A Montana Periodical Devoted to Journalism and Justice

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Alden Scott Crow, "A Big Sky Treasure," Musea, Issue #73:

   Montana Newspaper readers should be thankful they have Nathaniel Blumberg on their side. Since 1991, he has published the
Treasure State Review, a periodical newsletter that provides forceful criticism and commentary primarily on Montana journalism. It specializes in inside news on Big Sky newspapers, with an ever- watchful eye on the chains . . . . Don't you wish every state had a TSR?
Judith Sheppard, "The Death of the Free Obit," American Journalism Review (April, 1999):

   Nobody could accuse Nathaniel Blumberg of being reticent. The
Treasure State Review, an occasional publication the retired dean of the University of Montana journalism school writes and mails from Big Fork, blasts away fearlessly at the out-of- state chains that now own all but two dailies in his state. But he is particularly withering on one movement he believes those chains began encouraging about eight years ago: requiring payment to publish news of the dead.
   "They're ghouls," he says, remembering looking up the definition of the term ("evil spirits that feed on the dead") before using it in this context.
   "The death of a citizen in a newspaper's circulation area is not only news, it's important news." Newspapers, he says, should not be putting the interests of their shareholders "above the interests of the subscribers."
   Policies Blumberg abhors in Montana have found their way into newspapers around the country. Once, obituaries were uniquely the products of newsrooms, summaries of ordinary lives and deaths that tested the accuracy of cub reporters and the patience of news clerks. Destined to be clipped and tucked into family Bibles or sent off to insurance offices to prove that a soul had passed on, they were often a newspaper's doff of the hat to a departed subscriber.
   Blumberg is among those who thinks mixing staff-written and family-produced copy is a bad idea. "It is the worst example of giving over control of news columns, this giving it to the survivors, the morticians," he says. "There was a time when it was impossible to either buy into or out of the news columns. Now, they're allowing such expressions as 'gone to be
with the Lord' in the news columns. When you don't distinguish between paid and unpaid, that is extremely objectionable."
   Blumberg says the practice is offensive because it "allows the cover-up of suicides, of criminal negligence." He adds, "it also violates the traditional requirement of newspapers to list the cause of death."
   Making sure whatever appears in news columns is accurate and complete, "historically and traditionally the function of editors," is being circumvented by this practice, he says.
Timothy Noah, "For newspapers, the obit pages aren't sad," U.S. News & World Report (April 7, 1997):

   With circulation declining at a national rate of about 1 percent a year, newspapers are making up the difference, partly with higher ad rates. As department stores and other traditional advertisers die off or shun papers, classified ads --including obits--are assuming a much larger role in newspaper economics. Many readers find the paid-obit trend troubling. Nathaniel Blumberg, former dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, calls the practice "outrageous." The obituary page "is not only news, it is extremely important news." Barbara Henry, publisher of the Des Moines Register [and former publisher of the Great Falls Tribune], agrees. When she took the job in 1996, she scuttled a plan by her predecessor to shift to a paid-obit policy. "Publishing obits," she says, "is something a newspaper can do that no other communications vehicle does."
   Moving obituaries from the news desk to the advertising deparment necessarily means handing editorial control over to the family of the deceased. For Blumberg, that compromises news values.
   "Tradition demands the cause of death," he says. With paid obits, families can keep mum about whether the deceased had an infectious or environmental disease that might be of legitimate interest to others.

