Independent news sites challenge Lee paper supremacy

©RYAN HAWK

He’s one of those guys who jump in the water without checking the temperature.

So the splashdown was a shock when Martin Kidston quit his regular-paycheck job as a Missoulian reporter and launched missoulacurrent.com.

“This is how naive I was: I thought if I wrote stories, people would just donate and advertise and subscribe,” Kidston said nine months into his all-local, online-only news venture. “I figured I would be able to sell the advertising myself, while reporting and writing. That wasn’t even close to being realistic.”

So he went a few months without a paycheck. And then a few more, all while working 10-hour days and seven-day workweeks.

“I just put a lot of work into it,” he said. “Somebody is going to be the first one who reaches the top of the wave and rides it out.”

“We don’t have a corporation telling us how to design our webpage. We don’t have to pay millions of dollars to a CEO. We don’t have stockholders to keep happy. Everything here is locally earned and locally paid, and I think that message will win out.”

With a handful of startups struggling to reach viability, Montana may be ripe for a statewide online news site — the type of energetic, independent voice created by VTDigger, MinnPost or CALMatters.

But the success stories in other states either took years to reach critical mass or got their start thanks to significant support from one or more benefactors. The nonprofit MinnPost launched with $850,000 from four families concerned about the future of journalism in their state and relies heavily upon grants from foundations.

So far, six-figure funding sources have eluded Montana’s online-only news startups, in part because of the state’s small, widely scattered population and lack of major metropolitan areas, and in part because journalists haven’t coalesced around a central statewide site.

Kidston organized Missoula Current as a for-profit enterprise in December 2015, and hired independent contractors to sell advertising on commission. He’s sold about a quarter of the available ad positions on his site, but pageviews are growing, as is the buzz for his aggressive coverage of Missoula city government, development and business.

On the other side of the state, longtime Billings Gazette reporter Ed Kemmick launched the for-profit lastbestnews.com on Feb. 1, 2014. He too relies on advertising sold by private contractors and the power of the sources and community goodwill he’s generated over decades as a mainstay of the morning paper.

“The problem is that the newspapers are still – and this is no revelation to anybody – putting out their daily papers because that is where the money is — the advertising, the investment, the equipment — so they keep doing that,” he said.

“If somebody started an independent online site with a statewide focus, they could do amazing things. I do think that’s the way to go. But how do you get there, and can you do it without a sugar daddy?”

A look at the sites fed by Kemmick and Kidston reveal a few, but not all, of the answers, and a good many more questions.

Kemmick spent almost 25 years at the Gazette as a reporter, editor and columnist. His reputation for honesty and fairness, and his skill as a storyteller, are the assets that have powered Last Best News.

He began his mental move out of the newsroom in April 2013 and decided to launch Last Best News as a site covering eastern Montana.

“I always had the idea that I had to have income from day one,” Kemmick said. “I didn’t have savings or investors, so while still working at the Gazette, I sold enough advertising to guarantee myself an income for six months.”

He went to friends and acquaintances who admired his work, most recently covering city hall, and asked them to contribute to a new, noncorporate model of local journalism. Those first appeals, he believed, had to come directly from him.

“The only true, meaningful yardstick is that I’ve never missed a paycheck,” he said. “I have paid myself every two weeks for all this time.”

But at just over $30,000 a year, it’s not the paycheck Kemmick earned at the Gazette. And even after three years, it’s anything but guaranteed. He’s had to appeal for donations to pay taxes and make ends meet when ad sales crashed. He’s lost ad reps time and time again. He’s considered crowdfunding and event sponsorships but wonders who would organize such things.

In February 2016, he announced a partnership with David Crisp, editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost, then a print-edition weekly. Crisp closed the Outpost’s doors and fell in with lastbestnews.com, but the money didn’t follow. By fall, Crisp was back teaching journalism and writing a column for Last Best News. And Kemmick was a one-man show once again.

“I ignored, or forgot, one of the key pieces of advice I got early on,” Kemmick said. “Your second hire can’t be a journalist. It has to be someone who can pay his or her own way, in terms of service to the site and bringing in new advertising. It has to be somebody with business, technical, advertising skills. And then, maybe, maybe, your third hire can be another journalist.”

Montana’s legacy papers have, in a way, made it easy for Kemmick and Kidston to achieve early successes as one-reporter newsrooms.

The Missoulian didn’t hire a replacement for Kidston for over eight months, so he wisely kept up coverage of city and county government on Missoula Current.

He quickly developed a reputation for “breaking stories first when time matters.” The phone started ringing. He hit the streets and found sources — and readers — eager for an alternative source of local news.

(Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Billings Gazette and Lee Enterprises’ senior editor in Montana, declined to comment on the role and impact of the independent new sites, and the Montana newspapers’ response to the competition.)

“The public loves us,” Kidston said. “My knowledge of the subject matter distinguishes me. I know the issues and the players, and I’m good at turning things around fairly quickly.”

He also learned a lot more about click-through rates, site metrics and demographics. Missoulacurrent.com hit 30,000 monthly page views before its nine-month anniversary, and readers started donating to the cause. Kidston began writing a business plan for year two.

Kemmick described a similar evolution of his coverage, and business sensibilities. Fairly quickly, the realities of time and money narrowed his coverage to Billings, and to his surprise, he found himself “breaking a lot more local news than I ever expected to do.”

“I feel like a 25-year-old reporter,” he said. “It’s really fun to beat the paper. Because I worked at the Gazette for so many years, I get the calls. I’ve scooped them on many, many dozens of stories. You get fat and lazy when you don’t have any competition, so I figure part of my role is keeping the Gazette on its toes.”

But the life of online news proprietor-reporter-editor is lonely and exhausting. Both men said they miss the newsroom and its invigorating and irreverent population of smart, creative and hardworking journalists.

In three years, Kemmick hasn’t taken off more than a week at a time, and even then he has worked.

“Thank God it’s fun,” he said, “or it would not be sustainable at all. It is truly still so damn satisfying. Just hearing how many people are really, really glad that I am doing this, it is just a wonderful thing. It’s a nice obligation to have.” 

Sherry Devlin was the Missoulian’s longtime natural resources reporter, followed by a 10-year stint as its editor. She’s a freelance writer and editor now, happily pioneering new paths to readers’ virtual doors.

Ryan Hawk is a graphic and motion designer, freelancer for many and an avid chai tea enthusiast. You can find more of her work at ryanhawkdesign.com.