Long nights and long odds 

How the Independent made it to 21 years

Page 3 of 4

“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.”

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