All good things, including Last Best News, come to an end

Ed Kemmick

One week from today, on July 1, Last Best News will be suspending operations.

I plan to keep the site live on the web at least through Sept. 1, so people can use the archives and save any stories they may want to preserve, but as of July 1 we won’t be adding any new content to the site.

Some people may wonder how we could possibly be closing up shop, after having announced on April 1 that Last Best News had purchased the Billings Gazette. Well, for those still in the dark, that was an April Fools’ Day spoof. This is for real; this is not fake news.

I started this online newspaper on Feb. 1, 2014, five weeks after leaving a 24-year stint as an editor and reporter for the Gazette. My plan was simple and a little selfish: I wanted to have some fun and call my own shots during what I figured would be the final stage of my career.

On those terms, it was a huge success. Though I had never worked harder in my life, particularly during the first couple of years of Last Best News, the freedom I experienced and the fun I had were indescribable. And in 4½ years, I managed to write myself a paycheck every two weeks, without fail.

But another kind of freedom started beckoning me more than a year ago, about the time I turned 62. It occurred to me that in all my life there had been only a few relatively short periods when I lived as a full-time human being, free and untethered. Once the idea of reclaiming that kind of freedom took hold of me, it was hard to think of anything else.

As a result, I have no personal regrets about pulling the plug. In a public sense, however, as a member of the Billings community and the larger community of Montana, I do feel all kinds of regret. I had some hopes of turning this operation over to someone else before I retired, but those plans did not quite jell.

I’m still hoping that someone will step up in the coming months and either revive Last Best News or start an entirely new online newspaper.

When I launched Last Best News, there wasn’t anything like it in Montana. There were a few other journal-style sites that covered some news, but nothing like an online-only newspaper that attempted to cover the news on a daily basis, with a mix of breaking news, features, editorials, columns, investigative pieces and occasional long-form projects.

Four and a half years later, the Missoula Current is thriving and still expanding, Jim Larson seems to be doing well with, and Jenn Rowell, in Great Falls, perseveres with her online newspaper, The Electric. The proprietors of The Havre Herald, launched just six weeks ago, are off to a promising start, and in Bozeman, Mountain Journal, which is more an online magazine than a newspaper, is doing valuable work covering the Greater Yellowstone region.

All of which makes me believe that someone simply has to pick up the torch here in Billings. If nothing else, I would hope that civic pride convinces someone that the largest city in Montana deserves its own independent online newspaper. I hope to write more about that in the coming days.

There is another cause for regret. Just shy of this site’s second anniversary, David Crisp shut down the weekly Billings Outpost, which he had published doggedly for 18 years, and joined Last Best News as a full partner.

We had high hopes, but we never mustered the financial wherewithal to continue the full partnership for more than six months or so. Instead, David continued teaching his college classes and stayed on with Last Best News as a contributor of weekly columns and occasional reviews and news stories.

I have often said that one of the best things Last Best News accomplished was to make David a weekly columnist. He wrote fairly regularly when the Outpost was young, but as his responsibilities and burdens multiplied, he wrote less frequently.

In the past 2½ years he has written his column every week, and it has become one of the best-read features on the site. I deeply regret depriving the world of his work. The good news is, David told me he would be willing to continue writing a column, should anyone step forward to start another online publication in Billings — another excellent reason to recommend such an undertaking.

I, too, plan to continue writing on a freelance basis. I am excited by the prospect of writing far fewer but far better stories than I have grown accustomed to in the past 4½ years. And I, too, would look forward to contributing to a new online newspaper in this town.

So, why shut down Last Best News? Besides my craving for freedom, mentioned above, I finally grew tired of the hundred and one things involved in running an online publication — things having nothing to do with writing and editing, the two things I wanted most to continue doing.

I had been a wage slave for almost 35 years when I started Last Best News, so I never had a reason to learn anything about accounting, budgeting, ad sales, marketing, social media promotion and web site creation and maintenance. And nothing in my previous experience prepared me to single-handedly respond to a daily flood of emails, voicemails and Facebook comments.

I had a lot of good ideas for improving and expanding Last Best News, but all of them involved at least several more years of the kind of slogging that was becoming more and more onerous, what with those thoughts of freedom rolling around in my head. I have always valued time over money, and in the end that was the deciding factor. I wanted time.

And now that my time here at Last Best News is running out, I find there is much I still want to say, about a lifetime of journalism, about the future of journalism in this strange age we find ourselves in, about Montana and its need for independent reporting.

I’ll try to get to all of that and more in this, the last week of Last Best News, so please stay tuned.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.