publishing legal notices? Don’t the get the heads-up weeks (if not months) ahead of time? A lot of stuff is moving through the process for a good deal of time.

In the end, all of us – even you readers, I dare say – love reading, love newspapers. We want survival, and change needs to be part of it.

A worthy and important conversation to have. Go join in.


  1. goof houlihan

    Television and internet streaming of significant meetings, legislatures and county commissions and city councils, and planning boards of both, should press newspapers to cover the subjects behind the discussions, but don’t.

    Instead of how reappraisal affects the county in which you live, you get the AP story of the Governor’s minion promising that no one’s tax bill will go up due to reappraisal…(whispering…buried…”in general”). What does that mean? Nobody in the newspaper industry is gonna tell.

  2. If I wasn’t just thinking that, goof – what we get in the newspapers I got from watching the thing on MCAT. Now, granted most people aren’t attending or watching the meeting on MCAT, but still. No reason for me, the news addict and somewhat well-informed citizen, to read the paper to find out what happened.

    A Montana Pulitizer to whichever paper could figure out what the DOR does in terms of determining taxes. The law – the law – says it should be the market value, but I defy anyone to find that property is taxed at what property is selling for in the ‘hood. And yes – all we got we got out of the tax story was PRJ (Press Release Journalism), instead of someone trying to figure out what it meant.

    Maybe one of ’em will attempt it, now that they should be done with the whole appraisal process.

  3. goof houlihan

    and PS, I thought it could be, and wish it could be, but New West hasn’t been the answer. It became a place where reporter wannabes could blog their opinions, grind their political agendas, and not really worry about being journalists or investigators. I really like the publisher, but the business model didn’t seem to allow for the kind of reportage that’s needed. The Bend/Boulder/Bozeman/Missoula/Boise etc similarities, made for useful cross pollination. The upper Idaho stuff, and I forget the woman reporter there who was so good, was epic. It’s been a good try by Jonathon, and the latest discussions on Yellowstone club have been incredible.

  4. Jim Lang

    The Missoulian costs 50 cents. (last time I bought it… for all I know, it’s more now) For that 50 cents, the only content not available elsewhere is 2-3 local news articles – 2 of which are usually fluff, and all of which are usually available online for free.

    So, somebody tell me why I should pay that 50 cents?

    Hey, I love reading the paper in the morning…. when I lived in California, I used to get the SF Chronicle every morning… it would take me 30 minutes to read the whole thing. The Missoulian takes about 5 minutes…. it’s just not worth it.

  5. JC

    “So, somebody tell me why I should pay that 50 cents?”

    To subsidize the cost of delivering the ads to you…

    I hate to say it, but the more I think about this, the more I believe that the advertising industry will be viewed historically as the downfall of the print newspaper industry.

    What once was a minor contributor to the cost of producing and delivering a newspaper, advertising has completely co-opted the business model of print as news source. To the point where the major business of newspapers is advertising, both in income and in content.

    Daily news rag print sources need to radically reinvent their industry, or they will succumb to being rendered nothing more than a wrapper for slick glossy ad inserts, and a maze of “continued on page xyz” lifestyle articles designed to maximize placement and views of inline advertisements.

    As I say with the “ala carte” tv movement, give me what I want (news and relevant content), and I will reward you handsomely for it, by paying accordingly.

    As to the local news we get here in Montana, it’s my opinion that our daily’s severely lack editorial guidance. Why Keila Szpaller of the Missoulian has been allowed to focus on the controversy instead of the issue is beyond me. I can only attribute it to the lack of editorial oversight.

    The lack of beat reporter’s ability to get to the meat of an issue, and instead getting caught up in the controversy negates the role of the reporter: to inform us so that controversy derived from an uneducated or misinformed public is minimized.

    An editor should be able to look through the pablum we are being served and redline the trivial “he said she said” nonsense we get, and send the cub back out on the street, or into the books to get to the root of the issues that confront us in our communities and across the state.

  6. Good stuff.

    I do hate to single any one reporter out, though – after all, the Missoulian has a number of them, and she’s not the boss. Frankly, I’d rather see her write more (in depth, more analysis). My thought would be that we all want more local coverage, so she’s easy pickings. Her stuff is the stuff we’re going to every day.

