From the Outpost: Cutting ties in a changing media world

Editor’s note: David Crisp occasionally writes an Editor’s Notebook column for his weekly newspaper, the Billings Outpost. We are honored to be able to share his work with our readers. We are also a little embarrassed to be mentioned in this, his first contribution.

David Crisp

David Crisp

In Washington, Ezra Klein cuts ties with the Washington Post to launch his own online news venture, Project X. In Montana, Ed Kemmick cuts ties with the Billings Gazette to launch his own online news venture, Last Best News.

These two ventures may be more alike than they seem, and also more different. Ezra Klein is a wonkish inside-the-Beltway reporter and pundit. His name and face are familiar to you if you watch a lot of MSNBC or if you have followed the debate over Obamacare.

Ed Kemmick, of course, is a longtime editor and reporter who wrote a popular weekly column for the Gazette, covered City Hall and specialized in off-beat, out-of-the-way stories about the people who make up Montana.

The two could hardly have less in common, except this: Both show how unhitched good journalists are becoming from traditional corridors to success.

After the Washington Post sold last year to Jeff Bezos for a mere $250 million, it must have occurred to Klein, if it hadn’t already, that he was rapidly becoming more valuable than the company he worked for. Newspaper revenues have been dropping rapidly, while online revenues haven’t been growing fast enough to make up the difference.

The Gazette’s parent company, Lee Enterprises, saw revenues for print, digital advertising and marketing fall 5 percent in the quarter that ended Dec. 29. It still owed $833 million, and it was still cutting expenses to stay afloat.

Nobody expects things to get much better for newspapers. I should note that Outpost revenues, and profit, also fell significantly in 2013, although it isn’t clear how closely that is linked to overall declines in the industry.

Journalism has been called a profession for the vaguely talented, and vague talents are no longer good enough. The newspaper business always has rewarded hard work and diligence more than creativity and enterprise. As the work dries up, lots of vaguely talented people are looking for other lines of work.

But for those with ability and gumption, new opportunities exist in the digital age. Klein’s departure from the Post stirred a gaggle of commentary from the punditocracy, and Kemmick’s departure from the Gazette makes equal ripples in Montana’s much smaller pond.

Thanks to the Internet, Ed has been able to start his company with a small fraction of the capital that it took to get even the modest enterprise of the Outpost going 16 years earlier. Printing the paper remains our biggest expense, next to payroll, and we devote 20 or so hours a week just to putting the papers out on racks. That’s 20 hours, and a bunch of money, that Ed can use to commit acts of journalism.

This changing world is not an unalloyed good. The crucible of daily news coverage that experienced reporters have gone through for the last couple of centuries has had its benefits. In my cub reporting days, I remember turning in a story that included three common names, all of which I spelled in the common way. All three were wrong.

My editor didn’t say a word. He circled the three names and left the story on my desk. Lesson learned. Who in the digital world will teach such lessons?

Already, some old principles are being abandoned. When Philip Seymour Hoffman recently died of a drug overdose, both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times broke the story without waiting for family members to be notified. When photos of a crime scene can go up instantly on Facebook, he who hesitates is last.

More important, the old dead-tree Washington Post could match its enemies lawyer for lawyer in fights over the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. This column has ridiculed the Gazette from time to time — and why not now? The Gazette ran an editorial on Tuesday criticizing Gov. Steve Bullock’s selection of a replacement for Sen. Max Baucus on the grounds that he had (1) allowed politics to intrude on politics and (2) failed to disclose a process that, by its nature, went on largely in the governor’s own mind. What will transparency demand next: that the governor Tweet his dreams?

But the Gazette has done an admirable job of lawyering up to hold local government to account on open records and open meeting issues. Will the Last Best News be able to afford that? Even after 16 years, the Outpost cannot.

But if anybody in Montana is going to be able to pull off an independent news site, Ed Kemmick is the guy. He knows the state and the town, can write and edit, is learning to take photos and is widely liked and respected. We wish him the best and will do what we can to help him succeed.

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