Missoula Indy union to meet again with Lee Enterprises in effort to avoid layoffs, closure

The sign outside the Missoula Independent’s Office. (Missoula Current)

Members of the Missoula Independent’s nascent union will hold a high-stakes meeting with Lee Enterprises this week to bargain for options beyond what’s now on the table – deep cuts to the paper’s staff or closing the publication.

The two options emerged from an earlier bargaining session that left members of the guild frustrated, prompting them to launch a public campaign this week aimed at saving the alt-weekly from possible elimination.

“We presented a proposal, and what we’ve heard recently was the idea of shutting down the paper, or laying off three-quarters of the Indy’s staff,” said Ariel LaVenture, a member of the Indy’s bargaining committee. “We’ve been incredibly vocal in our willingness to work with Lee Enterprises and compromise, but we believe there are more options. Those aren’t our only options.”

Other papers owned by Lee Enterprises have unionized, including the Casper Star Tribune and the Southern Illinoisan. LaVenture said the Indy has watched those efforts closely and has requested a similar outcome from Lee.

“Better health care and the ability to cash out our paid time off,” she said. “Some of our staff are sometimes so busy that by the end of the year, they still haven’t used all their personal time off.”

Staffers at the Indy took the first step in March to form a union to preserve the paper’s independence under the ownership of Lee, a corporate chain based in Iowa that owns five other papers in Montana, including the Missoulian.

That effort began nearly a year after Matt Gibson, then the owner of the Independent, sold the publication to Lee. Gibson told the Missoula Current at the time that he made the decision to sell in order to tap Lee’s technical capabilities amid sweeping changes in advertising and marketing.

Gibson, who now serves as the Missoulian’s general manager, couldn’t be immediately reached Tuesday for comment. LaVenture said Lee is looking to either close the Indy or reduce its staff by 75 percent.

“It’s been addressed to us, and addressed to the public, that the Independent is losing money, and has been losing money for a little while now,” LaVenture said. “But when Lee purchased us, they seemed excited and hopeful to help turn that around and start helping the Indy make money again. They’re not as willing to work with us as we thought they’d be right now, but we’re still hopeful.”

The Indy, which claims a loyal readership among fans looking for a different presentation of local news and current events, enjoys a deep history in Missoula, dating back to a time when alt-weeklies reigned supreme and were prized for their skepticism and independence.

LaVenture said the publication believes that desire still exists, and it has launched a public campaign aimed at drumming up support in an effort to coax Lee into conceding other options.

“I think we’ve seen that, not just with our public campaign that launched this week, but when we were purchased by Lee early last year – we just saw the public support and how important we were to a lot of people,” said LaVenture. “We’ve seen it in the past year-and-a-half how much Missoula likes the Indy, and how much the Indy cares about Missoula.”

Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, conducted a class research project last year, looking at the difference in readership between the Indy and the Missoulian.

That project revealed distinctly different groups seeking equally different products.

“People from the Indy really valued the investigative reporting and its arts and localness,” Banville said. “That was different than what we heard from the Missoulian audience, which saw it more as an institution within the community. It was striking to me how different those audiences were. If Lee does close the Indy, that’s an audience it won’t reach with the Missoulian.”

Since their purchase by Lee, Indy staffers have fought to maintain their independence from the Missoulian, both in public perception and in proximity.

At one point this spring, the Indy was to vacate its office on Orange Street and move in with the Missoulian as a cost-cutting move. That prompted one Indy reporter to quip, “The Indy’s future work space reflects the media wreckage that’s been accumulating through the digital age.”

While that move never took place, the Indy’s staffers are well aware of Lee’s history of downsizing and making layoffs in Montana, including some of the state’s longest-serving and most experienced reporters. By organizing, the Indy sought to have more say in its future under corporate ownership.

Now, staffers say, it’s just looking to survive.

“It’s up in the air as far as what we’ll know by Friday,” said LaVenture. “What we’ve experienced so far is a really pleasant environment when we’re negotiating. I think now, after unionizing, we have a seat at the table. Now that we’ve seen Missoula’s determination, interest and support for the Indy, we hope Lee Enterprises will see that too.”

Banville said other alt-weeklies in the country have been shuttered by their corporate buyers, including the City Paper in Baltimore. The list is long, spanning many of the country’s largest cities, from the San Francisco Bay Guardian to the Village Voice.

Oftentimes, Banville said, the corporate buyer swallows the alternative and either turns it into a glorified entertainment listing or ends its publication. While local watchdogs assumed Lee would do the same to the Indy, that was only speculation.

Banville said the Indy’s move to unionize likely forced Lee to reveal its true intentions.

“This situation, it seems to be being couched as a reaction to the unionization of the paper, but I think it was a thing Lee was probably going to do regardless of what the staff did,” Banville said. “It’s just now being put out there more publicly than it would have been, which may be an argument for why the unionization was an interesting move. We wouldn’t have known what Lee was considering otherwise.”

By launching its public campaign this week in #KeepMissoulaIndy, Banville said staffers at the paper have successfully brought the public into the discussion. In some cases at other papers, that never happened.

“This is a conversation that’s now going to be held in the public, and the public will have some input into,” Banville said. “That’s different than what we’ve seen in a lot of communities where newspapers, publishers and corporations sort of make these decisions on their own. They’ll at least have to answer to some of the public who feel the Independent is a valuable part of Missoula.”