It had to happen.
I don't mean that in the weaselly sense of change is inevitable. I mean that the option, sooner than later, was likely no Missoula Independent at all. Nobody wants to say that quite entirely out loud, for obvious reasons, but you tell me what to make of this, from the paper's publisher and now-former owner, Matt Gibson:
"There were no better outcomes available for the Independent. And the worst possible outcomes were clearly possible. If we had any kind of unexpected trouble it was going to threaten the very existence of the paper."
That's not to say that Gibson isn't optimistic about the paper's prospects under its new ownership. But it is to note that it's an optimism born in the crucible of necessity.
I had the good fortune to be able to edit this newspaper from 2000 to 2007. Since October, I've had the good fortune to be able to edit it again. It's different now. The page count is leaner. We used to have a bureau reporter in the Flathead. We don't have a staff photographer anymore. Just this year the editorial department has taken a 15 percent budget cut. I negotiated our already negligible syndicate fees for Free Will Astrology and The Advice Goddess to half-price. We cut our copy editor's hours by two-thirds.
The point is that all the arrows were pointing in the wrong direction, and the Independent had neither the reserves nor the resources to either turn it around or ride it out.
That, as best I understand from Gibson and personal experience, is why he sold the paper to Lee Enterprises.
Now what does Lee get out of it?
Lee thinks it can get the Independent's attractive and remarkably loyal audience, and with it the advertisers who find that audience appealing. That audience is ours, not theirs, and so it is entirely logical for Lee vice president and Missoulian (and Billings Gazette) publisher Mike Gulledge to say, "If we try to change the Independent, we're making a mistake. I don't want to change the Independent. I want to build on it."
Lee's forbearance with the Indy's editorial approach will be proofed in pudding (and Gulledge acknowledges that "We're going to have to prove to the folks that are doubting").
Otherwise, of course there will be change, though little if any has so far been specified. The papers may combine their printing processes and save on freight. They might eventually share office space to save on rent. Gulledge and Gibson both think that Lee's resources in the digital realm can be leveraged to increase Independent revenues.
Gulledge also expresses special interest in the Independent's events business, Big Sky Orogenic Racing and Events, which encompasses the Montana Mucker series and the Montana Snow Joke half-marathon.
"We don't have a platform here that's event marketing," Gulledge says, "and I do think that's a big piece of the future when it comes to marketing opportunities."
So, why is this happening? Because we need Lee's help, and because Lee wants our business.
That's the simple story. In the pages that follow we try to complicate it—with what we've learned about Lee and Gulledge, what we know about the import and aftermath of similar sales in other parts of the country, reactions and advice from a who's-who of Indy luminaries, and a Q&A cheat-sheet of what to expect. Some of which is simply unknown. Because nothing this complicated is ever that simple.
Meeting Uncle Lee
Riding for a new, old brand
by Derek Brouwer
The sludge in the Indy coffeepot is reliably terrible, and I was in the mood for a spit-take-caliber brew the morning former owner Matt Gibson gathered the staff and announced he'd sold the paper to our corporate competitor. Lee Enterprises executives, he said, were on the way over to tell us more. I headed for the break room.
That's where Mike Gulledge found me. Gulledge is Lee's highest-ranking employee in Montana, a company lifer and vice president who earned $456,411 last year, according to company financial disclosures. He's been publisher of the state's largest newspaper, the Billings Gazette, since 2000 and overseen the Missoulian since March, when former publisher Mark Heintzelman's position was eliminated. Gulledge negotiated the Indy sale for Lee.
Gulledge smiled—he looks a lot like Fantasia-era Mickey Mouse when he does—and extended an arm. It was good to see me again, he said.
For two years I worked as a reporter for Lee, in Helena and then in Billings. My only extended conversation with Gulledge took place after I submitted my notice at the Gazette. He wanted to know why I was leaving his newspaper for the alt-weekly in Missoula, where I would earn a lot less. I remember three details about the meeting: 1) Gulledge requested it through his assistant; 2) he closed the door to his office with the push of a button behind his desk; and 3) a framed, unsigned quote about what makes a "good newspaper" hung on the wall (more on that later). A couple of weeks prior, company cost-cutting had claimed the state's two most-respected reporters, Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, from Lee's capital bureau. I think I told Gulledge I wanted to do a kind of journalism that hadn't seemed possible at Lee. I felt pretty righteous. (Gulledge recalls me telling him that I wasn't unhappy, I just wanted to seek out other opportunities while I was young.)