HELENA — The 10 non-management employees of the Missoula Independent today filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to begin the process of forming a union, the Missoula News Guild Organizing Committee announced via a press release issued late Monday afternoon.
Independent staff reporter and union organizing committee member Derek Brouwer said in an interview Monday that he started considering the possibility of forming a newsroom union last year, not long after the Indy was sold to the parent company of its biggest competitor, the Missoulian.
Lee Newspapers, the media company that owns the Missoulian, Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, Montana Standard, and Ravalli Republic, purchased the Independent from longtime owner Matt Gibson in April 2017. The alternative newsweekly had been the Missoulian’s primary print news competitor prior to the sale. Some worried the sale could mean the eventual end of the Indy.
Gibson became general manager of three Lee Enterprises newspaper properties, including the Missoulian and the Indy, in August 2017. He said at that time that he intended to preserve the “distinct character of the two papers.”
“Our audiences complement each other and our reach complements the value that we can deliver to the advertisers. So, having two different niches in the market is exactly what we want to attempt to do,” Gibson said in a August 2017 Missoulian article.
When reached at his desk Monday afternoon Gibson declined to comment on the Missoula Independent Union effort.
Independent editor Brad Tyer also declined to comment, referring questions to Gibson.
Brouwer said the union notified their direct supervisors of their intentions moments before the press release was sent out around 4:40 p.m. Monday.
Brouwer said the past year has been full of uncertainty about the future of the Indy and its staff.
“We’ve been anxious for the better part of a year about what this sale will mean for us professionally and organizationally, and the answers to those questions still aren’t clear,” Brouwer said. “I hope once we’re successful organizing we’ll be able to have our seat at the table and help determine the future of the paper.”
Brouwer said the uncertainty increased in February when Indy announced that it would be moving its offices from its current location on Orange Street to the Missoulian’s offices on South Higgins Avenue. That move is scheduled to take place starting April 1.
Brouwer said payroll and some management duties have already been merged between the two papers. Brouwer said he hopes a Missoula Independent Union will help preserve the alternative newsweekly’s newsroom as an institution. The Independent has been publishing since 1991.
“There are a lot of questions remaining about how the Indy will fit into the Lee Newspapers organization, to the company, and what the paper will look like over time,” Brouwer said. “Will the Indy remain what it has been, just under Lee Enterprises owners, or will it become something else? And if so, what does that something else look like? I want to have a say in that.”
Brouwer said the decision to organize the Indy, was not in reaction to any editorial direction from Lee Enterprises or the Missoulian or pressure to change the tone or content of the paper.
“The Indy newsroom right now is the same Indy newsroom it was a year ago before it was sold,” Brouwer said. “The integrity of the Missoula Independent’s news gathering is absolutely still intact. I hope our union will ensure that it stays that way.”
Here’s the complete text of the press release. This story will be updated.