Daily chain, on life support, buys a helping Indy hand 

Big changes are afoot at Lee Enterprises. The struggling media conglomerate, which owns 49 daily newspapers including the Missoulian, got a second chance at life last week when it purchased the Independent. Now it can use the enormous profits from this newspaper to make up for its losses on other properties, such as the Baraboo (Wisconsin) News Republic, which has yet to recover after accidentally printing a Family Circus cartoon that contained the n-word.

But what does it mean for us? And by "us," I mean you, the loyal Indy reader, and the hundreds of reporters, editors, designers, sales associates, bartenders and exterminators who make this paper possible. Can you expect to keep reading quality journalism? And can those other people expect to keep making hundreds of millions of dollars producing it?

You will be relieved to learn that the answers to those questions are yes and totally. Lee Enterprises wouldn't have bought the Indy if we weren't making money faster than our interns could hide it in plush children's toys. Sure, Lee has a reputation for buying struggling papers and then cutting costs to extract as much value as possible before they go under, but it wants to keep the golden goose laying around here. Here's Lee vice president Mike Gulledge, as quoted in the Missoulian, where he is also the publisher:

"Independent Publishing is an excellent addition to the Lee portfolio in Montana and further expands our already strong audience in Missoula and the surrounding communities. I look forward to working with Matt Gibson and The Independent team to build on the success they have generated in the Missoula region."

That's the kind of plain talk that people in this region appreciate. Gulledge has promised that the Indy and the Missoulian will remain separate on both the editorial and the business sides. The same story reports his assurance that "all employees at the Indy ... will have the opportunity to keep the jobs they have now." Admittedly, that makes it sound like they will also have the opportunity to lose the jobs they have now. But why would Lee buy the Indy and then try to change it? It just doesn't make sense.

Lee is a large, publicly traded media corporation. Its executives must answer to stockholders who demand timely returns on their investments. It would never buy an alternative newsweekly to build on its success in the Missoula region if that alternative newsweekly weren't profitable already. To confirm this reasoning, I called former Indy owner and current publisher Matt Gibson at his solid gold house.

click to enlarge cognacfountain.jpg

"What? Who?" he said. "Damned interference—let me go out in the yard." After a brief period of inaudible muttering and the echo of rhinoceros-leather shoes on a marble floor, I heard the unmistakable sound of peacock song. "How did you get this number?" he shouted over his outdoor cognac fountain. "How dare you interrupt my baccarat lesson?" Then he hung up. When I got home, I found that he had purchased my house.

Such is the temperament of the alt-weekly tycoon. But I thought I detected a note of sadness in our brief conversation, despite the Taiwanese larynx implants that add reverb to his voice. When Gibson purchased the Indy in 1997, it was purely a business decision. He detests reading, particularly in others. But even as he rode the newspaper boom of the last two decades to unimaginable wealth, only to sell the Indy to a gullible media conglomerate for even more than it's worth, he seems to have developed a sentimental attachment.

I guess we all have. I know that when I got into this business, it was strictly for the cash. But over the last few years, I have developed an affection for you, the seemingly useless reader. Although writing this column provides me with enough money and drugs to deaden my connection to ordinary people, I cannot help but feel that we are in this together. We live in the same region, after all. Might it be too much to say that we belong to the same community?

That community belongs to Lee now, and there's nothing we can do about it. I am sorry to report that this is probably my last column. Although the Indy is a lean and often mean profit-generating machine, even our new owners cannot ignore the cost of my services.

There's my fee, which is exorbitant, and the salaries of my research staff—as well as retainers for the lawyers who defend me against harassment suits from said staff, plus crisp hundreds for the bagmen who pay the lawyers to keep quiet. It all amounted to a day's blimp fuel for the previous owner, but Lee has debt to service. I knew the party couldn't go on forever. You can come see me at my new job as a weekend substitute at Fred's, at least until I die of caviar withdrawal. When you inscribe my tombstone, say I did it for the money.

Dan Brooks writes about people politics, culture and the bracing liberties of freelancing at combatblog.net.

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