Journalism is, by its very definition, the act of chronicling change, the first (and sometimes only) draft of history. So it should come as no surprise that on rare occasions we beg the indulgence of our readers to chronicle the important changes that transpire within our own walls. This week we bid a fond farewell to the man who, for the last two and a half years, not only charted our editorial course but set the tone for the rich and creative environment in which we work.
Blake de Pastino assumed the post of managing editor in November of 1998, at a time when the Missoula Independent was itself in the midst of major transition. Less than a year earlier, the paper had been purchased by its current publisher, Matt Gibson, who had only just begun the arduous task of coaxing it back from the brink of financial ruin. Meanwhile, much of the former editorial staff had already abandoned ship, or would soon disperse to the four winds in search of more lucrative prospects. Blake faced the added challenge of assuming command of a young and largely unproven editorial staff in a city where he was himself a newcomer, having been recruited from The Alibi, an alternative newsweekly in Albuquerque, N.M.
Unlike editors at some publications, Blake was never one to seek out the limelight or superimpose his editorial voice over the work of his writers. Instead, he instructed through the simple act of faith, by trusting his staff to pursue stories in our own way, while always keeping a watchful eye that we didn’t stray too far into predictable lefty rhetoric, or wallow in ideological self-righteousness, or just make fools of ourselves.
While Blake’s ego may not have reflected back from our pages each week, his gift for developing a good story certainly did, as was demonstrated by the recognition he received nationally from his peers in the industry. Under Blake’s leadership, the Missoula Independent amassed more awards than under any of his predecessors, including the paper’s first-ever “General Excellence” Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. His recruitment by the Phoenix New Times to become managing editor at one of the nation’s premiere alternative newsweeklies is testament both to his level of professionalism and his success in raising the reputation of the Missoula Independent on the national scene.
As the man responsible for the soup to nuts of our editorial content, Blake rarely found much time to write himself, which is a pity, because he is as gifted a writer as he is an editor. With an offbeat and quirky sense of humor, Blake always saw things in his own inimitable way, whether it was his critical eye on Montana’s mainstream media, his account of the behind-the-scene antics while judging entries in the International Wildlife Film Festival, or his marathon holiday shopping session in the climate-controlled environs of Southgate Mall. And I would dare say that his Valentine’s Day, 2000 story, “Unlucky in Love?” a humorous, poignant and deeply personal exploration of recovering faith in love, written in the wake of his own painful divorce, is one of the ballsiest pieces I’ve ever read in a news publication. Never at a loss for a perfectly “cromulent” word, Blake gave us each week the rarest of gifts: a blank canvas upon which we were free to take a stab at creating something new.
Needless to say, Blake works and plays well with others, keeps his workplace tidy and always finishes his assignments on time. If I have any regrets about his propensity for keeping a low public profile, it is that much of Missoula never got a chance to learn what a damned nice guy he is. Fun-loving, big-hearted and goofy, Blake created a workplace that his staff looks forward to coming to each morning. While that’s no easy task for any boss, it’s especially true for the person charged with enforcing deadlines with a ruler and a stopwatch.
As I begin the daunting process of trying to fill Blake’s shoes as managing editor, I speak for our entire staff in wishing him and his partner, Nancy, the best of luck in the city of bleached skulls. We take with us the simple wisdom that he has imparted on us all: Work hard but keep a sense a humor about you, choose your battles wisely but know when to be a hard-ass, and mostly, have faith in others, and more times than not, they will deliver for you.
Novelist John le Carré once wrote, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” In this business, which has been made infinitely easier by the wealth of information available within a few clicks of a mouse, the temptation can be strong to keep our butts glued to the desk chair, to rely on press releases and media mouthpieces to determine what is news, to allow CEOs, politicians or activists to do our reporting for us, and to mistake facts for the truth.
In the last ten years, the Missoula Independent has enjoyed impressive growth in both size and reputation because of its willingness to take chances, to see things differently from the mainstream media and, when not thinking outside the box, then at least be willing to kick it around a bit to see what shakes loose.
In the weeks and months that follow, feel free to write, call or even stop by and let us know how we’re doing. The free press shouldn’t be a pulpit, bully or otherwise, but more like an ongoing conversation among strangers in a coffee shop. Feel free to pull up a chair and join us at your leisure.