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You know that Lee bought the Indy. Do you know why?

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Q: What's the best-case scenario?

A: Lee infuses the Indy with desperately needed cash and resources and we both become better papers through healthy competition and operational efficiencies.

Q: What's the worst-case scenario?

A: Donald Trump goes to war with North Korea, which fires a nuclear missile that triggers the Yellowstone caldera, and everything dies except the Missoula Current, which becomes more relevant than ever.

Q: Is Dan Brooks/News of the Weird/Free Will Astrology/The Advice Goddess/Tom Tomorrow still going to be in the paper?

A: Until the end of time.

Q: Is Uncle Lee making you say all this? Wink if you need us to send help.

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Counsel of the elders

by Alex Sakariassen

Apparently nothing sparks anger, confusion and resentment in the Missoula community quite like a shakeup in the Fourth Estate. Based on the response to Lee Enterprise's purchase of the Indy's sale in local bars and on social media, you might have thought that Lee had rebuilt the Merc just to knock it down again. And it felt nice—really, really nice—not being the only ones going, "Wuh-huh?"

That cocktail of strong emotions wasn't confined to Missoula, or to our staff and loyal readers. In its 26 years, the Indy has attracted and provided a temporary home for all kinds of talented misfits and mavens, many of whom continue to keep a close eye on their beloved former paper. There was nothing wistful about their reactions to the new ownership.

Indy cofounder Erik Cushman worked through "long winters and low wages" here from the paper's inception in 1991 until shortly after its sale to Jeff Smith in 1996. Asked about the sale, the first words out of his mouth were, "I do think a name change is in order." He says the Indy's "oppositional nature" has always been "part of its gestalt," forged out of the tenacity and creativity of the people it attracts. That's hard stuff to fake, and his prognostications for a Lee-owned Indy echo a lot of the fears we've already heard.

"It's not necessarily, 'You can't use the word fuck, and you can't write about dope and rock and roll,'" says Cushman, now publisher of the locally owned Monterey County Weekly in California. "It's going to be, 'Here, we're going to consolidate and find opportunities to combine resources.' That's what their DNA is."

Zach Dundas started his stint at the Indy in 1994 as a University of Montana freshman, pulling double-duty as a contributor and delivery boy. He stayed on through two ownership changes—Jeff Smith's 1996 acquisition, and Matt Gibson's purchase from Smith in 1997. For Dundas, the sale is the end of one story for sure: that of the Independent as a freestanding paper owned by a succession of "outsized personalities."

"In some romantic sense, it's sad to see that era of entrepreneurial hustle come to an end," says Dundas, now executive editor at Portland (Oregon) Monthly, "because I think really that was key to the paper's identity and part of what made it great."

Indy cofounders Eric Johnson, left, and Erik Cushman at a Flaming Lips concert in Big Sur in 2012. The two were saddened by news of our sale, but wish us the best. Thanks guys. - PHOTO COURTESY ERIC JOHNSON
  • photo courtesy Eric Johnson
  • Indy cofounders Eric Johnson, left, and Erik Cushman at a Flaming Lips concert in Big Sur in 2012. The two were saddened by news of our sale, but wish us the best. Thanks guys.

Dundas adds that if Lee is smart, the company will invest in the Indy's current staff and let it keep doing what it does best with improved resources. Good journalism can thrive under all kinds of ownership, and the Indy's voice has stayed strong through some jarring moments in the past. It's a "keep calm and carry on moment," Dundas says, one that requires a skeptical eye and open mind from everyone.

Former editor Andrea Peacock, whose stint as an Indy reporter was also her first paid gig, was saddened by news of the sale. It seemed to her then that investigative journalism was "a necessary and honorable profession." It still is.

"But I don't know that anyone's come up with a way to make the business model work, so that reporters can make a living at it," Peacock says. "I don't doubt that Matt [Gibson] poured an obscene amount of money into the Independent over the last 20 years. So did Eric Johnson and Erik Cushman, and so did Jeff Smith. All those guys made enormous personal and financial sacrifices because they believed in what we were doing."

Peacock adds that she's "truly not worried" about Lee exerting editorial control over the Independent. She does, however, believe the company will "squeeze that paper dry," demanding it meet tougher and tougher financial goals. The same story has played out at papers all over the country. "It's been going on for decades," she says.

The change is sad as well for former Indy photographer Chad Harder. The paper has covered stories in ways the Missoulian couldn't or wouldn't, he says, from "religious nutballs in the Bitterroot" to 2000's downtown riots—during which Harder was pepper-sprayed while photographing the news. In the face of stressful hours, unreturned calls and stacked deadlines, Harder says, it was always empowering to know we "weren't working for The Man."

Skylar Browning, an 11-year veteran who left the editor's chair last fall, says he was "bummed" by news of the sale. During his time at the Indy, Browning was always appreciative of the paper's sole-ownership status, and never took it for granted. Was he surprised? Not really. "I think as the media landscape changed, it was clear that that might not last forever."

Asked for advice, Browning—who hired everyone currently on the editorial staff except current editor Brad Tyer, whom he recommended for the position when he departed—advised a renewed focus on the job. Readers will judge for themselves, he says, whether anything important changes.

"As long as the people there are able to do the type of work that they've always done, and even better work, then the Indy will stay in good hands," Browning says. "But I'm as curious as anyone how things are going to play out from here."

The sale has been a constant theme in cofounder Eric Johnson's life over the past several days. He heard of it almost immediately through phone calls and Facebook, with one post from a friend declaring the news "your worst nightmare." Johnson says he was shocked and disappointed. As he began to read Gibson's comments on his ambition to leverage Lee's resources to strengthen the Indy, and our own statements of continuing editorial purpose, he says, he became increasingly heartened. He gets that the community is "freaking out." For many readers, he says, it wasn't some independent owner's paper—it was their paper.

And he wants us to give it a chance to work.

"Give Matt a chance to fight battles for you so that you can keep the paper alive. Because if the Independent was to go away because the seasoned, experienced, deeply ethical staff decided to walk on principle ... the paper would suffer and the community would suffer."

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