Lee Enterprises shutters Missoula Independent

Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based newspaper chain that bought the Missoula Independent last year, has now shut down the iconic alternative newsweekly.

The staff learned of the closure early Tuesday morning, according to former Independent staff writer Derek Brouwer.

“I got a phone call that woke me up around 7:30 this morning. I didn’t answer it, but I looked at my phone and I saw I had the email letter. It was sent to my personal email address,” Brouwer said.

The letter, from Lee Newspapers regional human resources director Jim Gaasterland, informed Brouwer that the Missoula Independent was closed.

“This is to give you notice that we are closing the Missoula Independent as of September 11, 2018. As of that time, the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building. We will continue to pay your salary and provide benefits through October 10, 2018.”

The staff was given a name and phone number to call to retrieve personal items.

“And it was sent on Missoulian letterhead, so that was a nice touch,” Brouwer said.

The letter sent to Missoula Independent staff members on Sep. 11, 2018, announcing the paper’s closure.

Brouwer said some staff members didn’t get the email before arriving for work Tuesday morning and found the doors to the Orange Street office building locked.

As of early Tuesday morning the Missoula Independent’s website redirected to the Missoulian‘s website. All links to news stories that were once published on the Independent’s website also now direct users to the Missoulian‘s homepage.

In a statement published on Missoulian.com, former Missoula Independent owner Matt Gibson, now Lee Newspapers general manager for the Missoulian, the Ravalli Republic, and the Independent, said: “The Independent has consistently lost money for its owners and is not financially sustainable.”

Calls to Gibson and Missoulian publisher Mike Gulledge were not immediately returned. Gibson’s voicemail message indicated that he was out of town “for a few days.”

The Indy, as it is commonly referred to by its readers, started publishing in 1991. Gibson bought the paper in 1997.

University of Montana School of Journalism professor Dennis Swibold was a new journalism professor when the paper started and has watched its trajectory throughout its publishing history.

“It is a community voice, and I think it was a community voice that was able to do some of the more outlier kinds of stories,” Swibold said.

Swibold said the paper was a source for in-depth investigative reporting that is difficult to find in modern newspapers, where shrinking budgets and shrinking newsrooms make it difficult to produce those kinds of stories. And the Indy’s focus on arts and entertainment coverage helped shape Missoula’s culture, Swibold said.

“It’s a sad day,” Swibold said. “I hope they find a way to reconstitute the essence [of the Independent].”

Lee Newspapers, the media company that owns the Missoulian, Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, Montana Standard, and Ravalli Republic, purchased the Independent from Gibson in April 2017 and named Gibson general manager of the Indy, the Missoulian, and the Ravalli Republic.

The alternative newsweekly had been the Missoulian’s primary print news competitor prior to the sale. Some worried the transaction would mean the eventual end of the Indy. 

The 10 non-management news staff at the Independent formed a union in March in an effort to maintain editorial independence after Lee Newspapers announced it would be moving the Independent‘s offices into the Missoulian‘s headquarters. The Missoula News Guild had been in negotiations with Lee Newspapers over wages and benefits, but those negotiations went south in August.

According to the News Guild, Lee Enterprises told the Indy union that the company may shut down the Indy unless the union agreed to cuts that would eliminate nearly all of the news staff.

Rumors of the Indy‘s potential demise started swirling two weeks ago, and were soon followed by a social media campaign with the hashtag #KeepMissoulaIndy. The campaign encouraged Indy readers to publicly support the paper on social media, to buy ads in the paper, and to raise awareness of the threat facing the paper.

“I think the #KeepMissoulaIndy campaign had two goals: one was to persuade the company, and the other was to alert the community as to what the company might do,” Brouwer said.

UM journalism professor Lee Banville said the Indy’s closure was not surprising.

“Matt Gibson said that this was not the direction they wanted to go, but when you look at what has happened at other alt weeklies when they are bought by other chains or corporations, they are almost always closed or turned into some other entertainment listing service,” Banville said.

Banville and Swibold also expressed concerns about the fate of the Indy‘s news archives. As of Tuesday morning all links to Independent articles re-directed to the Missoulian home page.

“When I see an archive go down, that is particularly troublesome,” Swibold said. “I’ve spent a lot of my time helping people digitize newspapers so they could preserve this first draft of history. I feel like we’ve not only lost a voice going forward, but we’ve lost an important voice from the past.”

Banville said there’s no reason to delete the Indy archives. He pointed to recently shuttered alternative newsweeklies like New York’s The Village Voiceand the Baltimore City Paperwhere the websites are still up and the archived stories are still available to readers.

“Typically you don’t delete it because it is essentially wiping away the historical record of 27 years of reporting,” Banville said. “The question is ‘why?’ It doesn’t cost a lot to store web pages. You can continue to advertise around it.”

Banville said not only has Missoula lost an institution going forward, but it lost the institutional knowledge of a longstanding voice in the community.

“Why Lee decided to delete the archives of the Missoula Independent is something they have to answer for,” Banville said.

Brouwer said the former Indy staffers and union members who were locked out Tuesday morning were meeting to discuss what, if anything, their response would be. As of presstime Brouwer said he hadn’t been able to reach their News Guild union representative in Seattle.

“It’s shitty that they decided to close us down on a Tuesday as we’re finishing up the paper. Why not wait until Thursday after the paper comes out?” Brouwer said.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated as developments occur. 

Disclosure: Montana Free Press founder and editor John S. Adams worked at the Missoula Independent from 2005-2007. MTFP board members Jessie Schandelson and Skylar Browning are also former Missoula Independent staff members. Independent editor Brad Tyer is on MTFP’s editorial advisory committee.