Kidston: Building a true community partnership
By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Four months and 13 days ago, we started out with a guess. Sure, the Missoula Current went live days before in a test run, but it was on Jan. 4 – my last day as a corporate-paid reporter – that we now count as our official launch date (and what I hope doesn't count as career suicide).
The product began on a shoe-string budget and an equally limited digital platform. We had two slots for unique local content and a larger section for national news and food, both courtesy of Reuters and its digital wire service. It seemed like a lot at the time, but looking back, it hardly registered as a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Over the past few months, Missoula Current has evolved away from national news under the belief that savvy readers can get their national news just about anywhere, from Yahoo to CNN to their favorite daily metro.
Why reinvent the wheel when you're aiming for originality?
In recent weeks, we began revamping our homepage to reflect several suggested changes that will position us to grow our focus on local news and information. I did my best to lay it out during a presentation to the Missoula Senior Forum last week, but my public speaking skills are on par with my golfing abilities.
At any rate, recent changes include the addition of more local stories, and we've made it possible for readers to comment on those stories. We've also worked with Molly Bradford at MissoulaEvents.net to incorporate a calendar of local actives at Missoula Current.
What's more, we've added a popular new section dedicated to community voices. Contributing to the new section is a staple of talented local columnists who write on a number of issues – and from a number of political views. They include Robert Seidenschwarz, chairman of the board of directors at the Montana World Affairs Council who writes on, well, world affairs as they pertain to Big Sky Country.
Just down the highway in Lolo, writers Suzanne Miller and Jeff Taylor provide a weekly column giving artful insight on the challenges of running a Montana guest ranch. “The View from Dunrovin,” as they're calling it, is both serious and lighthearted, and always entertaining.
More recently, Lauren Gonzalez has joined our staple of burgeoning columnists. Gonzalez, a dedicated mother and parenting coach, would be the first to tell you that being a mom may be the world's hardest job. She overcame her own emotional struggles and now dishes advice to new and expecting parents while encouraging women to take life by the horns.
As I sit here on a Tuesday morning, we're also working with several local startup incubators to add a weekly column exploring new Missoula businesses. A portion of our city's future and economic health depends upon the success of today's entrepreneurs, and who better to tell their story than the entrepreneurs themselves?
Sorry that sentence ended in a reflexive pronoun.
While we've added a lot – and accomplished much in four short months – we've got a long ways to go. With our dedication to providing a true community product, we're always looking for productive insight and advice. Our food section will be going away any day now, but we haven't decided how to replace it, if at all. Suggestions are welcome, so long as those suggestions are realistic and sustainable.
Several months ago and early in our evolution, Ed Kemmick, founder of Last Best News and an old peer of mine over in Billings, gave me a good bit of advice. Among it, he urged transparency at all stages of the process. It is, he said, what separates our digital news product from the practice of corporate media, which is happy to report on others but is rarely forthcoming in its own endeavors.
Okay, I said the last part, but his point was well taken.
People always ask about the revenue side of our upstart digital news magazine, and my answers are generally positive, and for good reason. We hired an advertising rep to head our sales “department” on a commission basis roughly six weeks ago. At this moment, there are several other goals in play to help bolster that effort – and it does need bolstering. By this time next week, we'll have more information on what shape that will take.
I met Russ Fletcher last week at City Club Missoula. As founder of the Montana Associated Technology Roundtables, he knows something or two about launching a digital product. On the issue of revenue, he noted several media models in place elsewhere in the country, including The Frontier in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which relies exclusively on subscriptions. They don't come cheap at $30 a month. Others have taken the nonprofit route, relying on grants to make ends meet.
At the Missoula Current, we've decided against a paywall for the time being, believing the news should be free and available to all readers, regardless of economic standing. Instead, we'll see if advertising and the occasional donation will be enough to survive. As our readership grows, I believe this combination will work, though the challenge will come when it's time to add a few more reporters.
That will take community support and an engaged readership. It will also serve as a test to whether Missoula truly wants more than one source for daily news. If it does, the thinking goes, the support will come. At any rate, give us a read, like us on Facebook and share an occasional story. It all goes a long way in growing our readership.