Prairie Lights: A big loss for independent news in Montana

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Danielle McCracken

Putting out an independent online newspaper can be a grind. Putting on a fundraiser for an independent online newspaper can be a blast. This was taken at the Last Best News fundraiser Friday night.

Even if you live in Eastern Montana and have never heard of, much less read, the Missoula Independent, you ought to be worried about the fate of that alternative weekly newspaper.

The Indy, which has been around for more than 25 years, has had its ups and downs, but generally speaking it was a worthy successor to the underground and alternative newspapers that came before it, and which made Missoula the only city in Montana with a real tradition of that sort of journalism.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based newspaper chain that dominates the Montana media landscape, probably dealt that tradition a crippling blow last week when it announced it had bought the Independent for an undisclosed sum.

If you were inclined to put a hopeful spin on the news, there were some grounds for it. First was the story announcing the deal, posted by the Missoulian, a Lee-owned paper.

Reporter David Erickson wrote a good, thorough story on the sale, laying out the challenges ahead and freely quoting a University of Montana journalism professor who warned that readers might bail on the Indy now that it is owned by a large corporation.

Erickson also included multiple assurances about the Indy’s continuing independence, coming from Indy publisher Matt Gibson and Mike Gulledge, publisher of the Billings Gazette and vice president of publishing for Lee.

Also encouraging was a blog post from the editorial staff at the Indy, saying they were taking those assurances at face value for now. They also said they quickly scrapped next week’s cover story “in order to start over with blanket coverage of the sale: how we got to here, what it means for advertisers and for journalism in Montana, reactions from readers and prominent figures in Indy history, and what you can expect from us going forward.”

I wish them well, I really do, and I look forward to continuing coverage of the sale.

But if the history of Lee Enterprises over the past 20 years is any guide, last week’s announcement was the first note of the Indy’s death knell. Whether it survives six more months, a year, or even longer, I am convinced its days as an independent newspaper are numbered.

Lee was once a family-owned chain whose owners were deeply invested in journalism and the communities they served, which was easier in the days when newspapers seemed to be printing money alongside the columns of news.

In Montana, Lee was particularly welcome because it purchased four of the state’s major dailies from the Anaconda Co., finally signaling the end, or at least the approach of the end, of copper-tinged feudalism in this state.

But as Lee fell victim to the market forces and changing technology hammering the rest of the industry—and its disastrous decision to spend almost $1.5 billion on the purchase of the Pulitzer chain—its mission changed dramatically. That mission has been to cut costs, consolidate operations, reduce the payroll and shrink its newspapers, while always making sure that its top executives were extravagantly rewarded for the supposed business savvy it took to slowly dismantle the company.

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It is impossible to believe that the Indy was purchased for anything but one of two reasons: either so it could be shut down, eliminating an important competitor, or so it could be milked to maintain the flow of dough back to Iowa.

Milking the papers is what Lee does. Its critics have sometimes accused this or that Lee paper of taking editorial orders from Iowa. In my three decades with Lee, I never saw that kind of interference. Lee’s more damaging approach was to demand ever-increasing payments from each “product,” letting the individual publishers do whatever dirty work needed to be done.

The publishers always have a gun to their heads. Make “plan,” as the revenue targets are called, and you will receive a tidy bonus and then some. Fail to make plan and Lee pulls the trigger for you. The Indy might be allowed to maintain some form of editorial independence for a while; it will never be allowed to maintain financial independence.

I don’t know what this means for the future of journalism in Montana, but I would hope it drives home the importance of supporting the few independent news outlets still operating in this state—particularly the Missoula Current, for obvious reasons—and Last Best News.

I don’t want to talk too much about this aspect of the situation. It has the feel of going to a funeral and eyeballing the dead man’s widow. But Friday night, by coincidence, we threw our second annual fundraiser-party at the YVBC Garage, and the goodwill washing over us was even more palpable in light of the Indy purchase, which more than a few people mentioned.

We are living in strange, troubling times, but I get the sense that more and more people realize that the best way to start changing things is to get involved locally, to support local businesses, local farmers, local musicians and, ahem, local independent journalism.

So thanks to everyone who helped with the fundraiser, to everyone who turned out for it, to all of our advertisers and to everyone who continues to support us financially. And thanks to all those readers who come to Last Best News to read our stories and take part in this still new and still evolving form of community journalism.

If nothing else, Lee’s purchase of the Indy reminds us that we have important work to do.

But that’s not all…

I figured this subject was too important for you to hear only from me, so I have rounded up the thoughts of a few other people. Here’s what they had to say.

Martin Kidston, editor and publisher of Missoula Current, wrote his own column on the Indy’s fate and what it means for Missoula.

Dylan Smith, editor and publisher of TucsonSentinel.com and chairman of Local Independent Online News Publishers wrote in an email:

“The continuing creeping takeover of local news organizations by corporate chains does not bode well for the authentic community connections those journalists have fostered.

“The various incarnations of MegaChainMedia have moved far beyond their longstanding practices of wringing every penny of profit possible from their holdings across the country. The financialization of the press, with so large a chunk of these national and multinational companies—like Lee Enterprises and so many others—in the hands of private equity firms, means that there’s a push to squeeze even harder to get short-term profits. Investing for the long haul, working to build value through solid reporting and a well-served base of advertisers? That’s out the window when all that matters is the stock price today.

