Adventures in alternative journalism

The harrowing story of the missoula independent, as recalled by someone who survived it



I confess: I lied my way into my first job at the Independent. The paper was only six months old, and when publisher Erik Cushman asked me if I knew design and layout, I said yes. For that sin I was hired. My days I spent cleaning rooms at the Red Lion motel, but one night every other week, I sat on the sixth floor of the Montana building, struggling with the computer from midnight to sunrise.

I soon switched day jobs to work at a group home for developmentally disabled adults. When the Indy (which we all called it to Erik’s chagrin) published my cover story on violence in the home where I worked, I got my first satisfying taste of the good that journalism can do. The article precipitated a big shakeup at the corporation that ran those homes, and I accepted a job as the Independent’s very first full-time paid reporter.

Rarely did a story have such an impact. More often were the misspelled names, articles with their endings chopped off (I was still doing layout), others that were ill-advised, poorly written, half-informed—all the hallmarks of fledgling community journalism. We were all novices, with only each other to learn from. Our mistakes were made very publicly, but our readers were mostly forgiving.

In those early days (a period lasting the first five years), our paychecks were largely imaginary, supplemented by trips to the food bank. Even when things improved, no one was paid their worth; quite a few people were never paid at all. We counted our profits in terms of community support. There was the first $1,000 donation that bought the printer; a local musician who met our payroll one day with the proceeds from a mushroom sale; countless donations of food and mechanical services, advice from established writers who often sent a check along with whatever story they let us run for free. We were given complimentary admission to concerts, movies, festivals—the sorts of things that make life in Missoula fun, which would have been out of our reach otherwise.

It was all in the name of community journalism, the idea that Missoulians needed a locally owned forum to express their identities, work out their problems, and celebrate their lives. We did not know then that Lee Enterprises would soon gobble up all the other papers in western Montana, but the trend was clear on a micro-level at the Missoulian. Otherwise competent, caring writers were already overworked beyond their capacity to do a thorough job at a time when good journalism was desperately needed. As logging companies liquidated the trees on their lands and lied about it, environmental reporter Dick Manning was forced from his job for telling the truth. Welfare reform was just around the corner, and someone needed to tell those stories. Missoula’s arts community was bursting with incredible works by the likes of sculptor Joe Batt, poet Janisse Ray, actor Severt Philleo, an enlivened bar-music scene, but the daily was simply stuck in the corporate spin cycle, unable to join the joyous orgy of creativity.

Into that void we leaped without a second thought. I wrote about the ways welfare reform screwed Montana’s poor families, and abandoned the sick and homeless to their own exhausted resources. I reported on the difficult lives of gay teenagers, the FBI’s persecution of Missoula’s environmental community, the “corporatization” of university classrooms. My longest day involved a story on a civil war brewing within the Mountain Line bus system, which culminated in a 1 a.m. board meeting over whether to toss out a manager hired by a Cincinnati-based company that knew little about the town it was trying to serve. I wrote the story, slept for two hours, then pulled a production shift, exhausted but happy beyond reason in my work.

Writers like Jack Thorndike, Earth First! co-founder Howie Wolke, and Dan Oko married solid reporting to poetic language, grounded in time spent on the land, to pioneer a new kind of environmental journalism. “Don’t be afraid to write about the land when you’re writing about the politics,” Jack told me, and so logging stories became forest stories, and mining was about the river. “All journalists should be environmentalists,” editor Eric Johnson proclaimed, and we set about doing our part to save bears and wolves, forests and rivers and mountains from the attitudes and industries that have kept Montana like a Third World province for most of its written history.

As we struggled with our reporting, the Independent’s columnists gave the paper a great eccentric personality. Bill Chaloupka pushed us from the left to believe we could own our local governments, while Blackfeet journalist Woody Kipp refused to let us Anglos settle comfortably on the land we rarely understood and never owned. We had our very own, very funny political cartoonist in Greg Siple. And in the back of the book, Kent Brothers mechanic Steve Bierwag indulged his alter-ego as MotorHead in a blend of Zen car maintenance and soap opera far stranger than the “Car Talk” guys’ weirdest dreams. Anyone with spare time was sent to review movies, and the result was a dark period in arts reporting at the paper (no one liked anything, a vision probably driven by the nocturnal arts editor). I came and went often in those days, moving to other alternative weeklies in Denver and Austin. The crew changed every six months or so. But always the Eric/ks were at the helm, a pair of charismatic leaders, charming bankers into more loans, holding off the creditors, keeping the electricity on and the staff from revolting. The paper was accused of being a boys’ club, and while plenty of us women put in our time, the force of the Eric/k’s personalities was overwhelming. They made us macho and arrogant, cocky and ambitious. And hungry for justice, excited for life. Without it, we’d have never made it this far.

If you’re a long-time reader, you remember these articles, too. But an issue telling the whole story would be heavy with our lives; the tolls taken by 50-hour work weeks, sleepless nights, poverty and alcoholism also forged great bonds between us. There were divorces, homes mortgaged beyond all reason, hardships that only brought us closer. As I sit and reminisce, the names of my colleagues still come with great intensity: Randi, Victor, Heather, Marc. McCarthy, Michael, Kent, Shannon. Charley, Becky and Carmen. Now it seems inevitable that under such pressure, we’d explode.

The turning point came on our sixth anniversary, six months after the paper was sold to a wealthy local businessman. The new owner fired Erik, and most of the staff walked. There were charges of betrayal, rumors of treachery from our former friends and mentors, and what seemed like overpowering recriminations from the community. Dan Oko and I stayed, and with a skeleton crew of two reporters--Zach Dundas and Dan Nailen--and a handful of freelancers, we published. We struggled to convince ourselves of the reasons we stayed, and published again. We fought with our old bosses and with the new one, and kept on publishing. Eventually the community came around. “You took a hit,” a friend advised Oko. “Acknowledge it and move on.” Soon a new crew of writers signed on—three talented journalism students we paid $25 a week each—and buoyed by their enthusiasm, the wounds began to heal.

How has it been 10 years? I like to think all that time we’ve done our best to speak for the voiceless and challenge the powerful, to push ourselves and our readers to respect one another, and to be better than we really are.

One day after Dan Oko and I took over, a man named David Crisp walked into the office. He wanted to start an alternative weekly in Billings and was looking for advice. I had little to give. “Walk away,” I wanted to say. But he didn’t, and the Billings Outpost is now three and a half years old. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut. Starting a newspaper is the most difficult, painful, rewarding task I can imagine.

The memories are still as bitter as they are sweet, and I’d never do it again. But I’m proud of us all for trying, and proud of those still on the masthead. Fight the good fight, guys. It’s the only thing worth doing. Barbara Bick CEO, The Wilma Amusement Co.

Q: What do you think of the Missoula Independent, and how do you use it? Follow-up: How would Missoula be different without an alternative newsweekly like the Missoula Independent?
The Independent is one of the many tools we use in our operations. Our businesses are based on folks knowing about the goods and services we provide; the Independent does a great job in their varied columns informing the community of on-going and up-coming events. We really appreciate the professional way the Independent staff gets the word out for most all events in the Missoula area. Hey, the weather’s not that bad: It would be a cold and dark place. The Independent is not only an arts and entertainment tool for my businesses, it’s also a great resource for information and news about my community and the state of Montana. The other guys do a great job, but the Independent excels on entertainment information, political goings-on and environmental issues. — Nick Domitrovich

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