Wyoming’s largest newspaper comes to a crossroads

Casper Star-Tribune newspapers on the rack at a gas station in Lander. The Casper media organization recently started printing its newspapers in Cheyenne. Asked if he worried about the newspapers making it to far corners of Wyoming this winter, Star-Tribune publisher Dale Bohren said: “I worry about everything.” (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

Casper Star-Tribune union leaders say they’re skeptical of Lee Enterprise’s commitment to journalism. As such, the journalists see forthcoming negotiations with Lee Enterprises, the publicly-traded corporation that owns the state’s largest newspaper, as an exchange that pits reporting in Wyoming public’s interest against out-of-state profit motives. And they’re taking their case directly to the community.

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Speaking ahead of a new round of contract negotiations beginning Sept. 17, Casper News Guild leaders Heather Richards and Seth Klamann said they believe the company is negotiating in good faith but that questions of salary and health insurance have yet to be resolved and could be difficult to answer. Guild members seek more financial security so that they can commit to journalism in the state and treat writing for Wyoming’s paper of record as more than just a stepping stone or economic sacrifice, they said.

But they worry that Lee Enterprises, which owns papers in 20 states and carries hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, doesn’t share their dedication to journalism or to Wyoming. Corporate executives and stockholders are lucratively rewarded, even as communities lose reporters to layoffs.

“The union is coming to the table in good faith and asking for things that will make living in Casper and Wyoming doable” for reporters, said Elise Schmelzer, a former features editor and star Wyoming journalist who was laid off from her job at the newspaper in April. “But I have my doubts that Lee cares about that. I don’t think [executives] care about the quality of the newspaper.”

The Casper News Guild is a chapter of the Communications Workers of America, and was the first newsroom to organize as a labor union under Lee Enterprise management, according to a press release from that time.

The union is seeking support ahead of negotiations from the politicians, community groups, labor unions and other institutions oft-written about in the pages of the daily newspaper. In those communications and in interviews with WyoFile the union’s leaders offered a passionate appeal to the importance of Wyoming newspapering for the state’s democracy.

“There are times when political leaders like yourself are put under a microscope by the Star-Tribune, times your choices are questioned, investigated and analyzed by reporters,” a letter sent to Casper politicians and political groups read. “We hope you feel, as we do, that public debate is vital to Wyoming; that a more informed Wyoming is a stronger one.”

Klamann said of the outreach campaign, “we’re just letting them know this is your paper. This isn’t our paper this is your paper and it’s owned by an out-of-state company that’s taking money out your community by laying off reporters … you lose money and simultaneously you lose the institutional knowledge [of the departing journalists].”

The negotiations come on the heels of layoffs and tensions between reporters and management, not just in Casper but at other Lee-owned newspapers. After printing newspapers in Casper since 1891, the Star-Tribune shuttered its press room in late July, laying off two-dozen employees who worked there, according to a press release from the union. The News Guild received the news “bitterly,” the release said.

Those layoffs followed the controversial letting go of Schmelzer in April. At the time, the Casper News Guild called the removal of Schmelzer an intimidation tactic from the corporation, coming as it did on the heels of reporters’ decision to unionize in February.

Later that month, longtime editor and outdoors reporter Christine Peterson left the newsroom to pursue a freelance career. Though Peterson continues to write stories for the newspaper about Wyoming’s outdoor industry and the environment, the outdoor reporter position was lost to attrition, according to staff.

Reporters were laid off at two Lee-owned newspapers in Oregon last month, according to Twitter posts from reporters at those papers. Also in August, the Omaha World-Herald, the Nebraska newspaper owned by financier Warren Buffett laid off 10 employees and eliminated 13 other jobs, just two months after Lee Enterprises took over management of newspapers owned by Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway.

The deal with Berkshire Hathaway was a boon for Lee Enterprise stock holders — shares of the company soared upwards when the deal was announced.

In Missoula, Montana, negotiations at an alternative weekly paper recently acquired by Lee turned drastic last month.

The small reportorial staff at the Missoula Independent chose to form the Missoula News Guild in April, a year after Lee Enterprises purchased the newspaper. Lee Enterprises owns the Missoulian, the city’s daily newspaper, and staff at the previously-independent weekly paper worry the corporation would seek to consolidate the two newspapers. Last month, after two rounds of negotiations, Lee made the Missoula News Guild an offer, according to the union — agree to cuts of almost all the newspaper’s staff or see the newspaper closed entirely.

[WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham interned at the Independent before Lee Enterprise’s ownership.]

