Right now there’s something happening at 4 and 20 Blackbirds, which is the major Missoula blog.
- Is it trying to remake itself?
- Is it shutting down for good?
- Will something else replace it?
No one really knows what’s going on, but there’s some analysis…quite a bit actually.
There’s another piece over at Piece of Mindful called [sigh] 4&20 Goes Vanilla. The comments are great, mainly because you see how closed off these folks are. I guess they must be in some kind of 2011 time suck or something, where Montana has just three political blogs. Wow, can you imagine going through your day that clueless?
James Conner over at Flathead Memo has some good analysis on the issue, and a central quote:
Honestly, with Lee Enterprises cutting its state political bureau, now is the time for informative writing about state and local politics. Now is the time for reasoned views about the critical issues that affect everyday Montanans and Missoulians.
Personally, what I find incredibly frustrating is the lack of information on statewide issues. We all know Lee Enterprises is to fault for this, and we really need more voices. I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the voices and upheaval from the past, so we can understand that events like this are nothing new.
Instead of editorials championing one issue while decrying another, “’paid’ advertisements, lobbying, and ubiquitous public relations officers served the same purpose more subtly.” It was clear to many that “Anaconda papers became monuments to indifference.”
Politics suffered as well, as many politician came to learn firsthand. Political speeches “were unreported on company pages,” and this forced people like Jerry O’Connell to start up his own paper, or use the press of others, friendly and fiery personalities like Miles Romney in Hamilton, and later his son.
When O’Connell ran against Jacob Thorkelson for one of Montana’s U.S. House seats in 1938, the Company issued a “veritable news blackout” for the entirely of 1938. The newspapers finally mentioned O’Connell after the election, pointing out that he “relies solely on abuse and slander.”
The Anaconda papers ignored O’Connell, so he had to have his own mouthpiece. O’Connell fought back at the Company newspapers, gearing up for the next election all the while. In 1939 and into 1940, he was editor and publisher of the Montana Liberal. The paper was owned by Miles Romney. “With the poor newspaper coverage in Montana at that time,” historian John Bell wrote, “the Montana Liberal filled a need in getting at least one additional point of view across to the people, no matter how biased it was.” A few other papers covered O’Connell’s activities, including Romney’s Western Progressive.
Montana’s Miles Romney
Miles Romney was born in St. George, Utah, on December 18, 1872. He attended the public schools there until his family moved up to the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. He headed off to Ohio Northern University and got a business degree. After that it was back to Montana, Bannack specifically, where he became a school teacher for a time until moving to Hamilton in 1893. It was then that he bought up half of the Western News newspaper. It didn’t take him long to gain full ownership, and he was soon “official spokesman for the Democratic party in Ravalli County,” his Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame biography states.
The same year he was elected to his 2-year mayoral term in Hamilton he was also elected president of the Montana Press Association. Romney was called a “free-swinging editor,” one that could be a “powerful factor in molding public sentiment.” He was also noted as “a wheelhorse in the Democratic party” and a “valuable exponent of local interests.”
Democrat Romney was elected mayor of Hamilton in 1902 and served until 1906. He took on the Anaconda Company and saw to the city’s infrastructure needs, something they’d never wanted to do. Even “the cemetery was reclaimed, fenced and beautified.”
Romney served in the Montana Senate from 1906 to 1910 and continued to fight against the Anaconda Company. So vociferous was his denunciation of House Bill 160 – something that would virtually legalize monopolies – that he was “excommunicated from the Democratic Party.” This led to Romney founding the Peoples Power League in 1911. They wanted the voter initiative and a more equalized tax burden, the latter coming about through a higher tax rate on corporations. The ideas were considered radical at the time.
Still, just because these laws were on the books, it didn’t mean they were always enforced. Romney made it a point to point these things out on the front page of his newspaper, such as the 1913 case of a Anaconda mill worker in Hamilton that had his hips crushed by a fallen log, and worker’s compensation refused to him. Three years later Romney pointed out how the man had still received nothing in compensation, probably because the Anaconda Company had spent $1,500 on lawyers to make it so. “These lawyers have profited by the lifelong suffering of this poor young man,” Romney said in his newspaper, “while the unfortunate victim and his dependents have received nothing – not even pity.”
Romney served in the Quartermaster Corps in WWI, “in charge of all depots in the Army’s southeastern district,” and then it was back to bashing the company. Romney pointed out several times over the years that the Anaconda Company was “not paying fair amount of taxes on its 50,000 plus acres of timer in Ravalli County because the county accepted the value of the timber as appraised by the company’s own cruisers.”
