The Billings Outpost

Declining news business takes toll on Gazette

The announcement of Steve Prosinski’s resignation as editor of The Billings Gazette last week had all the earmarks of something nefarious going on.

Plans to spend more time with family? Check.

Obligatory praise from Publisher Mike Gulledge? Check.

Summary of awards won and homage to “the best team of journalists in the region”? Check.

Moreover, it seemed an odd time to quit. Mr. Prosinski is just 57 with kids in the military and in college. Hanging on a few more years to retirement would appear to be the pragmatic move, and he seems to be a pragmatic man.

If something nefarious was going on, you weren’t likely to read it in the Gazette. The Gazette doesn’t do in-depth reporting about what goes on in the depths of the Gazette.

You won’t read anything nefarious here either, at least not this week. As best I have been able to suss out, Mr. Prosinski really had just had enough. Whether that means enough of the daily journalism grind, or enough of the relentless decline in the newspaper business, or just enough of Lee Enterprises, is hard to tell. Likely, it is some combination of the above.

Mr. Prosinski arrived at The Gazette after I left, so I do not know him well. Newspaper editors constitute a small club in any community, so exclusive that they don’t even meet with each other.

But Mr. Prosinski seems to be a decent man, and he was polite and generous in my few encounters with him. Once, when we were touring construction of Dehler Park, he was interrupted by a phone call from the office telling him to pick up plastic forks to go with a cake that was being served for a departing staff member. That, he told me, is the sort of heavy administrative responsibility that comes with being a daily newspaper editor.

Mr. Prosinski also is liked and respected by people at The Gazette whose opinions I value. He kept, by all accounts, long hours, arriving early, staying late and coming in on weekends.

It may be hard to connect those hours with what actually showed up in the paper, but I spent enough time as a daily newspaper editor myself to know how difficult it can be to see results from anything you do. I used to make lists of what I had done during the day just to assure myself that I had done something.

Those long hours must have taken a toll, but the precipitous decline of the daily newspaper business, which was once about as close to printing money as any business could be, also appears to have been a factor.

Newspapers across the country have shut their doors, cut back their staffs, reduced publication days and paper sizes and upgraded their websites in a so far futile attempt to stop the decline. The latest jaw-dropping news was word last week that the Chicago Sun-Times had laid off its entire photography staff – 28 full-time staffers, including a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Sun-Times hopes to get by with freelance photos, online videos and shots taken by reporters as they go about gathering the news. It was an astonishing, desperate move, akin to a wartime general announcing that he will stem battlefield casualties by reducing the number of troops in the field.

The Gazette is a fairly small media fish, but Montana is a very small pond, and the daily here would appear to be insulated from national trends. But it isn’t invulnerable, in part because of the billion-dollar debt the company took on when it bought the Pulitzer company in 2005.

That pushed the company into bankruptcy in 2011. It emerged in relatively good shape a few months later and got a boost when Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. recently refinanced $94 million of Lee’s debt, reducing the interest rate and increasing Mr. Buffett’s sizable stake in the newspaper business.

But the screws are still tight. The latest departure at The Gazette was Mary Pickett, a fine reporter and writer who covered, among other things, the sprawling college beat before accepting a buyout last week.

Layoff at Montana papers also have come as Lee has outsourced ad production to companies operating in India and the Philippines. Nor is The Gazette the only one of Lee’s Montana papers short an editor. The Montana Standard has been advertising to replace Gerry O’Brien, a former region editor at The Gazette who left the Standard to take an Oregon newspaper job in January. That followed a dubious attempt to save money by having him edit both the Butte and Helena papers.

Lee papers have responded to hard times by beefing up their online presence and switching to a paid model after a certain number of page views each month. I don’t know how that is working out, but I do know that it has drastically limited my visits to the Gazette website. All those nasty, anonymous online comments go unread by me.

But I still subscribe to the print edition and probably will continue to do so until one of us ceases to exist. Like Mr. Prosinski, I have a lot of investment, psychic and otherwise, in newsprint. I wish him, and what’s left of his business, well.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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