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There weren't any tears (that we saw) last week as 19-year Missoula Independent owner Matt Gibson informed us that he'd sold the paper to Lee Enterprises, the same company that owns the Missoulian. But there were some arched eyebrows, some downcast glances and enough questions to fill a Best of Missoula issue. Chief among them: What would this mean for the future of this community's alternative media voice? It's a question that, for now, remains unanswered and unanswerable.
What we do know is this: The Indy isn't the first alt-weekly in the country to abruptly change hands. Jason Zaragoza, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, says such developments aren't exactly common, but they're far from unheard of. He cites The Baltimore Sun's acquisition of the Baltimore alt, City Paper, in 2014, and the $3 million purchase of the Chicago Reader in 2012 by the parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times. Both situations brought the weekly under the same umbrella as the local daily without dealing too big a blow to their weekly style. The City Paper, Zaragoza says, continues to produce its annual weed issue, and the news staff's coverage of 2015's Freddie Gray-inspired Baltimore uprising took a notably different tone from than that of the Sun.
"There are still ways for an AAN paper that's under that type of ownership to maintain an independent voice and be true to the values that they started with," Zaragoza says.
Coltman observes that while the community's fears about a weakened editorial voice at the Anchorage Press were eventually realized, the change wasn't immediate. "Despite everything, [the staff] still, in the trenches, were keeping up that independent spirit." Coltman says that only when Robert Meyerowitz, the editor who weathered the transition (and who later edited the Indy), left did the newsroom fall apart. The size of the paper gradually dwindled, Coltman says, from weekly page-counts in the 50s to maybe 32. The editorial staff shrank from 10 to two. In Coltman's assessment, while some of those changes were inevitably a "sign of our economic times," Wick was driven less by editorial success than by the business' bottom line.
Coltman stayed on as publisher for just six months after the purchase, at which point he grew too frustrated with being a mere link in the bureaucratic chain. He returned to the publisher's chair in March 2014, and immediately set about correcting what he perceived to be the failings of a string of "knucklehead" publishers.
"We got threatened with lawsuits three times in the first couple of months I was back, and I said, 'Yeah, see, I'm doing my job. We're shaking shit up,'" he says. "That surprised the daylights out of [Wick], but they were OK with it as long as I was going to stand by the stories and defend what we were doing." Coltman once again stepped down as publisher late last year, entering a diminished role as publisher emeritus after Wick's consolidation of the publisher position at three of its Alaska papers.
Unlike Lee in Missoula, Wick didn't own the local daily in Anchorage, though it did own the nearby Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. But even newsweekly ownership by the local daily hasn't always resulted in tumult. In spring 2015, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune bought the nearly 40-year-old alt City Pages from the privately held weekly chain Voice Media Group (formerly New Times). City Pages editor Pete Kotz, who along with publisher Mary Erickson stayed on through the transition, says that deal wound up being a good thing. A 17-year veteran of the alt-weekly world, Kotz notes that under Voice ownership, wages had been frozen for "more years than I can count with a public school education." Were staff and readers leery about the prospects for continued editorial independence? Sure. "They're not buccaneers like the Voice was," Kotz says of Star Tribune Media, "so they're much more skittish about the things we do. But just in terms of job security, it was a very good thing for most of the employees."
Still, Kotz doesn't offer his story as a parable for the Indy. Locally owned Star Tribune Media lacks the "Wall Street feel" of Lee Enterprises, he says. That said, he believes the troubles the Indy is bound to face will be largely operational—staffing, financials, IT issues. There might be some "hand-wringing from the mothership," he says, but his advice is straightforward: Keep doing what you're doing until you're told to stop.
"They natively won't understand what you do and why it works, and they'll often view you as a lesser species, a practicer of a lesser brand of journalism. So you'll just have to kind of deal with that. But as long as they keep it to hand-wringing and admonishing looks and still let you do what you do, I think you'll be fine."
As for whether he feels comfortable covering the Star-Tribune critically—another question that's been raised given the Indy's suddenly shared parentage with the Missoulian—Kotz's answer arrives without pause: "I wouldn't really hesitate at all."
You've got questions...
Q: Wait, Lee Banville owns the Indy now?
A: Nope, he's still a journalism prof at UM, and they hardly make that kind of money. We'll still quote him in every other issue, though.
Q: Umm, how does this not run afoul of federal antitrust laws?
A: Even with its acquisition of the Indy, Lee’s now-dominant print footprint is still just a fraction of Missoula’s available media. It’s unlikely that antitrust regulators will care.
Q: Can you still swear in print?
A: Our policy remains that we generally try to avoid gratuitous vulgarity except in quotation, where salty language may add color and realism to a narrative. So "fuck yeah."
Q: Will the paper still be free?
A: Yep, and a bargain at twice the price.
Q: Will the Independent still be able to report on the Missoulian?
A: Of course. And now, when we scoop them, they'll have to give us credit in their follow-ups. It's in the contract.
Q: Are the two papers going to combine offices?
A: They'd better hope not.
Q: Is the Missoulian going to continue publishing Corridor?
A: What's Corridor?
Q: Will the Independent comments section stay?
A: As long as y'all keep it civil.
Q: So does this mean Indy staffers can't take guns to work anymore?
A: 'Fraid so. You knew something had to change.
Q: If the staffs remain separate and the publications remain the same, how is Lee going to make money?
A: We don't have a clue. You should ask someone who's made some money.