    I mean – take the county coverage. Is there any? Really? I know I see the PRJ (Press Release Journalism) stuff – but the Board of County Commissioners has a meeting every week. Every week they’ve got subdivisions and family exemptions and they’re spending money. We hear nada about that.

    Last week was a controversial floodplain variance. It was so controversial that our new county commissioner Michele Landquist testified. What was it all about? Why grant a variance at all? With all the controversy surrounding floodplain and streamside setbacks in the region, why in world didn’t we hear about that? And that was controversy.

    I’m more inclined to rest some blame on the editor. ‘Send them back out on the street,’ seem righteous because Jim is right – 5 minutes is way too short for a 75 cent paper.

  7. klemz

    I said this the last time you levied this complaint, JC. Keila is not a cub — in fact, I think she teaches at the j-school. If you wonder why she approaches meetings the way she does why not ask her, insted of assuming motives?

  8. JC

    I never said Keila was a cub.

    What I said was that her local coverage tended to focus more on the controversies than the issues. And all that kind of local reporting does is to acerbate controversies. What we need is in-depth reporting on local issues.

    And over the years I have found that when I and others have gone to the Missoulian to talk about their coverage, it is met with deaf ears. And when talking to reporters, we have been told their hands are tied. I always figured it was the constituencies within which I have worked, that the Missoulian had a dear ear.

    My statements about beat reporters, cubs and editors were generic, and can be applied to the trend in papers across the state.

  9. petetalbot

    I think Keila has done a credible job on the city beat and if you go over to RedTape, ( you’ll see she wants to do more and is asking for input.

    What Keila needs is about two more reporters to cover all the stuff she’s supposed to report on. That’s unlikely to happen, though, as newspapers struggle for their very survival.

  10. Lacey S.

    I think the comments about individual journalists assume too much. Talking about Keila is innappropriate. She’s not the one who has the final say on what gets printed. Her editors are to blame.

    I think there is some ignorance to that. Editors never have their names on a story, so we hold the reporter responsible. That’s a problem for us as readers. And the publishers are a whole other issue.

    I know many former writers and a couple current ones at the Missoulian and at the Indy. I know the Indy has had alot of problems with their publisher not allowing certain types of stories to go to print. It’s a subtle form of censorship, and the writers I know who have worked there, which is only three, all say Matt Gibson is party to most of the editorial meetings and functions as an editor in controlling what stories can and can’t run. He won’t allow any stories that make the paper look pro-gay. After they ran a whole gay issue, he became very sensitive about people thinking he was gay, and that the paper catered to that population. Isn’t the Indy supposed to be a voice for them? A friend of mine who works for a LGBT organization says she has to work through the editor and under the publisher’s nose just to get even small stories written on LGBT issues. I feel like that should not be the case.

    This is just one example. Growth and construction is a whole other can of worms where the publishers will try to influence the editors not to run stories that are critical of growth or raise issues about the city budget that deal with touchy construction issues. It threatens their advertising revenue. It would take too long to explain all this, but I think talking about reporters as if they have the final say in what gets printed is a mistake. It is unfair to Keila and any other writers to not acknowledge this fact.

  11. Lizard

    I hate to say it, but the more I think about this, the more I believe that the advertising industry will be viewed historically as the downfall of the print newspaper industry.

    yes. and media conglomeration sure doesn’t help. here is a taste of an independent media source i enjoy, for anyone who cares.

  12. ladybug

    No Gaza? No Gaza? No Gaza? Change? Hope? …..skiing.

  13. Hey, how ’bout them Steelers?

  14. Lizard

    as someone pointed out, the potential strength of the Missoulian is its ability to cover local issues.

    I won’t name any names, but last spring my wife and I were trying to get rid of some concert tickets, and we were interviewed by a reporter from the Missoulian. When I read the blurb the following day, the reporter, who never inquired as to our marital status, referred to my wife as my girlfriend.

    He/She could have looked at my ring finger, or asked whether or not we were married, or simply not printed that detail if he/she wasn’t sure. Petty? maybe, but details count, and the misreporting of that small detail mattered to me.

