Price of ‘independent’: Can this weekly paper stay critical of its new owner?

Photo by Derek Brouwer.

THE MISSOULA INDEPENDENT, the decades-old western Montana alt-weekly, was acquired last week by Lee Enterprises, the state’s largest newspaper chain. Around the time Indy staffers were filling out their new W4 forms, The Missoulian—the city’s daily paper, a Lee publication whose offices are just blocks from the Indy headquarters—published an online story about the deal.

The next day, The Missoulian’s print issue ran more coverage of the deal on A-1, above the fold (and news of President Donald Trump dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan). On Facebook, Indy editor Brad Tyer posted a photo of the daily’s front page along with a comment: “We beat the fucking bomb.”

The Missoulian’s scoop was a bit of a turnabout; the alt-weekly, which has been independently owned since its founding in 1991, has a history of aggressively watchdogging its corporate competitor-turned-owner. Just hours after hearing about the takeover, Indy reporter Derek Brouwer took to Twitter and reminded local readers of precisely that.

Brouwer, who defected from a Lee Enterprises newspaper in 2015 for less money and more freedom in the alt-weekly world, posted links to every story he wrote about the Missoulian. Headlines included: “Former Missoulian editor sues publisher, company,” “Missoulian editor addresses gun incident, awaits fate,” “Without any editors, Missoulian gets relief from Billings,” and “‘Rogue’ publisher settles.” Then Brouwer wrote this:

And that’s true. Ever since alt-weeklies began popping up in cities with a daily newspaper presence, lobbing bombs at the dailies and keeping them on their toes has been key to an alt-weekly’s role in its community. In Missoula—a mountainous college town with a bohemian vibe, a civically engaged community, a rich literary history and an active outdoor culture—the Indy has been particularly diligent about that.

At one point, “you had the former [Missoulian] editor and the former publisher all in lawsuits with the Missoulian-slash-Lee at the same time that the new editor was suspended indefinitely for bringing a firearm to the newsroom,” former Indy editor Skylar Browning told me. “And we covered all that stuff.”

 

TWO YEARS AGO, THE BIGGEST MEDIA NEWS in Montana came when Lee Enterprises restructured its state bureau in Helena, losing two prominent journalists in the process. At the time, I wrote about how the move sparked talks of new approaches to public affairs coverage in Montana, and asked whether a new journalism project might emerge to fill what one University of Montana professor called a “void.” Since then, no such independent statewide project has emerged.

However, Lee hired two reporters to aggressively cover statewide issues for its newspapers in Montana—Jayme Fraser, who came from The Houston Chronicle, and Holly Michels, a former city editor at The Billings Gazette. The two cover the capitol and have crisscrossed Montana offering compelling coverage of state government since 2015. Elsewhere, a digital news startup, Missoula Current, launched, and TreeSource.org, a new online magazine, seeks to fill the gaps in forest reporting.*

Whether the Indy will be able to continue its role as a local media watchdog along with retaining its independent voice has been a critical question for its staff and readership since the sale.

“I think The Missoulian gives us the chips and the Indy gives us the salsa,” says Henriette Lowisch, a journalism professor at the University of Montana who oversees the Montana Journalism Review. “That means they both are hugely valuable for the community.”

Missoula is a town that takes its journalism seriously. The university hosts a journalism school run by a former national security correspondent for NPR, and a creative writing program whose faculty includes a former Newsweek editor and a Knight-Wallace fellow. Jon Krakauer scrutinized the city’s response to sexual assaults for a book that bears the city’s name. Several New Yorker contributors have called the city home; one, Dan Baum, worked for the Indy in 1999.

The city’s investment in the quality of its reporting colored statewide coverage. “It’s a media sale that surprised many,” one broadcaster said. “Did Missoula just get a little less weird?” asked Montana Public Radio. The AP carried a wire report, and various blogs ran with their own (often insightful) takes.

The news also prompted some local activism. On Monday,  Indy staffers found that someone had defaced the sign outside their building by coloring in the first two letters of the paper’s name to make it read “dependent.”

Photo by Derek Brouwer.

Photo by Derek Brouwer.

IN ITS FIRST ISSUE UNDER NEW OWNERS, the Indy covered its sale with the same vigor it previously devoted to covering The Missoulian. The editorial department scrapped its planned feature for this week’s issue and instead devoted the cover package, which came out Thursday, to reporting and analysis of the deal and what it means for Missoula. The Missoulian’s story on the deal totaled more than 1,300 words—no small number for a daily paper. Coverage in the Indy, however, topped 5,000.

