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Lee Enterprises Closes Missoula Independent

Missoula Independent sign.
Josh Burnham
Missoula Independent sign.

The Missoula Independent newspaper that hit the stands last week will be its final edition.

Lee Enterprises announced Tuesday it has shut the paper down nearly a year and a half after buying the alternative weekly.

Indy reporter Derek Brouwer says his initial gut reaction was, “Anger that the story I had been working on all weekend – the cover for this Thursday’s paper – won’t end up being published. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around.”

That now-spiked story was a profile on outspoken Missoula City Councilman Jesse Ramos.

Lee officials informed the Indy staff early Tuesday morning that the company closed the paper and that staff needed to schedule appointments to retrieve their personal belongings.

The paper unionized back in April of this year and was in the middle of its first contract negotiations with the publishing giant.

Brouwer, who was also a member of the paper’s bargaining committee, says the union rejected a recent Lee proposal to cut three-quarters of the paper’s staff.

“However, we did offer them a counter-proposal which was essentially a plea to work together to come up with a time frame and a model and budget target to figure out together what it would take to make the paper work for the company.”

Brouwer’s take on why Lee decided to shutter the Indy?

“You know, you’d have to ask the company. They’ve provided no specific explanation to us as to why they’re shutting it down in this particular way on this particular day.”

We asked Matt Gibson for an explanation but heard nothing back. Gibson used to own the Indy before he sold it to Lee last year. He then became the general manager for the Lee-owned Missoulian, Ravalli Republic and Independent.

Gibson did however say in a story posted by the Missoulian Tuesday that the Independent was losing money and not financially sustainable. 

Lee Banville wonders if the Indy’s parent company tried hard enough to make a go of it. He doesn’t think Lee tried very hard to reinvent the weekly newspaper model. 

"I don’t see a big shift in the Indy from this week than it was the week before it was purchased by Lee," he says.

Banville is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana.

“I think in a lot of ways this may have more to do with the unionization of the staff than it has to do with the economic failure of the paper.”

Banville’s not the only one who think so.

A screen capture from the Missoula Independent website, March 19, 2018.
A screen capture from the Missoula Independent website, March 19, 2018.

Dan Brooks, a local freelance writer, was not a member of the Missoula News Guild.

“This decision coincides with unionization at the Indy," Brooks says. "Whether it was motivated by that is impossible to prove. However, Lee has responded negatively to unionization at its other newspapers.”

Brooks shares UM professor Lee Banville’s belief that more journalists will increasingly be tempted to unionize.

“There is power in a union. The industry puts us in the same position as steelworkers. There are a lot of people making an enormous amount of money from our labor, and we are not being compensated as fairly as we might be.”

Union or no, the Indy is gone and not coming back.

Journalism professor Banville says it excelled at, “Investigative reporting; spending the time like Derek Brouwer did to dig into that bitcoin operation out in Bonner was not done by anybody else. It’s time consuming, it's a lot of documents, and a daily newspaper doesn’t usually have the resources to let a reporter work that long on one big long story.”

Attempts to find that bitcoin story, or any other Missoula Independent story online, are futile. At the time of this recording, if you go to the paper’s webpage, you’ll be redirected to the Missoulian newspaper’s homepage.

“It does certainly seem to make it look more Draconian," Banville says. "There’ve been a lot of alt-weeklies that have closed; the Village Voice just closed last week – you can still go read the Village Voice (archives). To lose the Indy both as an institution going forward, but also the institutional knowledge of 20 years of reporting; to have that just disappear does seem to be something that, frankly, the publishers at the Missoulian and Lee should answer why they did it.”

Freelance writer Dan Brooks adds that the Indy’s readers appreciated its unique voice and attitude.

“There’s a strong contingent in Missoula that is suspicious of institutional authority. Rightly or wrongly they saw the Indy as an ally against institutional authority. I think the Indy also deliberately cultivated that tone and attitude. Certainly, we were careful of our relationships in the community, but I think we were more careful with our relationship with our readers, and that was ultimately reflected in the loyalty of our audience.”

Former Indy reporter Derek Brouwer meanwhile is pondering his next move.

I asked if he regretted his vote to unionize the paper.

“I’ve thought about that a lot, Ed. Missoula is aware of the decisions that have been made in a way that it wouldn't have been. The community would have had no insight into what was going on at this paper and the decisions that Lee faced if we hadn’t done this. I think that was a value that we were able to bring. No, I don’t think I would change my mind.”

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.
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