May 28, 2020 – The news staff of Montana’s largest daily paper, the Billings Gazette, announced the formation of the Montana News Guild on Thursday and asked the publication’s parent company to voluntarily recognize the union.
“The Montana News Guild was founded to protect and nurture the future of The Billings Gazette’s journalists,” members of the organizing committee said in a press release. They are part of a surge in organizing by the NewsGuild-CWA that has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting work-from-home orders. The staff of the Billings Gazette will become the fourth Lee-owned publication to unionize since 2018, following the employees of the Casper (WY) Star-Tribune, the Southern Illinoisan and the Roanoke (VA) Times.
The Billings Gazette began publishing in 1885 and reports on the lives of a diverse citizenry in one of the largest coverage areas in the nation, organizers said. Lee Enterprises owns four other newspapers in Montana: the Missoulian, Helena Independent Record, Montana Standard (Butte) and Ravalli Republic. The Billings Gazette news staff is the second in the state to unionize. In 2018, the 27-year-old Missoula Independent voted to unionize after being purchased by Lee Enterprises. The alternative weekly was summarily closed with workers notified by email and voicemail.
“In the course of that 135 years our newsroom has educated and advocated for its readers while holding those in power accountable to a democratic society,” they wrote in a letter to publisher Dave Worstell.
The Billings Gazette’s has mirrored national trends brought on by the loss of ad revenue to online sites. According to Pew Research, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers has dropped by about half between 2008 and 2019. Gazette staff has declined from 50 employees to 25 over the last 20 years, organizers said.
“Page design has been outsourced to an understaffed out-of-state central facility, the Gazette’s editor and editorial page writer were recently laid off, the in-house accounting and bookkeeping staff was eliminated, and starting in April all staff were required to take two weeks of unpaid furlough,” they wrote. The Gazette’s large building now stands more than half empty.
Meanwhile, executives of Lee Enterprises, which owns the Gazette and four other Montana newspapers, have continued to earn salaries that “far outpace the average of their employees. Before 20% salary reductions were enacted, in 2019 CEO Kevin Mowbray earned more than $1.8 million; the average annual take-home of Montana journalists is $34,250.
“For too long we have seen our corporate out-of-state employer, Lee Enterprises, cut our staff and raise our medical costs while providing few, in any, cost-of-living increases,” the organizing committee said.
“We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.”
Follow them on Twitter @mtnewsguild.