Romney also pointed out that Montana wasn’t getting the oil tax revenues it deserved. In the 1920s neighboring Wyoming was earning 65% royalty taxes on oil, but Montana was getting just 12%. “How long, oh how long will the people of Montana remain docile and submissive,” he said in an editorial on the issue, “apparently oblivious to the exactions of the grafters and exploiters who have held sway all these years?”
In the 1930s Romney “urged that there be a tariff on copper to prevent a flood of it from coming into the U.S. from the foreign countries where the Anaconda Co. owned mines.” Romney made it clear that “expanded production in those counties meant shutdowns for Butte.”
Romney also “took stabs at his contemporaries in the newspaper business,” it was noted in the Western News story upon his death, “probably with a certain amount of pleasure.” He referred to them as the “kept dailies,” since they were so close to Anaconda Company. He called his nearest competitor, the Ravalli Republican, “our colorless contemporary.”
He chided the papers for their “cooked up misinformation, misrepresentations, and misinterpretations.” They were “shorn of influence and no longer able to gull the people.” Ultimately Romney hoped that these newspapers would “languish and die, in which event they will be unmorned, unhonored, and unsung!”
Romney’s disdain for Montana’s company newspapers was clear, and he wasn’t afraid to let it be known, as in this editorial from the period:
“To accomplish the purpose of the privilege seeking corporations these papers, constituting a monopoly of the press, must mislead and blind the public through suppression of news and perversions and distortions of facts. They publicize and canonize the menials and other tools who serve them; and minimize, ignore and destroy whenever possible any person who sincerely and earnestly undertakes to serve the people rather than the bi-partisan political machine with which the corporation oligarchy rules the state.”
Romney did so well in these capacities that he decided to run for governor in 1936, though he lost in the primary. It had been the same story as 1932, when he’d run for governor on the Progressive Democrat ticket.
Miles Romney eventually handed the reins of the Western News off to his son, Miles Romney, Jr., in 1937. Miles Romney, Jr. was a staunch Democrat like his father, one that could be counted on to get the faithful energized and voting. He headed up the Western News in Ravalli County and proved pivotal in state politics in the 1930s and though the 1950s. Miles Romney senior had died on March 31, 1943, at the age of 70. So there was only one Romney left.
Lee Metcalf credited him with helping him get into the legislature in 1936. “He thought and described himself as a country editor and would probably like to be remembered as such,” Metcalf said of him during the Montana Democratic Convention in August 1976. “Miles epitomized the principles and the ideals what we like to think we exemplify as Democrats.”
Miles Romney, Jr. would become a force in politics in the 1960s in his own right.. “Always a loyal Democrat,” the Western News reported from Hamilton in February 1977 on this second Romney, “the 60’s and 70’s kept Romney busy railing against former President Nixon before, during and after Watergate.” Romney, Jr. also served in the Montana House of Representatives, from 1966 to 1970, and then went on to the Senate in 1973. He also enjoyed going after “his favorite state Republican target, Former Gov. Tim Babcock, whom he often called “Babtalk.” Miles Romney, Jr. would die on February 19, 1976.
If the Romney’s hadn’t supported O’Connell, liberal firebrand Leif Erickson wouldn’t have had the courage to challenge Senator Wheeler, defeating him in 1946 in the primary. Erickson’s loss to Zales Ecton that year allowed Mike Mansfield to win his Senate seat in 1952.
In 1940 when O’Connell ran again he started up the Montana Liberal out of Helena. The paper’s “editorial opinion merged with facts on virtually every page” and “gossip was printed as news” but people loved it, at least until O’Connell shut it down following his defeat by Jeanette Rankin in 1940. (Reutten, p 442)
“Silence is copper-plated,” locals said of their “copper collar,” the Company control of the press. It got worse as the years wore on, and by the 1950s despair reigned in news offices and the stories they spit out. For it was their omission of important news that was the most troubling.
Even the Economist in London pointed out how bad the reporting was in Montana when it did a 1957 story called “Anaconda Country” in which it said the company’s policy of omitting the news stories it didn’t like caused the state’s newspaper readers to become “ worse informed about their own affairs than the inhabitants of almost any other state.” (Reutten, p 443)
Anaconda was ready to sell by the late 1950s, and it was a radio station that made it so. In the early 1950s the Fairmont Corporation was trying to get Great Falls radio station KFBB into their fold. Fairmont was “mother hen” to Anaconda Copper’s “journalistic nest,” historian Rex Myers tells us. Because of this large corporate purchase, Anaconda had to come clean on some of its press holdings. The word was out after several decades – people finally knew which newspapers the Company controlled. Before then it’d only been guesswork, and although some were close, there was always that element of uncertainty.
