Long nights and long odds 

How the Independent made it to 21 years

Eric Johnson had always been addicted to alternative newsweeklies. As a high school student in New Jersey, he devoured them. While living in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the early 1980s, he couldn’t get enough of the edgy new start-ups sweeping the country. So when he moved to Missoula, he instantly noted that here, in a thriving arts community and outdoor playground facing emerging political issues, no such voice existed.

Johnson tried to fill that vacuum. He ran the weekly Missoula Muse for a year and a half before realizing that, until he honed his own skills, his dream would have to wait. He enrolled in the University of Montana’s journalism school, interned at the Missoulian, wrote a column for the Montana Kaimin—never straying far from his ultimate goal for the community.

“Politically and culturally, there was just a lot happening in Missoula,” says Johnson, now a freelance writer in Santa Cruz. “I wanted to help create a resource that could put all of this stuff together.”

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As a senior at UM, Johnson was approached by a woman named Deanna Sheriff. She knew about Missoula Muse and asked if he’d be interested in trying again. If so, Johnson recalls, she agreed to get investors to back it. Johnson pulled together a crew of writers and ad sales people. He picked up the odd story from Richard Manning, who had recently left a job as a reporter at the Missoulian. He hired Charley Lyman to shoot photos. He approached Erik Cushman, who was booking concerts at UM. With a stable of writers and staffers lined up, Johnson launched a shaky new media venture in March 1991: the Missoula Independent.

“It was a much different world in 1990 and 1991 in Missoula,” says Cushman, who grew up around newspapers and now serves as the publisher of the Monterey County Weekly, in California. “I did a lot to try to make Missoula interesting from a music standpoint. But this predates the Grizzlies being a football powerhouse. It predates all these footbridges over the river. It predates the happening restaurants and totally predates an inflated real estate economy... If you compared it at that time to hip college towns like Florence, Kan., or Eugene, Ore., or Santa Cruz, Calif., it wasn’t there.”

Cushman adds that, when first approached by Johnson, he asked why Johnson wasn’t starting a weekly somewhere else, like Denver.

Johnson responded, “I live in Missoula.”

The odds were long. Sheriff found office space for the paper downtown at the corner of Higgins and Broadway, but the newsroom had only one computer. There was no phone. Instead, they made calls from the Earth First! Journal office down the hall. Cushman says the biggest challenge from day one was capital. “And the second. And the third,” he says. The paper’s uncertain financial footing was stressful.

“It’s very conducive to hard drinking and recreational drug use,” he says.

The first issue made it clear the paper wasn’t something Missoula had seen before. With the first Gulf War raging overseas, the Indy ran a feature-length story on the peace movement. When a number of prominent locals were thrown in jail for growing pot in their basements, the Indy investigated. At the time, Johnson says, many alt-weeklies operated on a similar model: “Left-wing politics, rock ‘n’ roll and you’re allowed to say ‘fuck.’”

Johnson wanted to reach a broader audience, but the staff’s politics and lifestyles were largely in tandem. “We did it on the rock band model,” Johnson says. “We were just a bunch of friends who got together and there was this thing we really loved and really wanted to do and we were super committed to it and it was fun for us. We just did it and hoped people liked it.”

They did. Business owners such as Bruce Micklus at Rockin Rudy’s leapt at the chance to access an edgier demographic. Hal Fraser, a local banker who built a legacy on rolling the dice with startups, gave the Indy its first loan.

Sheriff never did come through fully on the backers, Johnson says, and she left early on, making Johnson the publisher as well as the editor. The paper had to shut down for several months in its first year, partly to relocate to a new building on South Fourth Street, partly to regroup as a staff. It was what happened in those few months of silence that reaffirmed Johnson’s suspicions that he was on to something.

“Before we shut it down, we published a one-page ad asking people to send us money,” Johnson says. “We got $15,000 in the mail. People just sent us checks. We wanted to do it in our hearts regardless, but we also felt we had a big responsibility to the community to make the best newspaper we could.”

Week by week, the Indy slowly found its footing. Johnson covered the rise of far-right extremism in western Montana, traveling to the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys. They eventually pushed distribution to those surrounding areas. Manning contributed a weekly column for a time called “Wild Heart.” Cushman, who was eventually named publisher, covered Snowbowl’s annual Gelande ski jump competition. Megan McNamer interviewed literary icons, and bylines from prominent writers such as Jim Crumley and Bill Kittredge appeared in the paper.

To this day, Johnson still brags to others in the alt-weekly media that, for a time, the Indy was perhaps the only alt in the country running a weekly sports section, with Griz basketball coverage by Gary Stein and pieces penned by a former Missoulian attending Seattle Mariners games. And the two-page spread in the center of it all carried the weekly arts and entertainment calendar, a staple of the paper’s vision.

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