By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
The owner of the Missoula Independent on Thursday said he chose to sell his business to Lee Enterprises to tap the corporation’s technical capabilities, adding that the Indy’s new partnership with the Missoulian will remain a work in progress as the weeks unfold.
On Thursday morning, the Missoulian announced that its corporate owner, Lee Enterprises, had bought the Missoula Independent for an undisclosed price. The announcement took the community by surprise.
Lee’s vice president of publishing, Mike Gulledge, said the Independent, owned by Matt Gibson, and the Missoulian would remain editorially independent – a statement that was met with skepticism from long-time Independent readers.
Gibson said he understood the readers’ concerns.
“People are skeptical whether the Indy will be independent, and I understand that,” Gibson told the Missoula Current. “It’s my hope that when people use the phrase independent journalism, they’re thinking more about quality than the condition of the owners. When we think about what it means to be independent, it’s all about the quality and commitment of the folks in the newsroom.”
The Independent launched in 1991 as a free weekly publication. Gibson purchased the product in 1997 and has managed it ever since. He said it was a difficult decision to sell to Lee Enterprises, though changing online advertising trends forced his hand.
“There’s technological advancements and market trends that were going to make it very difficult to effectively retain our advertising base,” said Gibson. “We didn’t have the firepower to innovate and sell. Lee has technology and they’re out on the leading edge of digital newspaper publishing, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the opportunity to train up the sales people and conduct things like market research.”
According to a story posted by the Missoulian, all employees at the Independent would retain their jobs. It also suggested that the two papers would remain separate from one another, with Gibson overseeing the Independent as publisher and Kathy Best keeping her post as the Missoulian’s editor.
Neither paper will have say or oversight of the others coverage, according to the Missoulian’s post. Asked if the two papers would share content or collaborate on coverage, Gibson said it was too soon to say how the process would unfold.
“There’s really no prior opportunity around this kind of deal to assess the operation – there’s limited information available to both sides,” Gibson said. “I’m in the dark about what goes on at the Missoulian. It’s not possible to go into it with a plan.”
Gibson said the Independent would continue doing what it has in the past.
“We want to retain the fundamental character of the Missoula Independent,” Gibson said. “All the things people rely on us for, the personal voice, the quality ad design and our fundamental approach to news reporting. That’s all supposed to stay consistent.”
Lee Enterprises is a stock-held corporation based in Davenport, Iowa, that owns a handful of Montana papers, including those in Billings, Butte, Helena, Hamilton and Missoula. The corporation expects each of those papers to make an increasing level of revenue, much of which is sent back to corporate headquarters.
In 2016, Gulledge’s base compensation as vice president of publishing was reportedly $456,441. In recent years, the Missoulian has cut local staff and outsourced local jobs to both the Midwest and the Philippines.
Gibson said it was too soon to say what portion of the Independent’s revenue it would be required to hand over to Lee.
“Right now, we’re happy to be a part of Lee, and I think they’re happy to have us,” he said.
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org