MISSOULA — Erika Fredrickson and Matt Frank arrived at Cambie Taphouse last Friday afternoon looking nothing short of exhausted. They’d already had a long day.
That morning, the two longtime Missoula journalists officially launched The Pulp, a free online publication focused on arts, culture and politics in the Garden City. Each had penned a statement of purpose that went live in conjunction with the launch. And the day was far from over: Fredrickson had another piece to prep for imminent publication, and Frank still needed to clear out his desk at the University of Montana, where he had been working as the editor of Mountain West News.
In the 2010s, Fredrickson and Frank both worked at the Independent, Missoula’s now-defunct alt-weekly, which Lee Enterprises shut down in 2018 after buying it the year before — and the Indy’s shadow looms large over The Pulp. While they hope to embrace much of its spirit, Fredrickson and Frank say they also intend to bring a different business model, and tone, to their new endeavor.
The nascent site already offers a glimpse into the sorts of coverage readers can expect from The Pulp: a whimsical account of mayoral candidate Andrea Davis’ primary election results party at the Union Club; a photo essay and recap of a recent pro wrestling event at the county fairgrounds, and a hedonistic eulogy for Burns St. Bistro that includes a curveball romantic subplot.
Getting The Pulp off the ground took years of planning, reflection and hustle (as well as, they note, assistance from journalistic-minded friends incluiding Susan Shepard, Jule Banville and Christine Littig). Read on as Fredrickson and Frank — fueled by some requisite cold brew — dive into their approach, their goals, their funding and more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MTFP: What are some of your strongest memories of the day the Independent shut down?
Erika Fredrickson: First of all, we had just unionized. That had changed the tone already, in terms of our relationship with Lee Enterprises, in terms of the newsroom.
What I remember is waking up in the morning and getting ready to go to work, and I saw an email from Lee Enterprises letting me know that the Indy had been shut down. We weren’t able to go back into the building. People that actually did show up to work that had not seen the email were locked out. Also, all of our archives were completely gone. And our access to email was disabled.
We all agreed to meet up at Le Petit. Our phones were blowing up from the other media in town and also national media. I remember people buying us pastries and coffee all day.
Local readers had a protest down at the Missoulian. We went to Flippers and we watched it on a TV screen there; it was just blocks away.
I just remember a lot of kindness from other reporters from other outlets, and people taking care of us and being outraged.
Matt Frank: I was at Le Petit when you guys walked in. [Frank had left the Independent in 2013]. You walked in and you had this look on your face, like somebody had died. Four years of my life is in that work. You can find it still, if you really look for it, like at the library.
Fredrickson: It’s still in Newspapers.com, which you need a subscription to. But there’s no way to link to it. It’s not just for us. Artists we had written about or other people who had links on their website to stories about them, they’re just dead.
Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based newspaper chain that bought the Missoula Independent last year, has now shut down the iconic alternative newsweekly.
MTFP: What do you think a community loses when a resource like the Independent goes away?
Frank: Broadly, it comes down to civic engagement. [The Independent] really clued you in to what’s going on in town. It was this huge part of what made Missoula Missoula.
MTFP: How did you end up collaborating on The Pulp?
Frank: Months and even a year or two afterwards, it was Erika who bottled up the goodwill around the Indy getting shut down. She nurtured that and carried it forward. In the back of my mind, I was always really interested in trying to figure out how to help.
[Starting] two years ago, we would have these discussions at Erika’s house, every two or three months. And then those occasional discussions slowly became more like determination, and then that slowly became inevitability.
MTFP: Missoula has changed a good deal since 2018. Does that change factor into the way you approach this project?
Fredrickson: Missoulians, probably like [people in] a lot of other places, get upset about change. Some of that involves people who come here with no frame of reference for this place and no context. And so providing that context is definitely one of the things that we talk about doing. We’re not saying things have to stay the same or that we know best how it should be.
Getting people to care about and think about community is exciting. In some ways I felt like our readership at the Indy was just a lot of the same people. And The Pulp is addressing people who’ve moved here or people that were too young to read the Indy at the time.
Frank: As the town has grown so fast, the void has also felt bigger.
Fredrickson: There are people [at the Missoulian] that are doing amazing work, but it is behind a paywall and there’s a lot of people who aren’t seeing it.
There was a feeling when the Indy first started that you didn’t really need to interact with the community. You’re behind your byline and you get to be smart and cool. It had a very ’90s snarky, voice-y type of alt-weekly style.
It just started feeling more clear to me, and to all of us, that we needed to engage a little bit more as community members. I’m excited that we get to carry those ideas forward. Let’s do more service journalism, and demonstrate how we want our community to be, too, while still being journalists.
MTFP: If you’re down to chat about the financial side of things, how did you get The Pulp off the ground?
Frank: The Indiegraf grant is a huge part of it. The grant is worth $157,000. About two thirds of that is in-kind website stuff. We got a tiny bit of cash up front. As you grow, you hit certain milestones that unlock more money: we get a thousand subscribers, it unlocks the next round.
Fredrickson: It’s also that they shepherd us through the process. They want us to achieve, they want us to keep unlocking this money. It’s way better than just getting handed a chunk of money and just being told to go do it.
Frank: The model in general is based on a reader membership program, much like Montana Free Press, and then a local business membership program, which we’re going to roll out in October. The third leg of the stool is grants and major donors.
MTFP: Has any part of this process felt like a curveball?
Frank: I’m really enjoying the financial end of things. I used to hate spreadsheets, but I’ve embraced spreadsheets, and I love them. I never saw that coming, and thank God I did, because we really have to have our ducks in a row.
The Pulp is hosting a membership drive at the Union Club on Sept. 28. The event doubles as a show for VTO, the punk band that Fredrickson fronts. The Pulp is also in the midst of a fundraising drive called “The Big Squeeze.” You can learn more about that here.
Disclosure: Montana Free Press founder John S. Adams, editor Brad Tyer, reporter Alex Sakariassen, and board member Skylar Browning have previously worked at the Missoula Independent. The Pulp co-founder Erika Fredrickson has contributed freelance work to MTFP. MTFP contributor and “The Sit-Down” writer Max Savage Levenson has been commissioned to write an article for The Pulp.
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