K. Ross Toole called Anaconda’s control of the Montana newspapers as the “Great Gray Blanket.” No one really knew for sure just how many of the state’s newspapers were owned by Anaconda, not until 1951 when it was reported to the Federal Communications Commission that they owned seven of the state’s eighteen dailies. These were the Post and Montana Standard in Butte; the two daily editions of the Billings Gazette; the Livingston Enterprise; the Independent Record in Helena; and the Sentinel and Missoulian in Missoula. On top of that they had a weekly paper in both Libby and Superior, though there were a total of ninety-five of those in the state at the time so the percentage was low. Still, that was “9 of the state’s 113 newspapers,” Myers tells us, and they had quite a bit of influence because of it.
Something else that may have pushed Anaconda to sell was the continual criticism from those upstart dailies and weeklies, newspapers that were nipping at the corporate giant’s heels. They pointed out the Company papers’ shoddy reporting and lack of journalistic standards, for omission certainly pointed to that. The Hungry Horse News was “a weekly with the best editorial page in the state,” Reutten tells us, and the student newspaper Montana Opinion and the Montana Kaimin was another. (Reutten, p 444)
And so it was that in 1959 that the Fairmont Corporation sold its Montana newspapers. Lee Enterprises was the buyer, an Iowa-based company that knew little of Montana, but which did turn over local control to the various editors. The official purchase of the Montana newspapers was on June 1, 1959. Lee P. Loomis headed up Lee Newspapers at the time. He was based in Mason City, Iowa, and assured Montanans through an editorial that “there were no strings attached to the sale of these newspapers.”
- How Many People in Montana Read Newspapers? (Oct 8, 2014)
- Looking at Montana Newspapers and Readership (Feb 1, 2015)
- Tired of Paying for News? Get it for Free Each Month with these 25 Montana Media Sites (May 23, 2015)
Montana newspapers have changed a lot since the 1950s and the 1960s when they became free of that “copper collar.”
By the end of the turbulent 1920s in Montana, just “150 weeklies and dailies still published.” (Myers, p 84) It wasn’t always like that. “Montana had witnessed six decades of open journalism in the most intense frontier style,” Myers writes of the time before the Gray Blanket descended. In the 1920s the changes were gradual, and not easily noticed until it was too late. “’Name’ editors and ‘town’ newspapers ceases to exist,” Myers writes. “Smaller papers simply folded; larger journals became business, not personal, ventures.” (Myers, p 84)
From 1906 to 1920, Montanans enjoyed the choice of 225 different newspapers. (Myers, p 82) What happened was a bust in farming in eastern Montana, followed by the rise of radio and then television after. “The published word, so essential in the political wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Myers writes, “diminished in direct proportion to the spread of electricity in Montana and the media that used it.” (Myers, p 85)
By 1950 there were just over 100 newspapers in Montana. By 1953 there were more than 40 radio broadcasters and receivers, according to historian Rex C. Myers.
By 1984 there were eleven daily newspapers in Montana and fifty-one weeklies. (Myers, p 85) In the state as a whole in 1984, there were just 90 newspapers, a far cry from the 225 that had existed in the state just 65 years before.
Today Montana has 70 newspapers, maybe less. That's why blogs and other forms of media are so important. We've already lost our newspapers; we can't afford to lose our blogs too.
Bell, John M. “The Montana Ideologue: A Political Study of Jerry J. O’Connell.” MSU History 515 Graduate Paper, Montana Historical Society Biography File: Helena, 1973.
Myers, Rex C. “From Crazy Quilt to Gray Blanket: Montana’s Colorful Press.” Myers, Rex C. and Fritz, Harry W. (eds.). Montana and the West: Essays in Honor of K. Ross Toole. Pruett Publishing Company: Boulder, 1984. p 71-85.
Reutten, Richard T. “Togetherness: A Look Into Montana Journalism.” Montana’s Past: Selected Essays. Malone, Michael P. and Roeder, Richard (eds.). The University of Montana Publications in History: Bozeman, 1973. p 430-44.
Toole, K. Ross. Twentieth-Century Montana: A State of Two Extremes. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1972. p 3-70, 96.
Western News, February 24, 1977