Long nights and long odds 

How the Independent made it to 21 years

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“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.”

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