Missoula Independent Burdened By Progressive Stereotype

by lizard

In 2006, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism featured a roundtable about Alternative Weeklies in transition. One of the panelists who participated in this roundtable was Missoula’s very own Matt Gibson, owner of the Missoula Independent.

What follows is an interesting discussion about alt-weeklies from all the panelists, which is worth reading in full, but for this post I’m only interested in how Gibson’s answers may help us understand the changes underway at the Indy. The first question is a macro what-if:

If there was one thing you could change about the Alternative Weekly industry what would it be?

Matt Gibson: I wish that more publishers and editors formulated the core values of their newspaper around ambitious, high-quality journalism—rather than ideology and politics. “Alternative” need not be synonymous with “progressive,” nor is “liberal” a prerequisite for “worthwhile.” When we define our newspapers in oppositional terms, it boxes us into a corner that limits our options and our appeal. The word “alternative” doesn’t help much in that respect. These problems aren’t nearly as severe as they once seemed, but the stereotype still burdens the industry.

Aiming for broader appeal, if it can be pulled off, makes sense. But it seems to me there is a real risk of trying to please everyone and ultimately pleasing no one. Still, with so much change occurring with print media, not adapting to the changing landscape would be irresponsible.

Here’s the third question, and Gibson’s answer:

As we noted in this year’s report, there do appear to be some changes going on demographically in the weeklies’ readership – readers are older, but also more often parents. What kinds of impacts could this have on the weeklies considering that advertisers are primarily targeting young singles?

Gibson: In our market, advertisers do not generally seem to prefer a younger demographic. Actually, our paper is often rejected by advertisers in favor of media thought to deliver older, more settled, more affluent consumers. Rather than concentrate on our appeal to the youngest segment of the market, we are determined to broaden our reach to encompass the entire market.

Our objectives are unique due to our unusual circumstances. With 67 percent cumulative reach among all adults in our metro market, we aspire to sell advertising head to head against the daily’s Sunday publication. In other words, we aim to become the most powerful media in the market, albeit in a free weekly tabloid format.

This answer is curious. Is Gibson’s assessment of advertiser’s unique preferences in Missoula accurate? And if so, how exactly has the Indy been reaching out to those older, more settled, more affluent customers?

Question number 5 elicits a response from Gibson that may be good to consider with continued rumblings leaking from the Indy’s newsroom:

How much confidence do you have that traditional mainstream media organizations will survive and thrive in the transition to the Internet?

Gibson: Traditional mainstream media can thrive in the future, especially in a hyper-competitive environment characterized by a multiplicity of marginal voices. When consumers are bombarded with conflicting perspectives, they may find a critical need for authoritative editorial content that gives the various competing voices proportion and context. Credible, comprehensive traditional media are well-suited to serve that need.

Trust will be absolutely vital and increasingly valuable characteristic in the Internet age. To rise above the din of proliferating content, mainstream media must provide incisive reporting that cuts through the crowd noise to give audiences a reliable baseline measurement of the world they inhabit, capturing both the detail and significance of the day’s events.

If Gibson’s vision for the Indy is to broaden its appeal by escaping the burdensome stereotype of being progressive, then we should be seeing more conflicting perspectives, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. But to accomplish this, in Gibson’s own words, there is “a critical need for authoritative editorial content that gives the various competing voices proportion and context.”

Is current editor Robert Meyerowitz the right person to provide that authoritative editorial content? From what I’ve read coming out of the Indy, or in some cases, not coming out, I’d say no. And from what I hear, I’m certainly not alone.

It was nice to see the Indy at least give long time photojournalist, Chad Harder, a public fond farewell, because he deserves it. If you read the link (and check out the slideshow) you’ll discover Chad has been attacked by police and almost lost his hand working for Gibson’s publications. So yeah, Chad is due a fond farewell.

But how “fond” was it? A source close to Chad says, not very. Hopefully Chad, like Ochenski, lands on his feet.

Gibson says trust will be absolutely vital and increasingly valuable characteristic in the Internet age.

I agree.

  1. i knew the original founders of the Missoula Independent. they struggled to provide a voice in the community which added to the conversation rather than simply duplicating existing sources. I helped in small ways to contribute to Eric Johnson and his staff in the early days because I believed at the time that Missoula was not getting the whole bandwidth of news and culture through traditional sources. I was proud of what they accomplished.

    I watch with trepidation as Matt seems to be losing this core mission. I hope he finds the bread crumbs Eric left him so he can find his way back.

  2. Big Johansson

    In the early eighties Harold Ramis wrote this script.

    Dead indeed.

  3. Adam

    I knew the Indy’s endorsement of me must have been some kind of conspiracy! Facebook said it swayed the election and it was all because the Indy wanted advertising dollars from my in-laws. That accusation made for a real good laugh and better conspiracy.

    • lizard19

      remember Adam, the media can giveth, and the media can taketh away.

      also, I would wait just a bit when giving your own comment 5 stars ;)

      • Adam

        I was hoping you’d catch that.

        • lizard19

          only because I’m paying too much attention.

          the star system is kind of funny. there have been a few times I’ve bumped my own comments twice when I’m getting really low-starred in a thread, because everybody spins to some degree.

          as for the initial comment, conspiracy snark is too easy. you are better than that.

          you also open a line of inquiry I’m tempted to follow, considering the difficulty of what a 3% vacancy rate (sometimes lower) in the rental market means for the renter vs. landlord dynamic.