Union members in Casper are confident they’re negotiating from much stronger footing than the Missoula News Guild. The Star-Tribune is Wyoming’s newspaper of record, and Lee’s only property in the state. As such, “I’m pretty optimistic,” Richards said.

Furthermore the paper is operating at a profit, according to publisher Dale Bohren.

Bohren declined to comment on union negotiations in detail. “We are negotiating in good faith,” he said. “I really don’t have any comment about the union, other than that I have tremendous respect for the work that the newsroom does.”

In mid-July, negotiators from the union and the company agreed on vacation policies, processes for filing employee grievances and other matters, according to a Casper News Guild press release. Wages and what portion of health insurance premiums employees pay remain the major points of contention. Today, employees pay 40 to 60 percent of their health care premiums, Klamann said.

The News Guild seeks a better healthcare split for workers, and also a schedule of salary raises that will allow reporters to better plan their futures and keep up with the cost of living. Today, reporters treat the paper as a career starting point, Klamann said, a place where a young reporter can gather clippings before moving on.

“Why we unionized is we want to make the Star-Tribune somewhere you can make a home,” Klamann said.

For a newspaper to function at its best, Richards said, it needs reporters who have knowledge of institutions they cover.

“You want somebody who remembers what happened three years ago and how that matters today,” she said. “You want somebody that holds that in their chest and in their head. It’s very useful to have somebody whose job it is to pay attention.”

Wyoming in particular demands time from those who seek to report on it successfully, said Richards, who covers the state’s complex energy industry.

“Wyoming doesn’t offer easy answers to somebody who just shows up one day,” she said.

But for reporters who do want to master their beats and put their time in, Richards said, Lee Enterprises hasn’t offered the appropriate resources. “We want to do this job, we want to live in this town and we want to serve Wyoming but the economics are impossible,” she said. “The economics are pushing us out.”

Newspaper is ‘profitable’

Bohren, the publisher, said he shares his newsroom’s belief in the mission of journalism. “Somebody has got to stand up and ask the questions,” he said.

The Casper Star Tribune remains a profitable business, he said, despite a turbulent industry. “In the context of things we’ve done an excellent job of keeping our newsroom whole,” he said.

The decision to close the pressroom was one he made locally, he said, and did not come at the behest of corporate leadership. Operating a printing press in Casper was “unsustainable,” he said. The newspaper is now printed in Cheyenne. Press room staffers who wanted other employment were able to find it with assistance from the company, Bohren said.

Asked whether he worried about the print newspaper reaching more far-flung parts of the state this coming winter, Bohren said “I worry about everything.”

“We’re 127 years old,” he said. “I don’t know of a business that’s 127 years old that hasn’t evolved in some way. But the news business has really evolved and it’s been excruciating at times.”

The newspaper is developing its online presence through an electronic version of the print paper, emailed newsletters, podcasts and other digital products, Bohren said. The drive to keep the paper current with readers’ evolution is proving successful, he said, as web usage by readers is far outstripping print subscriptions.

The decline in news gatherers in Wyoming isn’t confined to the newspaper industry, extending across radio and television as well, Bohren said. The Casper Star-Tribune still has the largest newsroom in the state, he pointed out.

Lee Enterprises did not respond to a request for an interview sent via contact forms on its website.

The managers in Casper have more autonomy than critics of Lee Enterprises layoffs might suggest, Bohren said. “They don’t come in and tell me you do this you do that, you do this by noon,” Bohren said of Lee, “all those things you might think a big corporation might do.”

But Richards argued that turning a profit in Casper may not be enough to keep the newspaper an effective Wyoming institution, given its out-of-state management. “When the publisher says that the Casper Star is profitable then we shouldn’t have to worry,” she said. “But obviously we do.”

As one piece of a much larger enterprise profit from Casper could be invested in a Lee-owned newspaper in another state. It could go toward servicing the corporation’s large debt load or toward payouts for executives and stock owners.

Journalists should be rewarded for their good work by seeing profits go back into improving the newspaper, union leaders argue, not punished with cuts.

“There’s a reason we are profitable and they shouldn’t mess with that,” Richards said.

Brain drain

Schmelzer came to Casper from the Washington Post. She had just completed a post-college internship there and was in the running for a job at one of the nation’s premiere media outlets but didn’t like the D.C. culture, she said in an interview Friday.

“I had always wanted to live out west and felt that was where I fit in and belonged,” she said. “I was right.”

The Star-Tribune had a reputation as a newspaper where young reporters could do good work, she said. Schmelzer was also attracted to the smaller community of Casper where, she said, “you could have a real impact and get to know your sources and readers on a personal level.”

