Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian and several other newspapers and magazines in Montana, has purchased Independent Publishing, including the Missoula Independent, the region's alternative weekly.
Mike Gulledge, vice president – publishing at Lee Enterprises, said both papers will remain editorially independent. The news coverage from each paper will remain separate, as will the advertising operations.
“Independent Publishing is an excellent addition to the Lee portfolio in Montana and further expands our already strong audience in Missoula and the surrounding communities,” said Gulledge, who also is regional publisher of the Billings Gazette, Missoulian and Ravalli Republic. “I look forward to working with Matt Gibson and The Independent team to build on the success they have generated in the Missoula region.”
Gulledge said all employees at the Indy, as it is known, will have the opportunity to keep the jobs they have now.
Missoula Independent publisher Matt Gibson will remain publisher, and will continue to have editorial and advertising oversight of the weekly paper.
“I’m excited to bring the Independent and its talented staff under Lee’s umbrella,” said Gibson. “Together, we’ll maximize our resources to deliver strong local reporting, and we’ll offer unbeatable audience reach and marketing savvy for advertisers.”
Missoulian Editor Kathy Best will have no input on the Indy's news coverage, nor will Gibson have input on the Missoulian's coverage, said Gulledge and Best.
Gulledge said he met with Gibson last year regarding talks about a purchase.
"We'll be stronger together," Gulledge told the Missoulian staff during a Thursday announcement.
The sale includes Big Sky Orogenic Racing and Events LLC, an event marketing and promotional company which sponsors a number of running and lifestyle events. Independent Publishing also produces several annual specialty publications.
The Indy began publishing in 1991 and is distributed at more than 480 locations in Missoula, Ravalli and Lake counties. It also has a significant online presence at missoulanews.com.
Gibson has owned the Independent since 1997. He began his career as a reporter in Livingston in 1990 and is the former president of the Montana Newspaper Association. He has also served on the board of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
Independent editor Brad Tyer said that he was surprised by the move.
"I am a little disconcerted, honestly,” he said a couple hours after the announcement. “I think we all have a lot of questions. We’re not really sure how it’s going to work out.”
Tyer said he and his staff will continue to operate as they have been.
“For the time being, we have been promised continuing editorial independence, and that’s an appropriate promise,” he said. “We are all hopeful that that turns out to be the case.
"The core of what we do, or what any news outlet does, ought to be skepticism. We have a healthy dose of skepticism, but we’re all staying put. Nobody’s leaving their desk. We’re going to give it an opportunity to see how it works out,'' he said.
“If we find out we don’t have editorial independence, you will see some staff changes,” he said. “As could be expected, until we get evidence that that’s not the case, we’ll take it at face value and keep doing what we’re doing.”
Tyer said he’s always worked for alternative weeklies and nonprofits, so he’s unfamiliar with working in more traditional daily journalism.
He said he's conferred with his colleagues and they're working on a story about the sale.
“It’s probably the biggest story in the history of the paper,” he said. “We’re going to give this news the full-court press and treat it the same way as we would if it happened to somebody across the street.
"Our default is to get back to work, and if we find out that something changes down the line and we can’t do that anymore, we’ll have to reconsider and no doubt will. But the attitude here is healthy skepticism.”
Lee Banville, an associate professor at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, said it’s not unprecedented for a daily paper to buy a so-called “alt weekly.”
“Papers are bought in other cities,” he said. “The Baltimore City Paper was purchased by the Baltimore Sun, so it’s happened in a couple places. It’s not totally unheard of.”
Banville said that it remains to be seen if readers of the Independent will continue to be loyal to it if they know it’s owned by a large corporation.
“It has to do a lot with the implementation of it,” Banville said. “If it’s going to be a standalone editorial publication, so there’s sort of a firewall between the two, and if most of the people at the Independent are there in a month or six from now, (readers) will have a level of acceptance.”
Banville intimated that there might be a level of skepticism from the community.
“Some people will be waiting for that moment where it seems like the Indy is becoming a modified version of Corridor,'' a specialty entertainment publication of the Missoulian, he said. “If that happens, they will make a decision about how they’re going to view that.
"Is it the entertainment weekly of the Missoulian or an alternative voice of news in Missoula? Structurally, it feels like they’re trying to keep it the latter. That’s right now. We’ll wait and see.”
Banville said alternative weeklies have traditionally challenged daily papers.
“The thing that alt weeklies bring to the community, where they’re strong and vibrant, is they often push the daily or major outlets on stories they feel might not be covered correctly,” he said. “It’s an alternative check on what the media is doing as much as they are on what the government is doing. So when they take the Missoulian on, will Lee (Enterprises) be OK with that?”
Banville said the news outlets have different roles in the community.
“The role of the Missoulian in Missoula is to tell everybody everything that’s going on with its city council, school boards, its food, its music and its culture,” he said. “It’s supposed to be the broad brush. For the size and resources the Missoulian is given, it does a really solid job of keeping everyone informed in the state and in their community.
"The Indy has a narrower focus, where they’re telling you long-form narrative stories and in-depth features. There are often times a heavy focus on politics, both at the state level and locally. And there’s a really heavy focus on music and arts.”
Banville said he feels the Indy has been successful at having different news coverage than the Missoulian.
“That has played out pretty well here,” he said. “The question is will they still be alternative when owned by a daily? Only time will tell – that’s a popular journalism saying. I would say it’s comforting to know they’re leaving in place the editorial structure. It’s interesting that they’re leaving the advertising structure in place.''
Banville said alt weeklies have been hit just as hard economically as daily papers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, newspaper publishers cut more than half their workforce from 2001 to 2016, which equals more than 238,000 jobs nationwide.
“I think alternative weeklies have had a rough go as well,” Banville said. “Their model is so different. They’re always free. They’ve always relied completely on advertising. I don’t know of a subscription model. But since they don’t deliver to homes, there is a reduced cost.
"That model is in some ways dicier, because it’s not so based on subscriptions and home delivery. But they’ve sometimes weathered the economic downturns better than the dailies did.”
Last August, Gibson took over publisher duties from Lynne Foland as a cost-saving measure.
“There are revenue challenges because of the migration of readers to the digital side,” he said at the time. “The revenue per reader on the digital side is considerably less than the revenue from readers in print. It’s a challenge for all media of any kind and we’re not immune from that. But whatever challenges there are to the industry, overall, newspapers remain extremely powerful media.”