An alternative weekly newspaper in Montana was abruptly shut down Tuesday, the latest casualty in the troubled newspaper industry.
The closure of the Missoula Independent follows the shuttering of another alternative weekly, New York’s legendary Village Voice, which ceased operations Aug. 31 after publishing for 63 years. The Village Voice had been online for the last year after ending its print run in August 2017.
The Missoula Independent was shut down by Lee Enterprises 18 months after Lee purchased it and while the company was in the midst of negotiations with a fledgling union formed by the staff about six months ago. It was a free publication and, as of 2015, had a reported circulation of about 20,000, according to the Assn. of Alternative Newsmedia.
Some employees reportedly showed up to the office in Missoula and discovered they’d been locked out of the building. An email sent out by the human resources department to staff early Tuesday informed staffers to make an appointment to pick up their belongings and said that they would be paid with benefits through Oct. 10.
Derek Brouwer, a reporter for the paper, said he got a phone call at 7:50 a.m. and then saw the email with the letter.
“It wasn’t entirely surprising,” he said. “But it was extremely disappointing.”
The Missoula Independent had been a staple in the community for 27 years — a free publication that branched out into coverage areas not usually explored by daily and mainstream publications. Last year, the weekly took two of three awards from the Assn. of Alternative Newsmedia with features on construction workers losing out on earned wages and the use of poetry in Missoula’s juvenile detention center as a rehabilitation effort.
Matt Gibson, general manager for the Missoula Independent and two other newspapers — the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic — said the alternative weekly had continued to lose money and was no longer financially sustainable. Lee Enterprises bought the Independent from Gibson in April 2017. The Iowa-based publishing house owned all of the newspapers.
"I had hoped that by selling it to Lee Enterprises we would be able to create collaborative approaches and find new efficiencies to turn it into a profitable business," Gibson told the Missoulian. "Unfortunately, our efforts were unsuccessful and the Indy continued to lose money."
Staffers voted to unionize in April, but the owner’s counter-proposals indicated they were willing to cut staff and budgets deeply. On Aug. 30, the Missoula Independent Union Guild rejected a proposal by Lee Enterprises to cut up to three-fourths of the staff. According to the union, two days of talks had been scheduled, but the negotiations lasted just an hour.
The Missoula Independent had a staff of a dozen, and Brouwer said many of them had gathered at the Le Petit Outre coffee shop to talk about the bombshell.
“There’s sadness and frustration,” he said. “There is a particular worry about what will happen to the paper’s archives.”
After the announcement, the paper’s Twitter and Facebook pages had been deleted and the website address directed traffic to the Missoulian’s page.
According to the Lee Enterprises website, the company publishes 46 daily newspapers and has a joint interest in two others. The site says the company’s newspapers have a combined circulation of just under 1 million daily and 1.4 million on Sunday.
Lee Enterprises has seen staffs at some of its newspapers vote to unionize.
In February, staff at the Casper Star-Tribune voted to unionize. Subsequently, unions were formed at the Southern Illinoisan as well as the Missoula Independent. The moves reflected a broader trend nationwide as newspaper staffs have voted to unionize — including shops established at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Florida Times-Union and the New Yorker magazine.
Dennis Swibold, professor of journalism at the University of Montana, said the union efforts at the Independent and in Casper seemed focused primarily on giving staff more of a say in the direction of the publications rather than simply being focused on wage hikes.
He said he wasn’t completely surprised by the closure, noting that the state’s small population of about 1 million had always made it a challenge for the alternative weekly to stick around.
But he said Montana would be poorer for its absence.
“The Independent would tackle different kinds of stories and had the luxury of doing long takeouts the dailies don’t have,” he said. “It wasn’t the paper of record in that way, but they could cherry-pick and dive deep into issues.”
Lee Enterprises has expanded its portfolio responsibilities in other publication areas this year.