Indy reporters explored the reasons why Lee and the alt-weekly chose to merge, checked in with other alt-weeklies around the country that have been bought by MSM papers to find out what happened in other markets, and sought counsel from the Indy’s founders. Under the headline “Daily chain, on life support, buys a helping Indy hand,” a columnist offered a snark-filled humorous take.

The Indy also provided its readers with more background on Lee’s finances than The Missoulian did:

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. …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…

The Indy also offered some context for how Lee handled one previous acquisition of a weekly:

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.

“We kind of drew a line in the sand,” Indy editor Tyer told me about his paper’s public response. Still, he says, “I don’t want to give a false impression that this is like the last resistance or something.” Lee Enterprises owns the Indy, says Tyer. “They’re going to do what they want with it and there’s really nothing we can do about that. And we’re not here to fight them. We’re going to try our best to lead them to water.”

Kathy Best, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former Seattle Times editor who became The Missoulian’s editor in June, says the opinion in her newsroom is Lee bought the Indy to help it reach a different audience, not to change it. She hopes the paper keeps doing what it does—and that includes keeping watch on Lee and The Missoulian.

“I’ve worked in Seattle and Baltimore and St. Louis, all of which had alt-weeklies, all of which loved beating up on the daily,” she said. “And that’s part of their job. And I appreciate that, and I think it’s healthy. We need somebody who’s going to poke us with a sharp stick. All I ask is that they do it with thorough reporting and that they’re fair. We’re not perfect, so that’s OK.”

The Indy’s coverage of the sale got kudos from Mike Gulledge, vice president of publishing for Lee Enterprises and publisher of The Missoulian.

“I thought they did a nice job, and I think we need to prove that we’re going to be able to do the right thing in building on the strengths of an alt-weekly, and I was fine with the coverage,” he told CJR. “It was what I expected.” He did have one caveat. “I’ve never been linked to a Disney character before, that was interesting,” he said. (A reporter had written that Gulledge “looks a lot like Fantasia-era Mickey Mouse” when he smiles.)

Gulledge reiterated that the alt-weekly and the daily will remain editorially separate and he does not see a path to a merger at this point. The Indy has its own voice and audience, and Lee wants to build on it, he said, not try and build it into the audience of the Missoulian.

Based on my experience with the company, do I have the most confidence that the Indy will become stronger and have an even stronger alternative voice than it has had in its history? Not particularly.

Reasons for the alt-weekly takeover seem simple enough: Dwindling display ad revenue in the face of digital migration where the online ad dollars don’t add up. And the Indy isn’t the first alt-weekly to get gobbled by the corporate MSM: It joins the ranks of The Anchorage Press, The Chicago Reader, The Baltimore City Paper, The City Pages in Minneapolis, and my own alma mater, the Columbia, South Carolina Free Times.

Indy publisher Matt Gibson says he realized more than a year ago that he had to make some kind of move to keep his paper sustainable. He had been in talks with Lee for a while.

“Looking down the road, I think it’s hard to imagine a little independent weekly in Missoula, Montana, growing,” he told me. “So that was the challenge: How can I sustain this over the long haul? And I think partnering with Lee Enterprises gives us by far the best chance to continue the work.”

Gibson, now a Lee employee, will remain the Indy’s publisher, and says the papers will be “stronger together.” He expects the news operations to remain separate and the alt-weekly to keep its voice. The Indy will retain ownership of its building and will lease it to Lee. Gibson declined to share the sale price with CJR.

 

AFTER THE INDY‘S COVERAGE of the sale had filled newspaper boxes around Missoula, Brouwer retweeted a few links to his colleagues’ work:

Brouwer says Lee Enterprises plays an outsized role in Montana as the state’s largest newspaper chain. He tells CJR that his job isn’t designed for him to focus exclusively on the company and its papers, which now include his own, but it’s a valuable endeavor.  

“No one has said anything to us in an attempt to discourage or stop that kind of coverage,” he tells me. “It’s a little counterintuitive, but the way they’ve sort of framed it is that our brand of journalism is our value to the company, and, from that perspective, they don’t want to stop that.”

Whether readers in Missoula will trust such coverage going forward is something the Indy staff will have to prove through their work. A sticker recently appeared on at least one newspaper box with a slogan inspired by the deal: “Missoulian Independent: The Death [of] Journalism in Missoula.”

Brouwer says his only fear is a potential for self-censorship.

“I think this is a new experiment for the company and we don’t know how it will turn out,” he says. “Based on my experience with the company, do I have the most confidence that the Indy will become stronger and have an even stronger alternative voice than it has had in its history? Not particularly. But I don’t think the door is shut. I don’t think the future is set in stone.”

*This story has been updated with new information about Lee Enterprises’ state capitol coverage. CJR deeply regrets the omission of that information from its initial report.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.