[Editor's Note: The American Journalism Review in 1998 published a 22-page article that critically examined news coverage by capital bureaus in every state. Significantly, it devoted its most extensive coverage to Montana's plight, with special emphasis on the dreadful performance by publishers and editors of the Great Falls Tribune in the seven years following its purchase by the Gannett newspaper chain. Following are the final paragraphs of the article:]

Charles Layton and Mary Walton, "Missing the Story at the Statehouse," American Journalism Review (July/August, 1998):

   Back in Montana, the Tribune has yet to live down the controversy. Last year, at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Montana Constitutional Convention, the curmudgeonly press critic Blumberg delivered a speech titled "The Role of the Press: Then and Now." He made the most of his opportunity,
charging that "the out-of-state corporations that control the primary sources of our news and editorial opinion no longer even claim to serve the public interest." Publishers with no training in journalism, he said, "regard their newsroom employees as little more than cogs in a money machine" and deny them the resources to do investigative stories on such things as the prison system, nursing home conditions, health care and the tax system.
   Blumberg delivered the speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Afterwards, he received a standing ovation. The AP filed a story containing the above quotes. The Great Falls Tribune edited them out.
David Crisp, editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost (December 4, 1997):

Mr. Blumberg reserves most of his ammunition for the papers he knows best: the error-plagued Missoulian and the Tribune, which he considered Montana's finest newspaper before it fell into the hands of the nation's most predatory newspaper chain. He plugs away at reforming the state's newspapers with good cheer, firing at will and taking no prisoners. On his worst days, he is one of the state's most valuable resources. On his best, he is absolutely irreplacable.

From the Premier Issue of
Winter Solstice, 1991

Why Now?

   Back in 1958, a little more than a year after I arrived as dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, I founded the first journalism review in the United States—the Montana Journalism Review. It seemed to me at the time that the American press, watchdog of the government under our Constitution, needed a watchdog itself. Three years later the Columbia Journalism Review was established, to be followed by others. Hardly any survive.
   Now, in the first year of the last decade of the 20th century, it is clear that the news media in Montana and the United States more than ever require some concentrated surveillance. The time has come for another attempt to establish a review, and this time it is a review not only of journalism but of what under our system of government is the ultimate goal of journalism: Justice.
   The citizens of our state and our nation deserve something better than what we have received from many publishers and editors, reporters and correspondents, columnists and commentators, politicians and bureaucrats, lawyers and judges.
   Journalism and justice in the United States have never been more in need of a tough new evaluation. Nationally, newspapers continue to merge or die or fall into the clutches of money-grubbing chains — often a fate worse than death. A few conglomerates with no experience in journalism and a concealed political and economic agenda control many of our most influential media outlets. So-called newsmagazines have been turned into glitzy, trendy vehicles of trash.
   In Montana, where the press, with notable exceptions, was used as a tool of corruption by out-of-state corporations for the first six decades of this century, the situation has taken a notable turn for the worse. The Gannett chain, famed for its innovative typographical devices, skim-the-surface reporting and slippery sense of journalistic ethics, has taken over the
Great Falls Tribune, once a splendid locally-owned daily, and the Lee chain has abandoned the excellent performance and high promise that peaked in the 1970s.
   Letters and clippings and phone calls from scores of my friends and former students confirm that the newspaper profession has been taken over by corporations with no understanding of the responsibilities of journalism in a free society. These corporations display an overwhelming passion for MBAs and hacks whose sole interest is the highest possible profit for owners and stockholders.
   United Press International, losing money and slowly dying for two decades, is passing through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and id dead as a competitior of the Associated Press. Thus more than 90 percent of the nation's dailies are at the mercy of the AP wire service monopoly. The three major television networks were taken over in the mid-1980s within one 18-month period, and Loews Corporation (CBS), General Electric (NBC) and Capital Cities Communications (ABC) are three tough corporate outfits with histories that can use some public disclosure.
   These conditions, and many similar perplexing situations, will be examined in forthcoming issues.
    We also intend to devote attention to the many good things happening in journalism and justice and to those who make them happen.
   As a onetime University of Montana historian/philosopher has written, "For any living thing to come to birth, the conditions must be just right." We will test the conditions in these last days of the second millenium to discover if there is a place for the information offered by the
Treasure State Review. For this forum, we welcome contributions related to journalism and justice, news tips, items of interest and pertinent comment.

— Nathaniel Blumberg
Editor and Publisher
Big Fork, Montana













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