    Ladybug: here’s some Gaza for ya.

  15. goof houlihan

    “Isn’t the Indy supposed to be a voice for them?”

    Would “The Independent” or “the Missoulian” be more “independent”? I’d prefer my news straight without the moral tag chaser and the editorializing. The latter two…are what the editorial page….and blogs…are for.

    Fewer editors and a few more reporters, or better paid reporters might be part of the answer. Bottom line, though, is that reporters have a tough life and make diddly in these small markets. Every time a good one comes along, they get hired elsewhere.

  16. Keila

    A “credible” job? Probably just a small typo. “INcredible.” :)

  17. Lizard

    speaking of editorializing, I think the shift in tone of the indy’s “etc.” column is obnoxious.

    but I do very much appreciate Ochenski and his ability to remain critical of Obama.

  18. Jim Lang wrote: “the only content not available elsewhere is 2-3 local news articles…”

    Just for the record, anyone who thinks there are only 2 or 3 local news stories in the daily Missoulian simply isn’t reading the daily Missoulian. Maybe every once in awhile on a Monday that’s the case. But most days you’ll see a lot more than that. Maybe that’s not enough for you still, but it’s insulting to those of us who do the work to see exaggerated underestimations like that.

    I truly am glad to see thoughtful and informed conversation about the paper, but that kind of statement just makes you sound like you’re not paying attention in the first place. That’s fine I suppose, if that’s where you’re at, but it seems ill-advised to go lofting analysis about what’s in the paper if you’re not looking at it.

    As to the role of advertising in the paper, I think most people agree that it would be ideal if advertising weren’t necessary to keep papers (or television news programs, or newsweeklies, or online news services) running. But until anyone here is willing to pay what a newspaper would cost to deliver without ads — even if it weren’t a for-profit enterprise — it’s kind of a dead-end conversation I’m afraid.

    I don’t speak as an official voice of the paper, but I’m pretty sure everybody at the Missoulian would love to be able to deliver more local news. We know that’s the model that makes sense, and if you look at what’s in the paper and online you surely must realize that we’re not focusing our own reporting efforts on non-local stories. The amount of local coverage in the paper is a direct reflection of the number of local reporters we have. I can tell you from extensive interaction with reporters from papers of all sizes from around the country that the Missoulian’s expectations in terms of per-reporter copy production are as high as any paper out there. Most reporters I talk to are shocked when they hear what we’re supposed to produce. Some don’t believe me when I tell them.

    It’s great to hear thoughts on what we should focus on, truly. But when somebody says we’re simply not producing stories…well, that gets my blood boiling, to be honest. I work my ass off. All of us do.

  19. Pronghorn

    I’ve resisted commenting until now, but as a newspaper junkie who subscribed to the Missoulian as soon as we moved here some nine years ago, I have to agree with the above (Joe N.) post. This is not to say that I think the Missoulian is without its faults, mind you, but it’s a paper I appreciate pulling out of the delivery box every morning and on the rare occasion that our delivery guy doesn’t get here, I miss it. If it takes you only five minutes to read it, then maybe you should expand your interests to more than just the comics page.

    When I taught high school journalism in another state some years ago, I had a Chinese exchange student who came to me truly puzzled about the amount of advertising in American newspapers. What a revealing comment, I thought, from a girl who grew up with nothing but state- produced “news.” A free press isn’t free of cost.

  20. JC

    Couple of replies.

    Lacie S. I know that writers don’t have the final say. Your editors always do. But part of the job of being a good reporter is justifying and selling your stories and the approach you take to your editors.

    Goof, a few less editors is not what the Missoulian needs. Editors are not necessarily responsible for Opinion Page pieces. Editors are an essential part of any writer’s work flow in the publishing industry. Good ones make for good reading. Poor ones make for joke sheets put up on the wall at J-Schools. An editor can tank a good writer or bless an average one.

    Joe. I know that you and I may not agree on the advertising issue. The way I look at it is that newspapers have two many income streams: advertising and circulation. If you look back historically, I believe that the percent of circulation:advertising revenue was higher.

    Now I may be wrong, as I have no hard facts to back me up, as Lee and other newspapers are loathe to make these sorts of details available to the pubic. But I believe that over time, the ratio of income for newspapers has swung towards advertising.

