Last week, the staff of the Independent voted unanimously to form a union. I support this decision and stand in solidarity with the Missoula News Guild. It’s not because I need the money, either.
I assure you, dear reader, that I desperately need money. It’s true I was briefly rich last year, after I negotiated the sale of the Indy to Lee Enterprises and received, in consideration, nearly $200 and several bags of the finest saffron. Unfortunately, I lost the $200 due to speculation, and the saffron was devoured by a flock of beautiful butterflies. The butterflies were then sucked into my furnace intake. The moral of this story is that possessions are fleeting, and while I would like to have some again sometime, the Indy union is not how I plan to get them.
Because I am a freelancer and not directly employed by Lee Enterprises, I cannot join the Missoula News Guild or participate in collective bargaining. Nevertheless, I plan to support the union however I can. While I have heard no plans for any kind of strike, I am prepared to stop working and start drinking beer at a moment’s notice, for solidarity.
I bet it will not come to that. I predict that the Missoula News Guild and Lee Enterprises will become friends, and years from now Lee management will look on the events of last week as a blessing in disguise.
I admit that seems unlikely now. I know Lee does not yet view the Missoula News Guild as a partner in its plans to build a better Indy, because I was one of 18 freelancers and alumni who tried to purchase a half-page ad in the Indy expressing our support for unionization. It was rejected by Lee Vice President Mike Gulledge, who does not normally review advertisements himself. These events suggest that management is feeling a little owly about the union.
“The formation of the union is the first step to Lee and the workers of the Independent becoming friends, the way an owl is not likely to be friends with a mouse but may eventually befriend another, smaller owl.”
While I cannot speak for the Missoula News Guild, I suspect its members feel a little owly about Lee. The decision to unionize comes after the announcement that Lee would move the Indy offices from their longtime location on Orange Street into the Missoulian building on Higgins. One reason there is plenty of space is that, company-wide, Lee has reduced its workforce by more than 25 percent over the last three years. The same week the move was made public, the Indy’s Derek Brouwer reported that the Missoulian had “lost its advertising manager and two members of its sports desk.”
Who wouldn’t worry about their job when the company that bought it is under so much pressure to streamline its operations? And who, overseeing that streamlining, wouldn’t worry that a union would make it harder? These fears are understandable, but I submit that a union will make it easier for Gulledge, former Indy owner Matt Gibson and the rest of Lee management to do with the Indy what they want to do.
When the sale went through last year, Lee made it clear that it wanted to preserve the independence of the Independent. Both Gulledge and Gibson emphasized plans to use the new owner’s resources and market share to strengthen the Indy’s position as a critical voice in Missoula journalism. The plan has always been to preserve what makes the Indy great — i.e., maverick sensibility and peerless investigative reporting on local issues — and fix the problems that held it back, i.e., unrelenting financial terror.
With its national scope and stable of professional managers, Lee is in a strong position to preserve and protect the Independent. Yet these strengths also create weaknesses. As a very large media company that specializes in small-town newspapers, Lee must balance the corporate culture that sustains its operations with the local sensibility that generates its revenue. It must run 350 papers the way Gibson ran one.
The union can help Lee do that. By balancing company-wide obligations with the interests of the local stakeholders who made the Indy worth buying in the first place, the Missoula News Guild can ensure that Lee’s new asset maintains its value. The formation of the union is the first step to Lee and the workers of the Independent becoming friends, the way an owl is not likely to be friends with a mouse but may eventually befriend another, smaller owl.
I continue to be whatever animal sells things to owls on a contract basis, so I see this issue objectively. On one side I have the reporters, editors and other professionals who have welcomed me into their life’s work, and on the other I have my affection for America’s fourth-largest newspaper conglomerate, so the balance is weighted pretty evenly. My vision is clear. I see a future where Lee Enterprises is glad to have the Missoula News Guild as its partner in the Independent. We only need to make it happen.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.