March 25, 2018

By Jim Strauss, Great Falls Tribune President and Publisher

I almost missed out on my chance to be editor of the Tribune back in ’94.

I had accepted the position when I learned the company’s health insurance wouldn’t cover preexisting conditions, including my wife’s pregnancy with our second set of twins. After racking up $25,000-plus in medical bills for our first set, which was born prematurely, it was a risk I couldn’t take.

I had previously worked in Montana for 3 ½ years and wanted to get back to those endless horizons. Fortunately, the editor who filled the void stayed less than a year, and my second acceptance of the job stuck in ’95.

As I wrap up my Tribune career next month, I’m thankful for that second chance because it’s been the opportunity of a lifetime. Coming to Great Falls from an urban Midwest city, the hard news pace was slower, but it was a welcome change not having to cover constant crime and homicides. The Montana news cycle is just as full but its pace allows reporters to more often take a step back from the daily rush to more fully develop their stories.

I will miss the dedicated staff in every corner of our building, from the reporters and editors who cover our state with passion and knowledge, to our sales staff who work with our advertisers as marketing partners, to our production and distribution crew who ensure the paper gets out on time each day. When I hear people bash journalists, I always tell them I wish they could spend a couple of days in our newsroom and get to know the reporters and experience the daily push for depth and balance in our reporting. 

While the push for getting behind the news and finding fresh angles and more depth hasn’t changed, how we deliver the news has shifted seismically. In my time here we rolled out our website, were one of the first 10 papers in the country to launch an epaper, launched news apps and found ways to deliver the news via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms. In 2006, we acquired the printing equipment of a local company and launched River’s Edge Printing, which now prints 17 area weekly newspapers and more than 25 other magazines and publications each month.

We also connected with our communities with events, such as the Academic Leadership and All-Star awards, the Northcentral Montana Sports Awards banquet, the Beer & Gear outdoor expo and microbrew fest and, of course, the What Women Want Expo. The expo has grown into the largest women’s event in Montana, with more than 8,000 attendees last year.

I also will miss my daily chats with customers who keep us on our toes when we err and are quick to call with a compliment when we make their day with a story that hits home.  As publisher & editor, I’ve had the opportunity to serve on many local and state boards. The love of Great Falls and Montana and the push for even better tomorrows was a common theme on all. Great Falls is the kind of town where an ounce of effort gives you a pound of personal reward in return, working with others to make a difference.  

I do exit this career with two regrets. The first is that I jumped at the chance to move into management after just eight months as a reporter. Management could have waited a few more years. The second is that as a manager in a media industry going through transformation, I had to make decisions that directly affected loyal, talented employees’ jobs, lives and families. Layoffs hurt … deeply. 

This change for me has been awhile in the making. Last summer, after 22-plus years directing the newsroom, I stepped out of the editor role and handed those reins to News Director Jo Dee Black. I teamed with Director of Sales Holly Kopeikin to run advertising, and as I exit Holly will lead that team. I was the only person in my company, Gannett, to hold the joint roles of publisher & editor, and as I exit the Tribune is good hands with Holly leading advertising and Jo Dee news.

The timing is right for me. This month marks a milestone I wanted to hit: 50 years in the publishing world. I was 9 when I took on my paper route and have had only two years out of the business since, when high school sports practices didn’t leave me time to work. I’ve had some people say delivering a route doesn’t really count, but after delivering morning and evening newspapers daily to more than 200 customers through seven Minnesota winters, it counts. Plus, I learned more about business and customers delivering that route than I did in six years getting my undergraduate journalism and economics degrees and an MBA.

This timing also allows me to make good on a promise. When the Great Falls health-care facility my wife was running was put up for sale last spring, she knew her position was in limbo. So, when a dream offer came to run a nearly new facility in Wyoming, she put her destiny in her own hands and took the job. She noted then it was nice I had won state and national leadership awards for helping women advance in the workplace, but it was time to really show that commitment and follow her career. She had, after all, followed me my whole career. I agreed, and one year later will make good on that promise in time for our 35th anniversary next month.

For now, I’ll be splitting my time between Wyoming and our place on the Clearwater River in the Seeley-Swan Valley. I turned 61 this month and, frankly, am old enough but not mature enough to retire. So, I’ll see what my next chapter is.

As I said at the top, this has been the chance of a lifetime. Thanks, Great Falls. It’s been a great ride.