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.

“Weekly newspapers really help determine what the conversation is in the community and what the expectations are,” Cushman says. “If we say rock ‘n’ roll is important to the community and we write stories about it, boom, we’ve got rock ‘n’ roll in the community.”

Through it all, however, money continued to be an issue. Staff members had gone to friends and family for funds, Cushman says. They’d put liens and mortgages on any property they owned. And the paper had significant tax troubles.

“Many of the people who worked at the paper had been paid essentially in equity in the company,” Johnson says. “One of our biggest investors in the paper was also an employee. I owned the biggest chunk of it, but we all owned it together.”

Cushman says failure wasn’t an option. But as strapped as the Indy was, failure was looking more and more like an outcome.

Johnson sold the paper to local businessman Jeff Smith, who immediately called for changes that rankled several members of the core group. It’s a sore subject to this day. When Cushman and Johnson left, half the staff left with them. Those that stayed felt the sting of betrayal.

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“It was tumultuous and it was difficult and it was emotional,” Johnson says. But in the end, that split likely saved the Indy. “When Jeff bought the paper, he saved the paper. If he hadn’t, it would have been shut down by the IRS.”

There were silver linings. Cushman left Missoula with his wife, Kristin. The two met in the Indy newsroom, where Kristin worked as an ad rep. Today they live in Pacific Grove, Calif., with their two daughters.

“It was sort of genius but it was also completely fucked”

In 1994, Zach Dundas was a freshman at UM’s journalism school and a recent graduate of Hellgate High School, where he’d been the Hellgate Lance student newspaper editor. He’d submitted some random writing to Erik Cushman at the independent in the hopes of getting an assignment. “I remember him saying that writing was the carrot and delivering was the stick,” recalls Dundas. And so, for a summer, Dundas was the Indy’s main delivery boy. He’d lug bundles of papers into the back of his green Oldsmobile every Thursday night and drive around town dropping them off at convenience stores.

After moving from its downtown space, the Indy office occupied an old garage on South Fourth Street next to Kent Bros. Automotive. The editorial staff worked upstairs in a loft, stuffed in ramshackle cubicles filled with a jumble of mismatched desks and chairs, piles of books and stacks of papers. The computers, even in the mid-1990s, were outdated. The archives—known as “the morgue”—were housed in the office, too, in an unorganized mess. The editor’s office was a separate “room”—a framed, half-finished wall of 2x4s and no sheetrock, so that you could step right through it. “Here was this crazy office that they never finished,” says Dundas. “And it was a perfect metaphor for what the whole [paper] was. It was sort of genius but it was also completely fucked.”

Dundas was hired as the calendar boy around the same time Jeff Smith bought the paper in 1996. “That albatross hung on my neck for a long time,” he says of the nickname. But by 1997 and 1998, Dundas was writing a lot more about politics and news and music. He describes Smith as a swaggering Republican cowboy who was more legend than person. “He was a tall lanky dude and in my memory he’s always wearing aviator sunglasses,” laughs Dundas. “I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s how I remember him.” He was also a millionaire who owned radio stations. “And he was doing something with something called ‘the internet,’” says Dundas. “Nobody understood it.”

Dundas remembers a story he had to do about a plane that had crashed into Flathead Lake and never been brought to the surface. “For some reason it was known that Jeff was obsessed with that plane,” says Dundas. “So I went down to his offices on Reserve to interview him, which was sort of awkward: I was interviewing the owner of the Independent for this story that was a random hobby of his. I remember him going on this soliloquy about how he wanted to find the pilot’s skull. And that was his big goal. He was very brash and sort of abrasive and anyone who would have sort of looked at the situation from outside would have seen Jeff Smith’s huge personality and Eric Johnson’s huge personality and Erik Cushman’s huge personality and would have known that this was not going to work out. And indeed it did not. And that is where you get a Rashomon-like variety of stories of what happened.”

