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The University of Montana has hired former Missoulian publisher and Lee Enterprises regional vice president Mike Gulledge as a consultant.

Gulledge is on contract with UM this year from Jan. 28 through June 30 for not more than $60,000, according to his contract.

In the industry 38 years, Gulledge will support the School of Journalism, help UM with media relations and communications, and assist the flagship with building "collaborative relationships around the state," according to the agreement.

With the School of Journalism, Gulledge said he has an interest in capitalizing on the resurgence in the field and protecting freedom of the press.

"Journalism is changing and under a lot of stress, but there is interest now more than ever," Gulledge said. "I think it's important to defend the First Amendment and, as much as we can, teach that and help get that done. I'm going to be a part of it."

Gulledge, who was also publisher of the Billings Gazette, steps into the post at UM after resigning from Lee Enterprises following heart surgery and medical leave last year.

Lee Enterprises owns 47 daily newspapers in the U.S. and is the top digital source of news in most of its mid-size markets. But it has not been immune from the effects of the changing business model on newsrooms across the country.

According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Lee has fewer than half the staff members it employed a decade ago: 3,241 compared to 7,500 full time equivalents. The company owns papers in the largest media markets in Montana and has laid off and bought out employees here. Last year, it shuttered the Missoula Independent, an alternative weekly, after it was unable to make it profitable.

Although he led Montana newspapers during a period that included that contraction, Gulledge said he is buoyed by developments at national media outlets, which he said are leading the way to transformation.

"I think the model is still being defined," Gulledge said. "And I'm really impressed to see what has happened at a national level with the Washington Post and New York Times. They seem to have turned the corner."

Gulledge worked in Montana for 18 years and wants to use his experience and industry ties to help UM make connections and better share its message. He said he is impressed with leadership at UM and wants to support the flagship's relationship with the rest of Montana.

"UM is positioned for some good things, and if I can help in the media relations, communications area, (I'm) glad to do it," Gulledge said.

The consultant hire comes at a time UM is shoring up a $10 million budget deficit and on the heels of staff and faculty buyouts.

The Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education will cover $20,000 of Gulledge's contract, according to Tracy Ellig, serving as interim deputy commissioner for communications during the legislative session. UM noted the President's Office budget will cover the remainder.

Ellig said Gulledge "is an expert with a national view in our backyard. UM thought Mike’s experience and expertise would be helpful in charting the future for its School of Journalism, and OCHE agreed.

"The school has a long and rich history, but like all of American media it has felt the industry shift beneath its feet in the past decade. Mike’s had a front-row seat to those changes and his perspective will be invaluable going forward."

In an email, UM President Seth Bodnar said the university already has benefited from Gulledge's ideas and observations.

"We are excited about the perspectives that Mike Gulledge brings with him to UM and our broader team,'' Bodnar said. "He brings decades of experience in both journalism and the media business, which provide us with new and different insights into new opportunities for the School of Journalism, as well as how we can more effectively and proudly tell the UM story."

The contract says the primary objective for Gulledge is to "provide industry perspective and input for the School of Journalism strategic planning process."

Denise Dowling, interim dean of the School of Journalism, said the school does not have a strategic planning process underway and said some of the initial tasks Gulledge had proposed were items the school already handles systematically.

However, Dowling said the school has asked Gulledge for assistance in a couple of key areas. For one, she said the School of Journalism has asked him to help tap into funders such as the Knight and Hearst Foundations. Although UM has received grants, she said, it has not landed the larger ones.

Second, she said faculty are concerned about the state of high school journalism, including the cessation of high school newspapers. She said the School of Journalism has asked Gulledge to help UM faculty reach English and journalism teachers in Montana high schools and support their instruction.

Dowling said the School of Journalism is not picking up the tab for Gulledge's contract. As part of the budget restructuring, plans call for the School of Journalism to no longer have a dean and to be moved under a newly named College of the Arts and Media.

Gulledge said the change represents an opportunity to partner with visual arts and other related departments. He said the structure is less important than the way UM prepares journalism students, and in that respect, Dowling and other faculty have made impressive accomplishments he wants to build on.

"I think journalism has got a great future," Gulledge said. "And in what shape or form, I don't have the answer to that yet, but there's interest, and UM has a good story to tell."

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University of Montana, higher education