By Martin Kidston
When I walked into my first newspaper job back in 1998, I was green as they come. An English major fresh out of school at the University of Montana, I knew little about journalism, how to navigate the AP Stylebook, or how to put together a newspaper.
And it was a good thing. Back then at the Silver State Post in Deer Lodge, the process of compiling a newspaper wasn’t unlike a roomful of kindergartners in an art class. We printed the stories on paper, cut the stories into columns of varying lengths and widths, and pasted them onto broadsheet templates.
Racing the clock, we laid the pages in careful order, secured them in a box and set the package onto a Greyhound bus bound for Livingston. The printed newspaper arrived the next morning for weekly distribution. It was close to magic.
Jump forward 18 years to a modern age where scissors and glue are no longer industry tools. For that matter, a multi-million dollar printing press may also be going the way of the dinosaurs. This evolution of technology played a hand in convincing me to exit the world of corporately owned newspapers, where the biggest priority these days rests on turning a profit and satisfying shareholders.
I left Lee Enterprises in January after logging 17 years with the company, reporting for the Helena Independent Record, the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian. They were fine papers with a fine staff, but the evolution of technology convinced me that a motivated journalist with a strong vision for a local news product could change the expectation of readers.
I launched the Missoula Current on New Year’s Eve and have spent the past four months getting our ducks in a row, so to speak. Busy as it has been, I never took the time to introduce the product to the community – an oversight perhaps. And while it may be too late for introductions, it’s never too late to say hello.
The Missoula Current is best described as a digital news magazine. We publish daily, just like our competitor, the Missoulian, though comparing our resources may be akin to comparing a grapefruit and a raisin. Truth be told, we’re at a disadvantage when it comes to advertisers, revenue and employees. But day by day, we’re working to change that.
When I first began toying with the idea, the concept seemed simple. Write the news that interests you and the advertisers will come. How hard could it really be? Just like my first day at the Silver State Post back in 1998, I was woefully ignorant. The intangibles of running a news magazine hadn’t occurred to me.
First of all there’s the website, and that’s a job in itself. But the good folks at Cedar Mountain Software have been incredibly helpful, tolerating my occasional request for changes as the product evolves. The importance of marketing and promotion have also been an eye-opener. Because there is no morning paper to thumb through, readers must find you online. They can’t do that if they don’t know you exist.
There’s also the revenue side of the product. The news isn’t free, though at the Missoula Current, we don’t charge a subscription. Rather, we’re hoping to survive on advertising. Yet winning over advertisers that have never heard of you, and who are accustomed to working with the competitor, is not an easy task.
This goes back to the importance of marketing and promotion. It becomes a circular arrangement, one that takes a true team effort to navigate. Without advertising, there is no news. Without the news, there is nothing to sell.
It sounds nice and philosophical, but the reality is that advertisers don’t come easily, and it’s advertisers we need. These business owners, can you believe they had the gall to ask questions that I didn’t have the answers to? What are your page views? What’s my return on investment? Do you offer click-through counts?
When it comes to advertising, I still don’t have some answers. But I’m learning, and I’m realizing some jobs are better left to the experts. With that in mind, we’re working to implement a sales team to do what sales people do – reach out to our local businesses and let them know they now have an option when it comes to promoting their product. I’m doing the same on the editorial side, letting readers know they now have an option in local news.
While our competitor has been around for 118 years or so, sending local proceeds back to the Midwest to boost stock values, we’ve been around for four months. We celebrated that birthday this week. In that short time we’ve lifted our numbers to 30,000 page views and some 16,000 readers (that’s the part where you whistle).
What does this have to do with you? You can help by visiting the Missoula Current on a daily basis. Better yet, share our stories on social media. Heck, take ten seconds and like us on Facebook. With your help, we can ensure Missoula has more than one news product.
As for me, it’s back to the news. Tonight it’s a entrepreneurial pitch session at UM, followed by a Missoula Chamber of Commerce event and, finally, a meeting at City Hall. Our stories don’t write themselves.
Martin Kidston is the founder and editor of the Missoula Current, the city’s news magazine.