Montana Voices: A world of opportunities for independent online journalism

When I imagined writing this column just a few days ago, before announcing the impending shutdown of Last Best News, I saw myself in a calm, cool frame of mind, making a short and rational case for keeping independent journalism alive in Billings.

Ed Kemmick

Well. The past two days have been such a whirlwind of emotions and have seen the dawn of so many new possibilities that I hardly know where to begin.

The good news is that several people have shown interest in keeping Last Best News alive. What will come of it and what kind of online newspaper might be built on the foundation I started laying 4½ years ago, I can’t say.

But the interest is there, and anything I was going to say about the need for an independent online news source in Billings now seems superfluous. Those expressions of interest, together with the hundreds of comments I have fielded since Sunday morning, are proof that the perceived need is widespread.

So, allow me to relate a few of the things I’ve learned since launching Last Best News, in hopes that my experiences will smooth the way for someone wishing to take the next step.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that the way to build a sustainable, profitable, ever-growing online newspaper is to function primarily in the way that traditional newspapers functioned. That means appealing to a broad mix of readers with a combination of breaking news, entertainment and cultural offerings, investigative journalism and opinion pieces clearly identified as opinion. That also means reporting on business, sports, local and state politics, education, and crime and courts.

The mistake I made, if mistake is not too strong a word, was making Last Best News too much a reflection of my own interests. It was a conscious decision, because after 35 years of reporting and editing as part of much larger teams, I was itching to do exactly what I wanted to do for a few years.

I didn’t go into this as a business person looking to create something of marketable value. I went into it as a reporter and writer who wanted to follow his own interests and whims.

That worked, in a narrow sense. As I said Sunday, I managed to pay myself every two weeks and I had enough left over to pay freelancers and to pay all those people whose skills I needed to run a website, do the accounting, sell ads and create ads. But I never generated enough revenue to expand the news-gathering team, beyond hiring David Crisp to write a weekly column and occasional other pieces.

It can be done, though. For evidence of that proposition, look no further than the Missoula Current, an online newspaper that launched a couple of years after Last Best News by Martin Kidston, a reporter who, like me, left a job with Lee Enterprises to go off on his own.

Two years later, Martin has four part-time employees — two writers, one writer-editor and one person working on financial matters and ad sales, and this summer he is paying an intern to do some reporting as well. Martin had more to say about his past growth and plans for the future in a recent column.

Martin told me the Current is slowly increasing revenues, both from ad sales and an expanding number of readers who volunteer to pay a monthly fee. His goal is to add one full-time reporter in Missoula and at least a part-time reporter in Helena, to cover the Capitol. The same general approach would work here in Billings, though instead of a Helena reporter you’d want to have someone covering Eastern Montana.

Martin also chose, wisely in retrospect, not to rely too heavily on Facebook for promoting the Current. Instead, he focuses on posting multiple stories a day, throughout the day, so that readers go directly to the site several times daily to see what’s new.

I did rely on Facebook, because 4½ years ago it seemed like an easy and logical way to promote stories, especially since we generally posted one, two or three stories a day at most, usually first thing in the morning.

Earlier this year, when Facebook, or the Great Satan, as I like to think of it, decided to change its algorithms to “de-emphasize” news feeds — read: “to force content providers to pay Facebook to appropriate their content” — daily readership at Last Best News was cut by half overnight.

That development was the one that helped solidify my vague thoughts of retiring, and not because I didn’t see a way to rebuild Last Best News. I just couldn’t see devoting the next couple of years to doing what needed to be done.

But if anyone else is interested in taking over Last Best News, or in starting their own online newspaper, I think the time is ripe and the opportunities are abundant.

The Billings Gazette still has a lot of good people doing good work, but Billings and Eastern Montana need an independent voice, particularly now, when the Gazette and its corporate owner, Lee Enterprises, confront an apparently inevitable slide into bankruptcy and dissolution.

There are other options, too, for creating online journalism, including going the nonprofit route and seeking funding solely from readers, or from foundations or other organizations interested in keeping journalism (and democracy) alive in the digital age.

In Martin’s column, linked to above, he noted that some former Denver Post employees have gotten together to launch The Colorado Sun, an online publication. This would be done, he wrote, “in partnership with Civil Media Company — a New York start-up that’s using blockchain technology and ‘crypto economics’ to fund several new media publications.”

I felt so old when I read that. Blockchain? Crypto economics? This old dog has had to learn a lot of new tricks since founding Last Best News, but if I could just please make a graceful exit before having to familiarize myself with things like blockchain technology, I’m sure I would be much, much happier in the days ahead.

So, let someone else, someone younger than me and much more at home in this brave new world, pick up the reins. I’ll do all I can to make sure they succeed.