    I’m not trying to say that advertising is a black or white issue: all ad supported (iike the Indy) or no ad supported. I just happen to think that there is a balance to be struck that is in the best interests of the paper and the public.

    And Pronghorn, as I look over the Missoulian everyday, I have read most of the national/international news, the business and commentary, and more online the day before. I realize that this isn’t the Missoulian’s problem, as I aggressively seek news. And there are many in the community that still get that news in print.

    But it is the local/state news and sports that really drive my desire to continue reading the local papers. And a successful daily model is going to have to figure out how to survive in these conditions.

  21. Matthew Koehler

    I know I’m getting into this thread late, and I don’t have anything to add right now on how to make our local newspapers better, but I’ve offered suggestions in the past. And over the past dozen years or so I’ve had a front row seat to witness how environmental and public lands issues are covered by the local daily newspaper (ie What’s covered, what’s not, how it’s covered, etc).

    Suffice to say, environmental/public lands reporting and editorializing in our daily paper has, in general, lacked much in the way of context and been marginal at best and at worst has just served to prop up governmental officials and industry officials as the “experts” while relegating everyone else to second-class status.

    I will say it has been somewhat interesting for Missoula County to get a taste of how former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey operates. And finally our local daily newspaper seems to understand this as the coverage of Rey’s backdoor dealings with Plum Creek, as well as Rey’s refusal to provide public documents through FOIA, has seen considerable coverage.

    But Rey has been engaged in these types of backdoor shenanigans during his entire tenure as the Bush Administration’s head of the Forest Service. See for just a taste of what the Bush/Rey Forest Service was up to earlier during Bush’s presidency and check this out for more info on Rey’s background:

    Unfortunately our local daily paper either ignored these other efforts on Rey’s part or even went along and supported the Bush/Rey anti-environmental agenda. I mean, at this point in Bush’s presidency how many people think his environmental or public lands policies were solid? I believe this was a considerable failing on the part of our local daily newspaper as they failed to keep their readership properly informed on important environmental and public lands issues and they all but ignored people and organizations who were repeatedly trying to hold the Bush Administration accountable.

    My next comments might seem a bit nit-picky to some, but information matters, so here it goes.

    Today, the Missoulian has an article about bark beetles from their former environmental reporter. In the article, the reporter states, “Mountain pine beetles have forever been eating their way through forests, but not in the numbers seen today.”

    Funny thing is, just last week (on Christmas) the same author wrote a different article on bark beetles (which also appeared in the Missoulian), which included this statement from a Forest Service expert:

    “While the current infestation will certainly change forests across Montana, Greg DeNitto [group leader of the Forest Service’s Northern Region’s forest health protection team], said it’s not something that hasn’t happened before. ‘We’ve seen similar levels of infestation in the 1970s and ‘80s and also back in the ‘20s and ‘30s,’ Denitto said. ‘It’s not something that’s unprecedented.’”

    Does the reporter not read and comprehend his own articles? How can a week ago the situation be “similar to past infestations” and “not unprecedented”, yet today the beetle numbers are higher than ever? For those of us who pay attention to the way certain issues are tackled by our local daily paper this is the type of stuff we find frustrating. Like I said, information is important…accurate information even more so. I’m sorry, but my experience with our daily newspaper over the past decade tells me that not everyone writing for them shares this believe or desire.


    For a more comprehensive look at the beetle issue check out a report titled, “Recent Forest Insect Outbreaks and Fire Risk in Colorado Forests: A Brief Synthesis of Relevant Research.”

    It’s available at:

    The report, from some of the leading independent researchers on the topic, answers many common questions such as:

    Do outbreaks of mountain pine beetles and other forest insects increase the risk of severe wildfires? Does a large insect outbreak constitute an emergency? Are forests with large amounts of insects and dead trees unhealthy?

    Some of the answers may surprise people.

  1. 1 Let it snow and more « Missoula Red Tape

    […] and I took a break from Red Tape and cooked and skied. The conversation again is turning to local news coverage, and Highway Girl is asking for more in-depth analysis. (From me? Really? Did you have to […]

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