By Missoulian Staff

Lee Enterprises abruptly shut down the Missoula Independent, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper, Tuesday morning, prompting outrage and mourning on social media, and a demonstration outside the Missoulian late Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s sad for us to see a publication as longstanding and as freethinking as the Independent shut down,” said Erin Erickson of Missoula Rises, which organized the demonstration that attracted about 75 people on the corner of South Higgins Avenue and Fourth Street East. Erickson stressed that the demonstration was not aimed at the Missoulian; rather its corporate owner, Lee Enterprises.

Matt Gibson sold the Independent — widely known as the Indy — to Lee in April 2017, then served as general manager for the Missoulian, the Ravalli Republic and the Independent. In Montana, Lee also owns the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record and the Montana Standard in Butte.

“The Independent has consistently lost money for its owners and is not financially sustainable,” said Gibson, who’d owned the Indy since 1997.

“I had hoped that by selling it to Lee Enterprises we would be able to create collaborative approaches and find new efficiencies to turn it into a profitable business,” Gibson said. “Unfortunately our efforts were unsuccessful and the Indy continued to lose money.”

The Missoula Independent’s website has been redirected to the Missoulian site, and its Facebook account deleted. Staffers posted on social media that they could not access their Independent email accounts.

“Made my last edit on a cover story at 12:29 a.m.,” Indy staffer Derek Brouwer tweeted Tuesday morning. “Was woken at 7:50 a.m. by a call from Lee Enterprises saying that the Indy is closed, effective immediately.”

Brouwer also tweeted an image of an email from Lee informing staffers that the paper had closed and that “the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building.” Salary and benefits will be provided through Oct. 10, according to the note.

Staffers could call the Missoulian to schedule an appointment to pick up their personal belongings, or have them mailed, according to the note.

Gibson rejected characterizations on social media that those actions amounted to a “lockout,” saying that Indy staffers “continue to receive salary and benefits for a period of time … We’re continuing to negotiate with the union as we unwind our operations.”

Independent staffers declined to comment to the Missoulian.

The shutdown of the Independent follows a downward trend in the newspaper industry, particularly for alternative weeklies. The Village Voice in New York City closed two weeks ago and Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger, now publishes only every other week.

In April, the Indy staff voted to unionize, forming the Missoula News Guild. Negotiations were ongoing when the paper closed.

Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, said the news of the Indy’s closure seemed inevitable. (Banville’s wife was a freelancer for the Independent.)

“It certainly seems like the direction things were headed almost from the time Lee Enterprises purchased the Indy, and certainly once the Indy staff unionized,” he said.

Mark Anderlik, a longtime union organizer in Missoula who attended Tuesday afternoon’s demonstration, said he was “outraged” by the decision to shutter the Indy.

“The implicit premise when they bought the Indy was that they would find a way to make it go so that we’d have robust journalism … this betrays the workers who’d worked hard at the Indy.”

When the sale was announced last year, Gibson said it would allow Lee and the Indy to “maximize our resources to deliver strong local reporting, and we’ll offer unbeatable audience reach and marketing savvy for advertisers.”

Gibson said efforts are being made to preserve the Indy’s archives.

“It’s important to preserve the history of the paper, which is the history of the community,” he said. “We’ll make sure to make appropriate arrangements.”

Banville said he doesn’t think the decision by the Indy staff to unionize was the paper’s death knell.

“It might have changed the timing. It took the debate about the future of the alt-weekly public and it also clearly rankled Lee Enterprises to have to deal with a union. It may have sped things up,” he said.

Banville said “it’s a loss” that the staff wasn’t given time to put together a final issue with advance notice that it would be the last.