Missoula Independent Burdened By Progressive Stereotype
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.