Reporter’s notebook: Missoula Current adds new writers thanks to reader contributions

Martin Kidston

It happened during a meeting last month when a man with a silver beard stepped to the podium to offer public comment. He held several sheets of paper in his hand and raised them on cue when stating his case.

“This is according to the local newspaper,” he said, referencing the Missoula Current.

This may seem like a small thing to many readers, but in truth, it took two years for the Missoula Current to move from an idea with no platform to a publication that now claims 100,000 monthly pageviews and growing – and is still free to read.

During that time, we’ve worked hard to build a readership, establish a trusted brand and get the word out, and it’s something we’re still doing. During a presentation to a local organization last week, many told me they get their state and local news from the Missoula Current, but several also admitted they’d never heard of the product.

These are the challenges of starting something from nothing and working to grow it with a bootstrapped budget. One day you don’t exist and then, suddenly, you realize you’ve developed a product that bears the public’s trust, as well as its expectation for quality and timely news.

This is a responsibility we’re proud to carry, and we’re taking additional steps to embrace it. Thanks to our loyal advertisers and those readers who contribute a voluntary monthly “subscription” to compensate for free access, we’ve been able to expand our reporting staff and the issues we cover.

Last month, two new writers joined the team, including Laura Lundquist, who is developing our fledgling environmental beat, and David Reese, who covers the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park.

We also hired a summer intern in Mari Hall, a 2018 University of Montana graduate who’s serving as a welcome – and needed – addition to our team. Along with Sherry Devlin, who reports, edits copy and produces our Montana Today publication, and Lisa Vachio, our director of development, we finally have a solid crew that’s moving full-steam ahead.

This was unimaginable in those early days, and it’s fair to say we’ve come this far because of you, our readers. While our base of contributors willing to give as little as $5 a month remains small, it’s growing, and because it’s growing, we’ve been able to take small but significant steps forward.

To keep moving forward, we’ll continue asking for your support as we work to grow our list of voluntary subscribers. Doing so would enable us to grow the hours we can pay our writers, add to our number of writers, grow the number of stories we cover, and widen our focus in western Montana.

Unlike our corporate competitor, the revenue we receive stays in Missoula to fund our news product and nothing more. We don’t pay executive salaries, we don’t send our profits back to the Midwest, we don’t worry about stock prices or corporate meddling, and we don’t outsource jobs. We’re locally owned and because of it, we’re locally responsive.

And of course, we’re free to read – it’s written into our founding mission.

In an industry that has struggled for ways to fund local news in the digital age, I remain hopeful this model will prevail over time, but it’s not the only model upstart news outlets are exploring.

Most recently I learned that several former Denver Post employees have banded together to launch The Colorado Sun 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.

“We hope that Civil is going to become this publicly owned domain for journalism that anyone who’s interested in the promise of sustainable, independent journalism around the world should be in possession of, to maintain and support it,” the company’s chief executive, Matthew Iles, was quoted as saying.

It will be interesting to see how that model unfolds. It will also be interesting to see how our own model unfolds, one rooted in public support and a community’s belief that independent journalism is not only important, but is vital to our democracy.

I’m hoping that together, we can take the next step forward in continuing to create a product Missoula and the rest of Montana can be proud of.

Martin Kidston is a former Marine and University of Montana graduate and is founding editor of the Missoula Current.