Dundas remembers going into the office the day everything fell apart. People were crying and people were fighting—not physically, but close. “But some of us were staying,” he says. “And some of us who stayed were lobbied very hard to leave by the people who had departed. I remember a long and boozy night with Eric Johnson and Charley Lyman at Flipper’s in which they lobbied me very hard to leave the paper. And I was just the calendar boy!” He also remembers staff reporter Dan Oko tracking him down via phone—”and of course no one had cellphones,” says Dundas. “He found me at my girlfriend’s house and basically pep-talked me into staying. I mean, whatever, I was still in college. I wasn’t going anywhere and it seemed like a better job than any other shitty part-time job I was going to get in Missoula.”

At least initially, those who stayed were grateful to have a millionaire backing the paper, because it meant stability and regular paychecks. After the fall-out with Johnson and Cushman, Oko and Andrea Barnett (now Andrea Peacock), two young staff writers, took over as co-editors of the paper.

The Missoula music scene was changing right around this time. Jay’s Upstairs had become a hot spot for punk rock bands coming through town. During the early days, the Indy’s music coverage was mostly focused on more mainstream funk and blues bands that played the Top Hat or Charlie B’s. Punk rock culture, however, was starting to emerge in the form of Missoula zines such as Shat Upon, written by Andy Smetanka. Dundas, who was in local punk bands such as The Bastard Squad and The Sputniks, started covering it too.

“I was so into and excited about the punk rock scene,” he says. “Jay’s really came into its own around that time and so that was sort of hand in glove...In fact, it was kind of a problem because it was like every week we had a story about what was happening at Jay’s. We definitely steered it away from the Top Hat party band coverage.”

His most memorable band interview was with H.R. of D.C. hardcore punk band Bad Brains. Or at least it was his shortest interview. “We were on the phone for 13 seconds or something,” says Dundas. “I can’t remember what he said exactly. This was all arranged: the time, the number I was supposed to call. He’s crazy as a fucking loon. He picked up and I think I introduced myself and he spouted off some really fast, rambling fake-Jamaican-accented Rastafarian nonsense and hung up the phone—and that was it.”

Also during this time, the internet happened.

“In my memory it was like, one week no one was using the internet, and then the next week everyone had,” says Dundas. “At that time, the editorial sphere of the internet was microscopic. There was Suck magazine that was putting out one story a day and Salon existed and the newspapers had really terrible sites. Suddenly we were all emailing and able to look stuff up at our desks without using the phone book. That was weird.”

Those days the Indy was still a fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants operation. The staff wrote all day, put out a paper every week and went out drinking together at night. They were invested.

“Aspirations were pretty high,” says Dundas. “I don’t know what it would feel like to go back through those papers week to week, but at the time I felt like we were doing really important stuff and that was the heritage ‘the Eric/ks’ had created. We were trying to do what in our minds was good journalism, both in terms of reporting and writing, and our points of comparison were magazines and daily newspapers, and yet we were on this quick cadence—you had to constantly be writing stuff.”

Dundas, now an editor at Portland Monthly, a lifestyle and culture magazine in Portland, Ore., says he can’t imagine doing that work now. “I think that’s something I could have only done in that time of my life,” he says. “But the paper was fun. It’s always been fun in some way or the other, but it had this kind of crazy air to it at the time. I hope it’s more sane now.”

“I’d sell out if someone would just buy”

Perusing old copies of the Independent shows that, aside from design changes, a lot has stayed the same. Stories about mining, American Indian land issues, snowboarding (which was pretty new in the early 1990s), rock bands, wildfires and the University of Montana’s dance and theater programs fill the pages. Even the same people show up over and over again. In 1994, one headline reads: “Baucus defends wilderness compromise bill but admits ecosystem protection is missing.” There’s a candid interview with a newly hired KPAX anchor named Jill Valley.

In the early years, just getting the paper out every week took a lot of energy. There were no thoughts about brand strategy or mission statements, recalls Dundas. “Any overarching thoughts about what the paper was supposed to be were pretty simple,” he says. “It was the liberal muckraking paper that we somehow put out every week that has lots of arcane politics in the front and some rambling cover story that we’d bust our ass to put out, and then some rock ‘n’ roll in the back.”

Occasionally a similar alt-weekly, like Denver’s Westword, would show up in the mailbox to remind the Indy staff that there were others out in the world. Dan Oko and Andrea Barnett were both steeped in the Indy method of journalism, which was to be really focused on Montana politics, particularly environmental politics. “We were young and hungry,” says Oko. “And it was definitely a strange time. It was a hard time. But we believed you could live on the scenery and we were well taken care of.”

On deadline days, the staff ordered Zimmorino pies. The production would be done by hand, printed out into columns and pasted on the pages, and everyone wrote their own headlines. The DIY aspect and the energy put into covering issues sometimes trumped the difficulty of keeping the paper afloat.

“For someone who had come to the paper with dreams of writing novels and getting down and dirty and uncovering scandal and saving the wolves, it really engaged me mind, body and soul, because we had to do this other side of the job all the time,” Oko says. “And eventually the paper got to the point where it was at a make-or-break point.”

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At the final Association for Alternative Newsweeklies conference Oko attended with the Independent, he remembers being struck by some interesting changes that were happening in the alt-weekly world. Alts were chaining up, with papers buying up others or otherwise expanding. Many were also making money. “All of a sudden,” Oko says, “instead of having these little independent scruffy terriers chewing on people’s ankles...we discovered there was another movement where people were making money on these papers.”

The aspiration for small alts like the Indy had been to capture the spirit of the old Village Voice, which took swipes at everybody in New York. But even with the romance of on-the-brink, advocacy journalism in the air, there was still a sense at the Indy that there needed to be stability if the paper was going to last.

“Eric Johnson used to quote Jerry Garcia,” says Oko. “‘Well, I would sell out if someone would just buy.’”

The paper ended up finding some financial stability with later owners, but it didn’t necessarily change the paper’s focus—or the focus of its writers. Oko moved to Texas in 1999, and he now writes environmental and outdoors pieces for conventional and alt-news sources, including Outside, Men’s Journal, and Audubon Magazine, as well as arts pieces for Texas Highways and the Austin Chronicle.

“I came to the Independent fresh and interested in these things,” Oko says, “and now, dare I say, 20 years later, I continue to pursue those things. The lessons in how to get those stories and think about those issues–you know, I didn’t have a journalism education—really came directly from the founding editor of the paper, Eric Johnson.”

Oko compares the way the Indy was then and the way it is now with an analogy about independent film. “If you look at Quentin Tarantino from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, I mean, do people say that Quentin Tarantino sucks because he has 10 times the budget? And is one movie better than the other? I think they’re different. And I think the same thing has happened with the Independent. Yeah, it was kind of punk rock, it was authentically alternative. But that generation, Generation X, is now in their 40s and…the baby boomers, they’re not running around in tie-dye still. Nobody stays static. “People tend to look back nostalgically without realizing what sort of undertaking it was earlier, and what kind of sacrifice people made,” he continues. “Having been one of those people who made sacrifices, I don’t think people should begrudge the paper for being more successful. The goal is still to tell the truth.”

Never going to last

Dan Baum was something of a fatalist in the Indy’s early days. He’d known Eric Johnson for years and had a profound respect for his personal drive. But from Baum’s perspective as a friend and occasional contributing writer, the paper seemed destined to tank.

“Every time you saw Eric, he was working on it,” Baum says. “He was saying, ‘I’ve got a meeting with this person, I’ve got a meeting with this person.’ And there were a lot of times I felt, ‘No way.’ Any reasonable person would have given it up.”

Yet Johnson seemed to attract young, vibrant personalities. He got UM political science professor Bill Chaloupka to write a weekly column. The paper snagged Woody Kipp, a prominent writer and American Indian activist. Megan McNamer covered Missoula’s literary community. Baum himself was working on his magazine career during the paper’s infancy, eventually leading to jobs at The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. He’s also collaborated on three books with his wife, Margaret Knox, including the bestseller Nine Lives, an interwoven biographical narrative of New Orleans.

The pay was never great; Baum only wrote occasionally, he says, because he couldn’t survive on the freelance rates. He wrote a piece about an electric car. When a chapter about Missoula was cut from one of Baum’s books, Johnson ran it. The place was always in financial crisis, though. It seemed to Baum that the Indy—contributors and all—”just ran on the fumes of Eric Johnson’s optimism and enthusiasm.”

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“He had no money,” Baum says. “And simply by the force of his optimism and cheerfulness and personality, just made this thing live…He somehow got us all to write for him, and it was a great paper.”

Baum’s own motivation for humoring Johnson’s insane vision was a sense that Missoula needed an alternative newsweekly. “The Independent really meant something,” he says. Through the early and mid ‘90s, the town went through cultural and political change. The progressive New Party took over. Democrat Dan Kemmis was elected mayor. Upscale shops blossomed, driven by an influx of well-to-do new citizens.

The newsroom “was a fun place to be, a fun place to drop in on,” Baum says. “You got the impression that it was very ephemeral, that it wasn’t going to last, but that you were in the midst of one of those Paris-in-the-’20s moments where a place comes into its time and you are there.”

During that time, Cincinnati native Matt Gibson had arrived in Missoula for school following a string of reporting jobs in Colorado and Montana. He was familiar with the alternative newsweekly style, but says he never felt alts were a legitimate career “until I got to Missoula and saw the Independent.”

Gibson watched Smith’s purchase of the Indy from afar in 1996. He’d wanted to buy the paper himself and received the news with a feeling of missed opportunity. Gibson ultimately sent a letter to Smith proposing a purchase. The two talked, and six months later, Gibson bought the paper for “a negligible” sum.

“To be honest with you, I was not enamored of the content of the paper,” he says. “It was more the idea of the paper that got my attention. It was more free-wheeling, so it could be surprising and entertaining and authentic in ways that conventional media are not.”

Gibson had never set foot in the Indy’s offices. Immediately after the deal closed, he walked into the South Fourth Street digs and introduced himself. Smith showed up later and terminated every employee. Gibson rehired them immediately.

This wasn’t a smooth transition, either. The Indy staff was still reeling from the damage inflicted during the last ownership change, and emotions were still high.

“My impression was that they were scarred from the experience,” Gibson says. “The staff that had remained behind were in a no-win situation, because the loyalists to the original staff hated them for sticking it out…and they felt like they were the heroes of the paper that had survived a difficult owner.”

Today, Gibson doesn’t feel his views on how to move the paper forward were inconsistent with the rest of the staff’s. But there was a great amount of skepticism, not just from the staff but from the core advertisers who had helped support the paper and its vision for years. Gibson went straight to Rockin Rudy’s to meet with owner Bruce Micklus, who, Gibson says, threatened to start a rival newspaper if Gibson didn’t live up to the past. The spirit of the meeting, as Gibson recalls it, was that the Indy’s new owner would have to earn the respect of advertisers. He told Micklus and others he fully intended to.

The first issue printed under Gibson’s ownership was 28 pages long. The feature story was purchased off AlterNet, a progressive news service operated by the nonprofit Independent Media Institute. And, Gibson says, “Jeff Smith was, after Rockin Rudy’s and the Good Food Store, the biggest advertiser.”

Never a perfect paper

Within the first eight months of owning the paper, Gibson lost nine of the 10 employees he’d inherited from Smith. Even the receptionist left. Rather than win them over, Gibson says, he had to start over. “I don’t think they had confidence it was going to get better and be a happy place to work.”

Gibson remembers Smith’s vision for the paper was trying to make justice possible. It seems grandiose, Gibson admits. But he folded that view into a broader vision of bringing more depth and color to Missoula news. Making people three-dimensional through good writing is central to the paper’s Indy-ness, Gibson says. As the paper grew, both in the scope of its content and its reach, Gibson believes that goal has occasionally panned out.

“I think our coverage of the riot in 2000 during the Hells Angels visit was a very big deal,” he says. “There were a couple stories that didn’t make as big a splash that I felt were really important stories.

Michael-Keefe Feldman’s story about Buddy Jo Rishel—that was an important story about what appears to be a homicide that went unprosecuted in Missoula because of the identity of the victim. I’m really proud of Jamie Rogers’s recent story about the drunk-driving accident in East Missoula. Talk about writing about people and making people three dimensional...the result is wrenching.” It took several years, but the Indy eventually stabilized financially under new ownership. Revenues doubled in the first few years, Gibson says. Wages improved. The paper really felt strong by 2000, “when we stopped losing $200,000 a year,” he says. The economy grew stronger during the dot-com boom, making it easier for the Indy to make up ground.

“It got to be a more reputable place to work,” Gibson says. “People came thinking that they could advance their professional interests.” And they did. The Indy had already served as a launching pad for scores of writers and the trend continued. In 2005, Missoula native Jessie McQuillan joined the staff as a copy editor fresh out of UM’s journalism program. She quickly climbed to a reporting position under editor Brad Tyer.

“What the Indy did, especially starting out as a new reporter, was, even though I’d lived here so long, it pulled back new sets of curtains on windows I’d never seen before,” McQuillan says.

She’d always had an interest in hard news, but within her first year as a reporter, McQuillan found herself working on a major criminal investigation. (See related story on page 13). Barry Beach had spent 23 years in prison after confessing to the 1979 murder of a young girl in Poplar. Beach was convicted in 1984, at age 21, but maintained that his confession had been coerced and that he was innocent.

“That was the biggest criminal investigation I’d done to date, and was a fascinating opportunity to reinvestigate an old murder case where a lot of other people really felt the wrong person had been convicted,” McQuillan recalls.

McQuillan’s feature story, “The Wrong Man?,” took six weeks to complete. Once it published, the national media picked up on the case, including “Dateline NBC.”

“It was interesting, as a reporter at that time, to… kind of see how work from a little alt-weekly in Missoula could cascade out to a national story,” she says. McQuillan eventually left the Indy and hung around Missoula for a year freelancing news stories. Out of the blue, state Sen. Dan Weinberg, who had followed the Beach case and McQuillan’s coverage, called her and expressed an interest in starting an innocence project in Montana. He wanted McQuillan to staff it. The two were of one mind; McQuillan had dreamed of starting an innocence project in the state, and had even established a post office box for one while working at the Indy. She became the founding director of the Montana Innocence Project, headquartered in Missoula.

McQuillan’s story is just one example of how an Independent story has created a powerful ripple effect through Missoula, the state and the country. Just during her time at the paper, McQuillan points to others: John S. Adams’ story from fall 2006 about Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s seeming nepotism in hiring his brother for a job at the Capitol, Adams’ investigation of former Montana State Auditor and U.S. Senate hopeful John Morrison’s 2006 affair, and Mc- Quillan’s expose on the Montana Meth Project’s hyped-up statistics.

“I think especially some of these big stories, some that I did but a lot that John Adams did, kind of called more general [statewide] attention to the Indy and the work that was coming out every Thursday,” McQuillan says.

The Indy has accumulated numerous state, regional and national awards in the past 10 years; just this year, Matthew Frank won first place for best environmental reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the drunken driver story Gibson referred to won best longform feature writing in the prestigious Best of the West contest. Yet the paper’s still not good enough, at least not for Gibson. “It’s never good enough,” he says. “It’s never what we want it to be. We always want it to be bigger, better, more dramatic, more fascinating. To imagine that I’ve realized something that was in my mind isn’t quite accurate.” The paper hasn’t freed itself from drama, either. Staff turnovers tend to happen every few years, and there’s always someone objecting to the paper’s direction. The termination of longtime political columnist George Ochenski this June caused an uproar among a faction of readers. There’s no doubting that some feature story or staff change in the near future will cause some similar backlash. But, as Erik Cushman says of the old days, “When people took us seriously enough to be pissed off at us, that was great.” Founder Eric Johnson has been thinking more recently about his days starting the Indy. He’s preparing to roll out a new online start-up—he wouldn’t go into details on the record—and finds himself trying to harness that same creative energy.

“I don’t think I’m prouder of anything I’ve ever done than the role I played in that paper,” he says. “And it was such a fucking blast. It was just a rocket ship ride for seven years, deadline after deadline, all of us in there every single week, once a week, all night.”

Johnson doesn’t read the Indy much anymore because it makes him “homesick for Missoula.” But he dug through a few stories online this month. Missoula’s changed. The staff has changed. The ownership has changed. But Johnson couldn’t be happier. “It just makes me feel really proud that you guys are still fighting the fight,” he says, “still doing exactly what I wanted to see happen.”

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