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Did Missoula Just Get A Little Less Weird?

Cover of the Missoula Independent
Cover of the Missoula Independent

Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian newspaper and several other papers in Montana, announced Thursday it’s purchased the Missoula Independent. The sale price was not disclosed.

The Independent, a weekly alternative paper, was founded in 1991 and is distributed at almost 500 locations in Missoula, Ravalli and Lake counties. Lee operates papers in 21 states and is estimated to reach almost 3 million readers in print alone.

Missoulian publisher Mike Gulledge could not immediately be reached for comment but is quoted in a Missoulian story as saying both papers will remain editorially independent.

The Dean of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, Larry Abramson, hopes that’s the case.

“We need a paper to cast a skeptical eye on what the dominant paper is doing," Abramson says. "We also need some of the often clever, sometimes snarky voices that we read in the Independent. I hope they’ll continue to have the freedom to do that. I don’t have any reason to think that they won’t.”

Missoula Independent publisher Matt Gibson promises those ‘clever, sometimes snarky voices’ aren’t going anywhere. Gibson says all eighteen staffers were retained at their current salary, but offered a better benefits package. He thinks the papers are a good match:

"The ownership of the paper does not determine its quality. What I'm most proud of is the way the Independent and its advertisers and content have contributed to the character of the community. I think when we imagine the things that we appreciate most about Missoula, we can think of the Independent and our attitude toward the creative life here, the intellectual life here, the fact that we have fun and we don't pull our punches."

Edward O'Brien: It's interesting you say that. I was talking with somebody I know today about this — not a reporter, not a politician — just a hard-working woman who pays attention to the news, and this is a direct quote, she said, "I think it's kind of sad about Lee buying the Indy. It's the end of an era. Missoula just got a little less weird."

Matt Gibson: Well, hopefully more weird. Look, it's the same people doing the same thing. I don't foresee it changing just because we're under different management. People can imagine what they want about what this means, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding. And what we're going to do is keep putting out the paper the same way we have, this week, and next week, and every week moving forward. And people can judge whether it changes or not and let us know. I'm still on board. My whole crew's still on board, and commitment to the work has not changed one bit.

EOB: Mr. Gibson, how did this deal unfold? Who approached whom and why?

MG: The underlying issues that are driving the deal are the pace of technological innovation and changing advertising trends. The internet is changing the way commerce happens. And it's changing too fast for a small, independent weekly in Missoula, MT, to keep up and sustain the work that we'd done. We needed a big brother to give us the resources to innovate and compete. I think we're stronger together. We can do things for us that we were never going to be able to do for ourselves.

EOB: Things like what?

MG: Starting with technological resources. You know, they own Town News, which is probably the most widely used newspaper publishing platform in the world. Through that platform, we can create opportunities for digital sales. In addition, I think some of the back office functions that we're going to be able to utilize will help us create a little bit of efficiency.

EOB: How concerned are you that one Mr. Gullidge will peak over your shoulder and say, "Yeah, Matt, that story shouldn't run." You know what I'm saying?

MG: Yeah. That's not the thing that worries, and I don't think my crew is really concerned about that. They're more concerned like, how are things going to work? We don't know yet. We're going to get to know each other. And that's going to be an interesting process.

EOB: This is a cynical question to ask, but is it possible Lee bought the Indy to eventually close it down and eliminate the advertising competition.

MG: You can entertain the possibility, but nobody has indicated anything like that. All of the dialogue has been that they want to continue with the Indy, they want it to be what it is, they want to take advantage of its strength. They brought me on and made a commitment to me. To do that, it'd be foolish. It would destroy so much good will in the community, which is not the strategic play. The strategic play is to build good will. That's their priority as far as I know, and that's my priority for them. I want to help them build the image of strength and quality of professional news coverage in Missoula, MT.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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