While still in the interview process at the Washington Post, she took a job at the Star-Tribune covering the police and courts beat, beginning in September 2016. The following spring, she was offered a job as a features editor and took it. The promotion would let Schmelzer write the longer and more personal stories she is passionate about.

In the volatile news industry, however, even a simple promotion — from reporter to editor and a leadership role — carried risk.

“Cops [and courts] reporters don’t usually get laid off,” Schmelzer said: “You need a cops reporter.” But seeing a chance to further her career and tell deeper stories, Schmelzer took the promotion.

For the remainder of that year and into 2018, Schmelzer wrote the kind of stories that take time to produce. She brought readers a story about a woman reunited with her birth family after 36 years and another about a group of caretakers keeping the state’s ghost towns alive. She exposed troubling emails from a Casper fire department chief and highlighted crowding in Wyoming’s prison system.

Her reporting earned her a Young Journalist of the Year award from the Wyoming Press Association in January. On April 1, Schmelzer published a story that combined the intense personal narrative of a domestic abuse victim with research on such violence in rural places like Wyoming. Working on it when able, the story took her four months, Schmelzer said. Much of that period was spent finding a domestic abuse victim willing to trust a reporter and share her story.

Three days after that story was published, Schmelzer received an after-hours call from a Lee Enterprise regional human resources director from Billings, Montana. He informed Schmelzer she no longer had a job, she said.

Schmelzer explored jobs at other Wyoming newspapers but could not find a salary that would allow her to meet her financial obligations, she said. She worked as a freelancer [including for WyoFile] but did not see enough work to make ends meet, she said.

In August, Schmelzer began a new job at the Denver Post. With a daily circulation of around 170,000, the Post is a major metropolitan newspaper, albeit one that has undergone its own recent turmoil.

“I never intended to come here,” she said, speaking by phone from Denver. “There’s a number of young people in Wyoming who want to move to Denver and that’s one of their goals. That was not one of mine.”

But, Schmelzer said, the Post gave her the chance to do the community journalism she believes in.

Her departure caused considerable hard feeling in the Casper Star-Tribune newsroom, as WyoFile has previously reported. As an editor, Schmelzer was barred from union membership, but the reporting staff considered her one of their own. The union called her removal a retaliatory action against them, and a warning shot to staff at other Lee newspapers. The Missoula Independent staff was set to vote on unionizing the next day.

“Unfortunately, it appears to the News Guild that Lee Enterprise’s dismissal of Elise … was in fact punitive retaliation for exercising our federally protected right to form a union,” the Casper News Guild said in a press statement at the time.

Months later, her layoff still rankles reporters, Richards said, who feel the loss of a beloved editor and a talented writer. “I’ve never had something hit me so emotionally hard,” said Richards, who writes regularly about layoffs in the energy industry. “It killed me.”

The summary cut of a talented writer also seemed symptomatic of misplaced corporate instincts, Richards said.

“Elise was top of the line and now she’s not a Wyoming reporter,” Richards said. “She’s a Colorado reporter.”

Beyond a newsroom staff that is stretched ever thinner by losses, Schmelzer sees another risk in her layoff. The Star-Tribune’s reputation as a good place for young, ambitious reporters could be lost.

“What happens now is people see what’s happening not just in Casper but in Lee papers across the country … and they think oh [Lee executives] don’t care,” she said. Reporters will ask, “‘If the quality of my work won’t protect me then what will?’ And then they don’t go to a Lee paper.”

Wyoming layoffs and Iowa bonuses

At Lee Enterprises corporate headquarters in Davenport, Iowa, 2017 was a year of growing digital revenue, managing revenue from print papers in “a difficult environment,” controlling costs and reducing debt, according to filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

Digital revenue — including advertising and other “digital services” — increased 5.6 percent over 2017. Subscription revenue declined 1.1 percent. The company paid down $69 million in debt, leaving it with $548 million in outstanding debt obligations.

For this performance, the top three executives each collected six-figure bonuses through incentive plans that make up part of their employment agreements.

For President and CEO Kevin Mowbray, the company’s 2017 performance meant a $737,500 bonus, the equivalent of his year’s salary. Adding stock awards and other compensation to his salary and bonus, Mowbray earned more than $2.2 million in 2017.

Mary Junck, the Executive Chairman, received $575,000 via the executive incentive plan and an additional $150,000 “discretionary” bonus awarded by Lee’s board of directors for a total of $725,000 in bonuses. With a $575,000 salary, a $670,000 stock award and $29,104 in “other compensation,” Junck’s total earnings for 2017 came to $1,999,104.

