Kidston: Look behind the curtains of a $5 newspaper campaign

Martin Kidston is the founding editor of the Missoula Current, a Missoula-based publication that also produces Montana Today and Missoula Business Weekly.

An email was forwarded to me early Friday with a campaign that looked awfully familiar, so familiar I had to take a second look, thinking it was something we at the Missoula Current had produced, unwittingly, in our sleep.

“Support local journalism for $5 a month,” it said. “Join our community and discover the benefits of fast, unlimited access.”

As it turns out, the email wasn’t produced by the Missoula Current, but rather by our corporate competitor, the Missoulian. I vowed last year to quit picking bones with the Missoulian, which has its share of good reporters and generally does good work.

After all, we’re all in this for the sake of providing quality journalism in hopes of contributing to an informed and engaged community. Like most of you, we want to make the world a better place.

But when that email came in, I was forced to reconsider my resolution, at least in this moment. Even if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there remain a number of differences between the Missoula Current and the Missoulian, starting with that $5 contribution campaign.

For starters, since our inception two years ago, the Missoula Current has been free to read. We haven’t charged a dime, relying instead on our advertising partners while asking readers, when they can, to consider a $5 monthly contribution – voluntarily of course.

A reader’s inability to contribute $5 a month, which we’ve long equated to the cost of a latte, has held no bearing on one’s ability to read and engage with our content. Rather, we’ve always held that good news should be available to all of our friends and neighbors, regardless of their financial standing.

On the other hand, the Missoulian has operated behind a paywall for years, the price of which has apparently come down, and rather dramatically judging by its new campaign.

It’s also owned by a stock-traded company that pays its executives fancy six-figure bonuses and makes corporate decisions based upon the demands of its shareholders, not its local readers and rarely its employees.

I could go on about the Missoulian’s recent layoffs, its dramatically smaller page count, the shelling of its state bureau, its outsourcing of jobs to a foreign country and other states, or its recent purchase of the Missoula Independent, but I won’t because we’ve done that before.

Of course, the difference between the Missoula Current and the Missoulian lives somewhere in that cloud of dust. One is a local company, bootstrapped from Day One, using every penny it could muster while growing day-over-day by nurturing local partnerships and the trust of its readers.

The other is run from afar, where local managers are required to “make plan” to ensure the corporate giant gets its fill. If they don’t, as most of you know, they’re out of a job – just another lost cog in a long list of good people escorted out of the office.

Like any company, the Missoulian is free to do as it pleases, though we’d like to think, correctly or not, that our presence in the local market and our quality product played a role in the company’s latest move to drop its digital price to $5 a month.

To be honest, there are other differences as well, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out. The Missoula Current remains a small operation with just a handful of workers doing their best to cover Missoula and Montana without bias.

On that front, we’re easily outgunned by the Missoulian in resources and financial clout. We don’t have the ability to offer discounted rates to the Washington Post. We can’t run Google Ads and you can’t activate your coupons through our website.

For that, we apologize.

When it comes down to it, readers are free to choose where they get their news. They’re also free to decide where they spend their hard-earned money and what type of business they choose to support. When it comes to your next $5, think hard on who you give it to and what, exactly, they plan to do with it.

While $5 a month may not mean much to a company that gave its executive chairwoman a $900,000 salary, $675,000 in cash bonuses and $726,000 in stock awards last year, it means everything to us, and it goes far in supporting our mission to provide a quality alternative to the status quo.

For some reason, the Missoulian forgot to mention that salary and bonus in its new $5 campaign.