“Even measured on that scale, a company like Lee doesn’t look that healthy. Still laboring to pay off a debt that at one point topped a billion dollars (and drove the company into bankruptcy even as it paid out million-dollar bonuses to corporate bigwigs), Lee’s stock isn’t so low that it faces impending de-listing by the NY Stock Exchange as it once did. But at about $2.70 per share, it’s miles away from the $49 the company’s shares were worth a dozen years ago.

“And that anemic value comes at the cost of steady bloodletting—continuing widespread layoffs of reporters and editors, as well as cuts in the ranks of production, circulation and advertising staff. Companies like Lee claim to be forward-thinking in a digital age, but their approach to stanching the hemorrhaging of readers and advertisers, of journalists and the news they report, is to cut and cut more.

“It’s truly local and independent news organizations just like Last Best News and Missoula Current that are needed to invest in journalism that cares for communities. Modern medicine concluded that leeching wasn’t a cure-all generations ago. It’s about time journalists halted the practice of sucking profits from local communities to benefit corporations that will only further cut newsrooms as they grow thirsty for more.”

Matt DeRienzo, executive director of LION Publishers, also in an email, said:

“Paul Bass, who is in the local independent online news world as longtime publisher and founder of the New Haven Independent, wrote this piece a few years ago when the New Haven Advocate (and sister alt weeklies) were finally put out of their misery by the Tribune Co.

“The Tribune Co. was the parent of the Hartford Courant, of course, so similar to the situation with Lee, the legacy daily newspaper company bought alt weeklies in Hartford and New Haven, and slowly sapped them of any kind of vitality or independence, until they went out of business altogether.”

And whether or not you read the Paul Bass piece linked to above, you need to read this one paragraph from it:

“The Tribune Co. (the Courant’s owner) gradually drained the paper’s newsroom of reporters and editors, as well as creativity and pluck, squeezing as much profit as it could without reinvesting in quality local reporting. The company’s mainstream corporate culture never blended with the altweekly DNA; instead it wiped it out.”

I also spoke by phone with Jimmy Boegle, publisher and editor of the Coachella Valley (Calif.) Independent and membership chairman for the AAN, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

Boegle said he has seen some good outcomes when alt weeklies were purchased by larger companies, but generally only if the company doing the buying is itself experienced in alternative media. When newspaper chains like Lee buy alt weeklies, he said, difficulties arise because the chains just don’t understand how alternative papers work.

Boegle said he used to work for an alt weekly called Las Vegas City Life, and after he left it was bought by the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal, back in the mid-2000s.

In many ways it was a best-case scenario, he said, because the new owners did leave the paper pretty much alone and allowed it to do what it had done in the past. But eventually everyone moved into the same building and the advertising staffs were merged, and there was little motivation to sell ads in the smaller weekly. After five or six years, City Life was put out of its misery.

Boegle also said that the Missoula Independent is a member of the AAN. Newspapers have to meet certain criteria to join the association, and if a paper is sold the group conducts a review to see whether the newspaper still qualifies for membership.

The next annual conference is this summer, too soon to review the Indy’s status, he said, but that review—“knock on wood, if they’re still around”—will come before the 2018 conference.

Boegle did add that no newspaper has ever had its membership rescinded as the result of a review following its sale.

Billings attorney Mark Parker, on his personal Facebook page, posted this observation:

“I have no beef with Lee Enterprises even when they took a real shot at me in an unsigned editorial a few years back. But here’s a head scratcher. Many believe that a newspaper can, should, and often must keep its sources sacred so as to insure the free flow of information to the public. … The Missoula Independent has reported, unfavorably sometimes, on the goings-on at the Missoulian. Are the editors of the Missoulian now over in the offices of the Missoula Independent looking for the names of the leakers?”

And finally, via email, a few remarks from Craig Lancaster, a Billings novelist and my former colleague at the Billings Gazette:

“I wouldn’t put anything past not only Lee but just about any publicly traded newspaper company. I think it’s instructive to remember that corporations don’t exist to foster good journalism. They exist to create shareholder value. Lee hasn’t been much good at that in a while, but from an upper-management perspective it does the next best thing: it increases executive compensation by carving out people and functions (i.e., cost centers).

“I was also amused by the declarations that the Independent will go on doing what it’s doing. Color me skeptical. I’d love to stand up in a year and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’ but to let the Independent stand as its own newsgathering business in the same town where the Missoulian holds forth is antithetical to everything Lee is doing to consolidate functions across its business. It just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

“The threat to what’s been some really good journalism in that town isn’t in the Missoulian newsroom. I suspect Kathy Best (editor) and Gwen Florio (city editor) and the rest would be happy enough to go on fighting it out with the Independent for scoops and breadth of coverage. My fear, as a former newsroom employee and as a citizen who keeps hoping good journalism will save our bacon, is that Mary Junck (longtime Lee CEO, now retired and chair of the Lee board of directors) and her coterie will go on killing the best of what these newspapers do. It’s made them wealthy so far. Why would they stop now?”

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