Editor’s note: In light of the many questions that have come in regarding the expansion of Last Best News, we asked the renowned but obscure one-time journalist Walter Ego to interview Ed Kemmick, the founder of Last Best News. Here, in place of Kemmick’s usual Prairie Lights column, we offer an edited transcript of the interview.
Walter Ego: There are going to be some readers stopping by for the first time today. For their sake, could you tell us briefly about this expansion of Last Best News?
Ed Kemmick: Certainly. I founded Last Best News on Feb. 1, 2014, and for exactly two years it was basically a one-man operation. Three weeks ago, on Feb. 1, 2016, I took on a partner, David Crisp, formerly the editor and publisher of The Billings Outpost.
Walter: I see. And what happened to the Outpost?
Ed: After publishing it weekly for 18 years, David shut it down. It’s been more than three weeks since the last Outpost, but I still find myself looking for it at several familiar locations. Many other people have told me they’ve been doing the same thing.
Walter: But the Outpost was a business and Last Best News is a blog. How does one close a business and join a blog and still put food on the table?
Ed: Excellent question, Walter, and I’m glad you asked it. Last Best News may look something like a blog, but it is actually an online newspaper, supported by paying advertisers just like a “real” newspaper. I didn’t retire from the Gazette and David didn’t retire from the Outpost. We both quit our old jobs and our new job is putting out Last Best News.
Walter: Ah, paid advertising. So you didn’t go to the trouble of creating all those wonderful notices one sees on Last Best News just to draw attention, free of charge, to some of your favorite businesses?
Ed: No. I’m not particularly intelligent, but I’m not insane.
Walter: So you depend on paid advertising, just like a traditional, dead-tree newspaper, and yet you also ask your readers for donations. How does that work?
Ed: Well, it’s a brave new world. There are many independent, nonprofit online newspapers that depend entirely on donations from their readers and funding from foundations and the like. Last Best News is a for-profit business that we hope one day will be able to rely exclusively on advertising. Until then, and particularly now, in light of our expansion, we need help from our readers and from supporters of independent journalism generally.
Walter: Why didn’t you make Last Best News a nonprofit from the outset and go after foundation funding?
Ed: Another excellent question. Perhaps if we get big enough we’ll be able to hire you someday.
Walter: Cut the flattery, please, and just answer the question.
Ed: Of course. Sorry. I decided not to go the nonprofit route because I wanted Last Best News to be completely independent. I wanted to build a newspaper whose first and last loyalties were to its readers, not to wealthy donors or foundations, however well-intentioned. Another consideration was that I’ve always worked for newspapers that depended on advertising. I like that model. I just don’t like the corporations that own most of the newspapers.
Walter: If you like the old model, why don’t you have paid subscriptions?
Ed: Subscriptions made perfect sense in the days of print-only daily newspapers. People understood that they needed to pay something for a tangible commodity, sometimes a thick, heavy commodity. When your newspaper is only online, that understanding is no longer there, especially when people are used to accessing almost everything on the Internet free of charge.
Walter: But so many online newspapers have a subscription charge. You wouldn’t exactly be breaking new ground.
Ed: No, but my goal from day one was to make Last Best News as accessible as possible, to attract the greatest number of readers. I would rather have thousands of readers a day, to make it worthwhile for businesses to advertise here, than to rely on the grudging payments of a smaller number of readers.
Walter: Please expand on the idea of accessibility.
Ed: With pleasure. One of the great failings of traditional newspapers, when they established an online presence, was to pursue every possible source of revenue without, apparently, giving much thought to how awful they were making the reading experience.
Walter: Are you referring to pop-up ads?
Ed: I am referring to pop-up ads. I am also referring to drop-down ads, ads at the bottom of the screen, ads that go traipsing across your screen, ads that suddenly burst into harangues or songs or hideous hectoring. I am referring to surveys you have to answer before reading a story. I am referring—God help me—to those videos that suddenly open up in the middle of the story you’re reading, forcing you to stop the video and then go looking for where you were in the story, which is meanwhile unaccountably bouncing up and down, making your search all but impossible. I am referring as well to all those horrible little stories you are asked to click on to learn about how to increase the size of your … sex drive, or to look at photos of celebrities who have aged badly, etc., etc., etc.
Walter: We seemed to have touched on a sore point here.
Ed: We certainly have. It long ago ceased being merely annoying and now seems to be deliberately insulting, like an experiment to see how much humiliation we will endure in order to, what, read the latest story about a drunk with two kids in the back seat who crashed his car into Wal-Mart?
Walter: And your thought was…
Ed: My thought was to treat the reader with respect, to create an online newspaper that I would like to read, with a clean, simple design and absolutely no obstacles, starting with unpaid access.
Walter: Which brings us back to the idea of fundraising. I take it you ask for donations partly because you refuse to make use of all those profitable but exceedingly irritating techniques adopted by all the big online news sites?
Ed: Precisely, Walter. You seem to understand me so well. We need some financial help because of what you just said but also because a small, independent, online newspaper is still a relatively new thing, especially in Montana. We are out here on the edge of a new industry, trying to figure out the best way forward. I have no doubt it will be figured out eventually, but in the meantime, we need some help, for which we are extremely grateful.
Walter: You announced the online fundraiser a couple of weeks ago. What else remains?
Ed: People can always make donations by clicking on the “Support Now” button in the top left corner of the home page. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we especially encourage people to set up monthly donations. They are something like subscriptions, except that they are completely voluntary. We now have about 40 people making such payments, ranging from $5 to $25, every month.
Walter: And what of this live fundraiser?
Ed: We’re actually calling it a Re-Launch Party and Fundraiser because we’re not interested only in rounding up donations. We also wanted to celebrate our expansion to what we’re calling Last Best News 2.0 and to thank our readers, advertisers and donors for their continued support. The party will be this Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub, 2123 First Ave. N.
Walter: What sort of party are we talking about here?
Ed: The best kind. We will have a variety of hors d’oeuvres and treats, and the Garage will be pouring beer, with gin and vodka drinks available at the distillery attached to the Garage. There will also be live music from The Peach Pickers, featuring me and my brother, John, with Bob Brown and Pat Rogers. We will be joined by some of the best musicians in Billings, including Parker Brown, Alex Nauman, Ron Schuster and Ryan Riley, along with, we suspect, a few surprise guests.
Walter: And prizes, I believe?
Ed: Yes, prizes galore. There will be a raffle, with prizes that include $150 gift cards to Walkers and Lilac, a $100 gift card to The Rex, a goodie basket valued at $100 from the Art House Cinema & Pub and a basket of liquor from Montana Spirit Distillery, the one attached to the Garage. There will be other prizes, some still coming in, for the raffle. We’ll also have a silent auction featuring two baskets of offerings—growlers, pint glasses, T-shirts, hats and more—from all our Billings brewers, plus some framed prints of photographs from the incomparable John Warner.
Walter: How much are raffle tickets?
Ed: They are $2 apiece or $15 for a book of 10. They are available at the Garage Pub or by calling me at 794-4481.
Walter: Great! I’d like to buy some myself.
Ed: Sorry. No one connected with Last Best News can enter the raffle.
Walter: How am I connected to Last Best News?
Ed: Now you’re being coy. Just stop it.