A lot of pixels have already been spilled in the past week about the closing of the Lee Enterprises state bureau in Helena and the departure of longtime reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, but I’m going to chip in too, mostly because I feel that their apotheosis has gone far enough.
Were Johnson and Dennison veterans with lots of institutional knowledge? Absolutely. Were they good reporters? Likely they were; but, to be honest, any reporter who has spent long enough on a single beat will appear to be a goodish reporter simply by dint of getting to know sources and topics. I don’t know; maybe that’s enough to be “good.”
Subjectivity aside, bloggers across Montana are heralding their departures as the end of competent government watchdog reporting, whining that Montanans will be poorly informed by the cub reporters paid a pittance to cover the next Legislature. Journalism is dying, alack!
I call bullshit.
Lee Enterprises was not the only news company covering the Legislature. And though Lee was one of only a handful that still sent reporters physically to Helena for the session, they were not the only watchers, not by a long shot.
The Chronicle churned out legislative coverage relevant to our readers on a daily basis throughout the session, covering bill after bill and, I may say, beating Lee on a scoop more than once.
Television, though I am not exactly a huge fan, had reporters in Helena throughout the session too, as did public radio. The University of Montana sends a team of eager student journalists to cover each session as well, providing daily coverage that appeared in newspapers around the state — newspapers, I would note, that were not owned by Lee Enterprises and did not have access to the prose of Johnson and Dennison. And let’s not forget the Associated Press, which also does a fine job of covering the Legislature for readers, spreading news far wider than Lee, which, lest we forget, shares with Lee papers first (and then throws a few scraps to the AP later).
The notion that young reporters won’t be able to cover the Legislature as effectively as the vets would hold more water if the session hadn’t been so well covered by young reporters already. To say that the vets’ B.S. meters are worn in as well as a pair of old cowboy boots while these young cubs can’t yet find the bathrooms (“Ha! Young people are dumb!”) insults the young reporters and their ability to quickly adapt, learn and grow as professionals.
Look, Johnson and Dennison are gone. Instead of pining for the bygone past, we need to decide what we expect from statehouse journalism in 2017 and beyond.