          • Adam

            I wouldn’t type it if I didn’t think it was 5 star worthy. ;) It won’t be long before Missoula’s rental market is back into healthy territory. There are some very large rental developments going up, housing sales are up (some of which is renters becoming owners), and UM enrollment is stagnant. The free market has a funny way of meeting peoples’ needs…though in this case it’s been slower than optimal with a tight debt market making development difficult.

            • lizard19

              sounds great, we’ll see. and I saved you the trouble of a click. I gotta sleep now, get a bit of that sweet free-market American Dreaming!

            • JC

              What “free market”?

              The one that stagnated UM enrollment by demanding changes in state-supported education (minimizing tax revenue support to higher ed) to the degree that no sane youngster would take on the student debt needed to get a degree that is worthless in a service job “economic recovery”?

              The one that paid for the roads & bridges, sewer & water, and police and fire protection that serve to create an infrastructure in which “very large rental developments” can occur? [/snark]

              The free market that drove a housing bubble that tanked the economy, and depressed housing prices to the point that foreclosure and underwater ownership have become so common that short sales, repos, and walkouts are fueling the new housing market: bank owned stock, and forced sales that now are beginning to trickle back onto the market (“housing sales are up”)??? You know, those same banks the “free market” bailed out.[/snark]

              And who is buying up those sales in the community? Yep, the new “free market” economy of rent seekers: the booming property management firms and their rich home speculator partners. All financed and subsidized by the not-so-free public sector.[/wink-nod]

              Get real Adam. Spouting “free market” hosanas here and elsewhere in Missoula is about as sincere as hearing Mitt and Paul talk about gutting Medicare and Medicaid in order to save it.

              • Adam

                I don’t recall saying the libertarian’s utopia of a perfectly free market. When producers and consumers make choices about housing, needs are fulfilled far better and more quickly than when a central government makes those choices. I also don’t recall denegratig basic infrastructure or tax incrementfinancing or any other community necessity that I regularly vote in favor of.

  4. Adam

    By the way… All snark aside, this was a great post. It’s interesting to read Gibson’s thoughts. I’ve certainly been taking note of the Indy’s changes, and appreciate their move towards living up to the Independent name.

  5. JC

    Wherein Indy Editor Robert Meyerowitz likens policy discussions to “watching paint dry”:

    “…The questions you’re asking are the kinds I wish were being discussed, a discussion of policy aims. But I have a feeling that’s like saying, ‘I wish more people liked watching paint dry.'”

    I guess that explains why we don’t get any real policy debates in the Indy any more. Even the Tester vs. Rehberg feature piece in this week’s edition was mostly politics and lifestyle fluff, instead of any real analysis of policy differentials between the two.

  6. Steve W

    Adam, you wrote..”When producers and consumers make choices about housing, needs are fulfilled far better and more quickly than when a central government makes those choices.”

    It sounds like a beautiful fairy tale. Do you have any real life examples of where this has occurred? Or is it an impossible dream you are chasing?

    If you have any examples, I’d love to see them. Thanks.

    • Adam

      My wife and I needed housing and had the freedom to choose where to live. A developer bought a field, subdivided it into lots and built infrastructure, we bought a lot, and then we built a house. Pretty straightforward. Our needs were met and I assume the developer’s needs were met.

      On the other hand, UM has a shortage of student housing. First year students are required to live on campus (not freedoms of choice) but are often confined to gym space, basements, and other overcrowding. The UM housing agency, as a subset of the government, clearly hasn’t been able to meet the needs of its students (aka consumers) in the nine years I’ve lived in Missoula. Despite overcrowding, the students don’t have free choice when it comes to choosing housing. Thus their needs are not met, or are met poorly.

      Of course the housing market is more complex than that, but I feel that’s a pretty simple explanation of freedom of choice vs forced compliance in the housing market.

      • Steve W

        Didn’t the builder have to comply with Montana building codes when he built the house you and your wife bought? I mean, I hope so.

        Is there a law that forces people to be first year students at the U of M? I’d just take my first year at the Vo-tek and then switch.

      • JC


        Who made the zoning decisions? Who brought water and sewer to the subdivision (or regulated out of city limits well and septic, so some people don’t drink what their neighbor excretes)? Who provided the right-of-way for electric, phone and cable? Who built the road to the subdivision? The school for your kid? The police and fire dept. to protect you? Trims the trees on your boulevard?

        Yep, housing is an issue that should just be between producers and consumers.

        FWIW, I think the U. should get into the housing business in a big way, maybe put up a few new dorm/apt. towers, build some high density housing on the south campus.

        If anything would bring a bit of sanity to Missoula’s captive rental market, it would be some government planning that provided for the needs of its students in an affordable manner, instead of leaving them to the sharks (property management firms).

        And speaking of property management sharks, why hasn’t the city looked into price fixing??? Proper role for the government to take when an industry is dominated by a handful of firms operating as a monopoly.

        Or is a goal of the city to prop up housing prices by stifling sensible high density development (gov provided student housing) so that things like reverse mortgages are a profitable business?

        • Adam

          You raise some interesting and timely points that I naturally I would enjoy discussing with any respectful individual.

          But alas, I’m not interested in responding to baseless personal attacks against myself and my family.

          You’ve sucessfully degraded a worthy discussion quickly. I’ve enjoyed 4&20 for some time thinking y’all were more apt to being part of the solution in a nation where presidential campaigns play out over birth certificates and tax returns rather than meaningful policy differences. I suppose I was wrong.

          4&20 bookmark deleted.

          • lizard19

            your initial comment in this thread was pure snark, and it was YOU who started talking about your extended family. if you don’t want to talk about that, then you shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place.

            this post was originally about the Indy, not the rental market. if you want to write off this blog because of a few comments you don’t like, that’s your choice, but it seems kind of juvenile.

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