The Independent will soon relocate to the offices of its archrival-turned-corporate-sibling, the Missoulian, although the newsrooms will remain separate.
Staffers were told about the move Tuesday by former Indy owner and current Missoulian general manager Matt Gibson. The Indy is scheduled to relocate in April from its log cabin, a former video production office and fly shop, on Orange Street to the Missoulian building at 500 S. Higgins.
“To me, it seemed inevitable,” Gibson said in a subsequent interview.
Gibson sold the paper to Lee Enterprises, the state’s largest owner of daily newspapers, in April 2017. At the time, Gibson and Missoulian publisher Mike Gulledge said they intended to keep the papers separate, but, as the Indy reported, consolidating office space was already being floated as an eventual possibility. Since the sale, Lee Enterprises has been paying an undisclosed amount in rent to Gibson’s family, whose LLC owns the Indy building, even as the Missoulian building has been steadily depopulated by a decade of downsizing.
Lee Enterprises signed a one-year lease on the Orange Street building that included an option to renew for one more, Gibson says. But company-wide budget cuts ordered in early January forced his hand a year earlier than he’d hoped.
Gibson says the move will save a “substantial amount” of money, and hints that it spared the Indy from the immediate job losses taking place at other Lee newspapers, including the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic.
Gibson confirms only that a “handful” of employees were laid off this week between the three publications, which are considered a single budget unit within Lee and employ roughly 120 people. A source at the Missoulian informed of the cuts says the paper lost its advertising manager and two members of the sports desk.
Indy general manager Andy Sutcliffe is now also the advertising director for the Missoulian, while account executive Toni LeBlanc was promoted to Indy sales manager. A soon-to-be-vacant sales position will not be filled for the foreseeable future, Gibson says.
Lee Enterprises has cut its workforce by nearly a quarter over the last three years as advertising revenues continue to decline and the company pays down its $548 million debt, the Indy previously reported. Meanwhile, Lee Executive Chairman Mary Junck and CEO Kevin Mowbray each received cash incentives of more than $700,000 in 2017, according to financial disclosures filed this month. Junck received an additional $150,000 discretionary bonus.
The Indy’s future workspace reflects the media wreckage that’s been accumulating throughout the digital age. Located in a far corner of the building’s top floor, the space is packed with abandoned desks and fixtures. There’s a dusty plastic tote marked “fun committee.”
The Missoulian newsroom is located on the lower level, and Gibson says the editors of the two publications can decide how they want to work together, if at all.
The Indy has a track record of scrutinizing Missoulian business and editorial decisions. When Lee purchased the paper, the Columbia Journalism Review published a 2,000-word story exploring whether the paper could continue to report critically about its new parent company.
Speaking this week, Gibson argues that the diminished power of traditional media has made the alt-weekly’s media watchdog role “less intrinsically vital.”
“That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It’s just not the preoccupation it used to be,” he says.
Rather than offer a commitment to preserve the Indy’s independence, Gibson wonders about how cooperation might serve his mission “to keep Missoula’s newspapers as strong as possible.” For instance, he sees opportunities to more fully integrate advertising services and share other resources, including reporters, between the two publications.
Gibson acknowledges that his newsrooms are feeling “considerable anxiety” about their future as roommates. He also acknowledges that, over time, the choice of whether to break bread may not always be theirs to make.
“There are some business realities,” he says. “Some that we can foresee, and some that we can’t.”