Donald Mayo, the since-departed Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Lee, earned a total of $998,832.

The seven non-employees who make up the company’s board of directors earned varying amounts of around $100,000 each in 2017, both in fees for board service and stock options, according to the filings.

Lee executive bonuses are awarded based on corporate financial performance, according to the company’s filings with the SEC. “Workforce adjustments” — including layoffs — affects that metric, potentially incentivizing executives to down-size.

In stark terms, “if you want to draw a straight line, that’s Elise Schmelzer’s salary going into someone’s bank account,” Klamann said.

The journalists in Casper worry that if the volatile newspaper industry continues to shrink, corporate leaders will react more often by cuts, not reinvesting or innovating.

“The fear for those of us who are owned by Lee is they’re becoming more reflexive,” Klamann said of corporate leadership, instead of proactive. “They have a bad month or a bad couple of months and they lay off [staff].”

A widening Wyoming news gap

Dan Neal, a former editor who worked at the Star Tribune from the early 1980s until he left as editor in 2004, recalls a time when reporters from the newspaper were housed throughout the state. There was a reporter in Laramie dedicated to covering the University of Wyoming, two reporters at a capitol bureau in Cheyenne, two in Sweetwater County and a Washington D.C. reporter covering Wyoming’s congressional delegation. At one point they also had a reporter living in Gillette, he said.

[Neal served as WyoFile’s legislative editor during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions]

Still, he noted, even in those bygone decades the Star-Tribune wasn’t immune to cuts. Like most Wyoming companies, “the number of employees fluctuated with the price of fossil fuels,” he said. During an energy bust in the mid-1980s, Neal recalled the newsroom being down to two reporters in Casper. The newspaper still maintained a two-person bureau in Cheyenne and a reporter in southwest Wyoming at that time, he said.

Lee Enterprises bought the newspaper in 2002.

Today’s news industry woes are more fundamental, Neal said. The troubles in Wyoming newspapering don’t just affect the statewide newspaper. There are structural problems driven not just by corporate mismanagement or declining print subscriptions, but also by the struggles of small Wyoming businesses. Their advertising traditionally propped up local newspapers, but their revenues have been affected by Amazon and other corporate competitors, Neal said.

The lack of reporting at both the state and the local level will affect Wyoming’s democracy, Neal warned.

At the start of this summer, the Wyoming political reporting scene saw a staff shakeup. The Casper Star-Tribune’s political reporter Arno Rosenfeld left the state. Meanwhile the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Joel Funk left the state government reporter job at that newspaper to take over as editor of the Laramie Boomerang. Both statewide papers were left without political reporters just as the state’s voters were deluged by advertising in one of the more contentious primary election seasons in recent memory. Though not driven by layoffs, the summer offered a taste of what a state with too few dedicated political journalists could look like.

“You saw all this advertising on the campaigns,” Neal said, “and there [were] very few times that those assertions were challenged and candidates were pushed on where they really stood on issues.”

To Schmelzer, a community newspaper does more than hold politicians accountable. At a time when community institutions seem to be steadily eroding, the newspaper can bring people together by telling stories, she said. As the number of reporters shrinks, more of the stories that highlight common ground go untold.

“We lose those stories about … how a community represents itself,” Schmelzer said. “I think that only contributes to the divisiveness that we see [today].”

Among the stories Schmelzer is proud to have written for the Star-Tribune is a November 2017 article about a 63-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who died alone at a Casper hospital. The coroner couldn’t find any family for him, she said, and didn’t want him to be buried alone.

The story she wrote was widely read and shared, Schmelzer recalled. “Because people care, right? People don’t want somebody to be buried by themselves.”

A week later, she arrived to cover the veteran’s funeral. There were hundreds of people at the Casper chapel, too many to fit inside the building. People travelled from across Wyoming and from neighboring states after reading the coroner’s plea, she reported in a second story.

“It was windy and snowy,” she recalled of the November day, “it was literally the most Casper day ever.”

“They [funeral attendees] stood in the snow for this guy they didn’t know,” she said. “Because we wrote a story.”

UPDATE: Sept. 11, 10:47 A.M. Lee Enterprises shuttered the Missoula Independent in Missoula, Montana on Tuesday morning, after this story’s publication. The closure halted the paper’s 27 year run and ended the company’s negotiations with unionized staff there. Staff at the Independent unionized following Lee’s takeover of the alternative weekly in April 2017. They were the second newsroom to unionize under Lee Enterprise management, following staff at the Casper Star-Tribune.

The preceeding was originally published by Wyofile.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy