Long nights and long odds 

How the Independent made it to 21 years

Page 4 of 4

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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