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.)
Now Gulledge was at the Indy office, shaking my hand again, my god-awful cup of coffee in the other. Uncle Lee, as some seasoned staffers used to call the company, had me back in his grasp.
The company known today as Lee Enterprises has been the dominant newspaper group in Montana for more than half a century, since a Wisconsin publisher purchased papers in Missoula, Billings, Helena and Butte from the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in 1959. Of the 49 daily newspapers that Lee owns around the country, five are in Montana—more than are owned by all other media companies in the state combined. The Iowa-headquartered company's outsized presence here brings the benefits of scale, University of Montana journalism historian Dennis Swibold notes, but it also means that when the company runs into trouble, news suffers statewide.
The last decade or so in particular has brought plenty of trouble. Lee's recent woes are well known to many Indy readers—this paper has covered them for years. The defining moment arrived in 2005, when Lee took on more than $1 billion in debt to purchase the Pulitzer chain of newspapers. It was a bad time for a newspaper company to enter into debt. The ground under the media industry was shifting, decimating advertising revenue. A recession followed, and by 2011 Lee sought bankruptcy protection to restructure its debt payments. Since then, Lee, like every media company, has been in a race to cut costs more quickly than its revenues are falling, while also using "substantially all available cash" to pay down debt, as Lee chairwoman Mary Junck said in an investor call last February.
The fallout has been considerable. Company disclosures with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission indicate that Lee's workforce has been cut in half since 2008. Corporate managers developed a reputation for being "pretty quick with the hook" on local publishers who didn't meet financial goals, Swibold says. Johnson, the former capital bureau chief, recalls staff at the Independent Record throwing their own Christmas parties after the company stopped sponsoring them. Veteran staffers stopped getting raises. Lee's Montana dailies now have their pages designed out of state.
- photo courtesy Larry Mayer
- Mike Gulledge, who splits his time between Billings and Missoula as publisher of the Gazette and Missoulian, negotiated the purchase of the Indy for Lee Enterprises.
"After the purchase of the Pulitzer papers, it just seemed to be a downward spiral in terms of their finances," Johnson says. "That's when they didn't invest too much in the product."
Turmoil wrought by tight finances has been on prominent display at the Missoulian, which is now on its third editor and third publisher since 2015. As part of a Montana Human Rights Bureau case brought by former editor Sherry Devlin last year, the company disclosed that 55 Missoulian employees were either terminated or quit between September 2014 and November 2015. Earlier this year, company-wide cost reductions eliminated three more positions from the Missoulian newsroom, including 25-year veteran sports editor Bob Meseroll.
The trend continued in Lee's latest quarterly report. Total operating revenue dropped 7.2 percent, despite growth in the digital sector, where Lee is concentrating its efforts. In a press release, Kevin Mowbray, president and chief executive officer, said, "We remain highly focused on cost reductions" on the order of another 5 or 6 percent in 2017.
Gulledge is the only Lee publisher in Montana to have survived the last decade. Three former Lee employees who worked with Gulledge in recent years describe him as a savvy manager who runs a tight ship but rarely tries to shape editorial coverage.
"He's a very strategic thinker, creating plans and hitting benchmarks financially," says former Gazette marketing and niche publications director Allyn Hulteng, who left last year to start a marketing firm.
While still based in Billings, Gulledge assumed publisher duties over the Missoulian in March after Heintzelman departed (Heintzelman declined to discuss his exit with the Indy). The Missoulian story announcing the change noted Gulledge's tie to western Montana in the form of a home on Flathead Lake, which state property tax records appraise at $1.2 million. He will now supervise Gibson, who remains as Indy publisher. The pair will lead Lee's experiment in running an alt-weekly newspaper. Announcing the purchase to Indy staff, Gulledge made mention of Lee's 2004 purchase of the Casper Journal, a community weekly in Wyoming that was started as a competitor to the Lee-owned Casper Star-Tribune. Dale Bohren sold the Journal to the Star-Tribune and today is executive editor of both publications. He says the Journal continued to operate separately for several years as he searched for ways to "find a margin, of course."
Over time, Bohren says, it made sense to integrate his old weekly into the primary product. First, the Journal became a free paper distributed to residents who weren't Star-Tribune subscribers, and it retained original content, letters and editorials. In February of this year, 13 years after the sale, Bohren decided to scrap the original content. The Journal now consists of repackaged material that was previously published in the daily paper.
"Congratulations," Bohren told me when I called him. "You're in for a really good ride."
The Indy's journey may not follow the Journal's. Based on her experience running niche magazines for the Gazette, Hulteng says the company is likely to see the Indy's established style and audience as an asset. "From a business perspective, it would seem appealing to add that to the portfolio while maintaining distinct personalities," she says.
The quotation I noticed in Gulledge's office, about what makes a good newspaper, is still there. Last week, I asked a former coworker to send me a photo of it. It reads: "A good newspaper is not afraid to put its arms around its town and say it loves its community. Readers know; they always know. They know the difference between mindless boosterism and being the village scold. They are quick to detect indifference or scorn parading in the name of objectivity."
I tracked the line back to a 1996 column in industry magazine Editor & Publisher, a screed by North Carolina publisher Rolfe Neill about the newspaper industry's plummeting circulation numbers. The column is titled, "Newspapers Must Save Their Own Lives."
When I asked Gulledge on Tuesday about the quote, he told me he wasn't the one who'd hung it on the wall.
"I inherited it, but I didn't want to move it," he said. "I think it's spot-on. All we have is credibility."
What happens when this happens?
The Indy isn't the first independent weekly to fall under corporate ownership. Here's how it's played out elsewhere.
by Alex Sakariassen
When Nick Coltman broke the news to his staff at the Anchorage Press in 2006 that he'd sold the paper to the multi-state media corporation Wick Communications, the reception wasn't exactly warm. Coltman and his wife had helped cofound the free news weekly in 1992, and Coltman had served as publisher since 1996. Making the announcement was tough, Coltman says, because "you're messing with people's lives."
"Honestly, it kind of felt like I was betraying my family," he says now. "When you sell the company, as the patriarch of that family, it was hard. There were a lot of tears when I announced it. That was probably the hardest thing."
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.
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.
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."
- 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."