It's no secret that the newspaper industry across the country has been facing challenges for the past few years. Falling subscriptions and ad dollars have been attributed to the internet and the current way that many of us consume news and information. Why wait for a morning newspaper when instant info is available 24-7 right on our phones?

The Billings Gazette (a Lee Enterprises company) has not been immune to the changes in the print industry. According to a press release, Billings Gazette staff has fallen from 50 employees to around 25 in the past two decades. Their humongous building on the corner of 27th and 4th Ave is now mostly empty. Their editor and editorial page writer were both recently laid-off and the in-house accounting and bookkeeping staff were eliminated.

Meanwhile, top executives continue to earn large salaries disproportionate to their employees. In 2019 Lee Enterprises CEO earned $1.8 million and three other execs earned between $540,000 and $842,000. Others received bonuses between $96,000 and $440,000. The average pay for a journalist in Montana is $34,250 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In a press release dated 5/28, employees of the Billings Gazette announced they have formed the Montana News Guild, "to protect the future of The Billings Gazette’s journalists." They hope by unionizing that they will be able to create a more stable environment for local journalism to grow. If Lee Enterprises opts to not recognize the Montana News Guild, they have filed the necessary paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board to seek a majority vote authorizing the union’s formation.

I reached out to Montana News Guild organizers Rob Rogers, Victor Flores and Anna Paige for a quick Q & A.

What happens if Lee Enterprises fails to voluntarily recognize the Montana News Guild? If they don't, does this extend any timelines?

Rob: If Lee chooses not to recognize the Guild, then a formal vote of employees in the newsroom will take place near the end of June. If a majority of employees vote to organize then the Guild becomes official. 

Anna: Of the 21 employees we believe are eligible for the union, we have over 90 percent voting yes. We hope the company will voluntarily recognize the union, but if not, we will move forward with the vote.

Are employees at other Lee Enterprise newspapers in Montana joining the Montana News Guild?

Victor: Right now we know of no other newsrooms in the state planning to organize. Even if they do, they cannot join the Montana News Guild and would have to form a separate union.

What is the general employee mood/atmosphere in the Gazette newsroom?

Rob: We're a tight-knit group in the newsroom and we genuinely enjoy each other and our editors. But some days morale bottoms out as we experience layoffs, position eliminations, and furloughs. That has gotten worse during the current economic downturn. 

Why is local journalism still vital to our community?

Victor: Without local journalism, people in our enormous coverage area would not be able to find objective, thorough information about their community. The powerful need to help [sic] accountable, taxpayers want to know where their money goes, voters deserve to be fully informed before they fill out their ballots, etc. Local journalism is one of the only mechanisms to provide that information.

Anna: We have experienced an incredible erosion of news media in recent years. We recognize we are not immune to the changes in the financial situation of newspapers as print ad revenue continues to decline and the delivery models shift. We are heartened by the uptick in digital subscriptions and are committed to covering our community. We are passionate about the Gazette’s mission statement, which our entire newsroom staff came together to draft, and will continue to provide this service to our readers on a daily basis:  “The Billings Gazette’s mission is to engage and inform people about Billings, the state of Montana, and surrounding areas by providing reliable and fact-based reporting, context and diverse viewpoints.”