In a move sure to set heads spinning in the newspaper industry, Last Best News has purchased the Billings Gazette, it was announced shortly after midnight today, Sunday, April 1.
Widely seen as a plucky upstart with questionable prospects when it launched as an online-only newspaper just four and a half years ago, Last Best News now finds itself owning the largest daily newspaper in Montana.
“Readers can expect something totally new and yet quite traditional from the rechristened Last Best Gazette,” said Last Best News founder Ed Kemmick, speaking at a press conference Saturday afternoon, with the understanding that the news was embargoed until Sunday morning. “Starting next Sunday, we will cease operations at Last Best News and also end the Gazette’s online presence.
“We will devote all our resources to a print-only version of the Last Best Gazette,” he continued. “It’s what people in Montana and northern Wyoming have consistently said they wanted. Honest to God, who wants to read a newspaper on the web? Have you looked at the web lately?”
Mike Gulledge, former publisher of the Gazette and vice president of news for Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based media powerhouse that also publishes the Bloomington (Indiana) Pantaloon, said the sale was driven by market changes sweeping the legacy media industry.
“It was only a matter of time before we sold the Gazette,” Gulledge said, citing steady reductions in staff, advertising, content, circulation and free cake at employee-buyout parties, and a corresponding increase in subscriptions prices, annoying pop-up ads and bonuses for corporate brass.
Neither party would disclose how much the Gazette was sold for, but Gulledge did let on that the sale was “highly unusual” in that little upfront money was involved.
“The Lee board of directors was so impressed with Kemmick’s plans for the future, and the economic viability of the print-only model he was proposing, that it ultimately accepted his audacious promise to raise enough money to complete the purchase within five years,” Gulledge said.
“The time was just ripe,” Gulledge continued. “We knew our readers needed something new, something cutting edge — and yet something reactionary and regressive — and to be honest, we just didn’t have it in us to deliver that. We believe Kemmick does.”
David Crisp, Kemmick’s associate at Last Best News, will continue as managing editor and a twice-weekly columnist at the Last Best Gazette. Crisp said he was convinced they were on the right track.
“We’re taking this concept to the limit,” Crisp said. “We’re going to start hiring young people to deliver newspapers again, and they will be knocking on doors to collect cash money from subscribers. We also intend to hire newsboys and newsgirls to hawk papers on street corners. We’d like to have at least one of these little salespeople in every town in the region with a population over 1,500.”
Crisp also said that preliminary discussions with potential advertisers have been “surprisingly positive.”
“As just one example,” he said, “AMC Theatres were so excited by the concept that they have tentatively committed to heavy investment in print advertising, including regular full-page ads for the latest blockbuster movies.”
Kemmick said the purchase grew out of his failed attempt to end his subscription to the Gazette.
“After the latest rate increase, I tried calling the Gazette to cancel my subscription, but I was immediately put on hold,” Kemmick said. “This went on for 20 or 25 minutes. I almost lost my mind, and I finally hung up.”
Kemmick said he was so exasperated by the experience that he set up an appointment to speak with Gulledge, whose second-floor office has a commanding view of the Gazette’s large and frequently flooded parking lot.
“I was just going there as a former employee,” said Kemmick, who spent the prime years of his manhood as an editor and reporter for the Gazette. “I really wanted Mike to know how much trouble I’d had trying to cancel my subscription.”
Once the two media magnates got together and the talk turned to the future of the industry, Kemmick laid out his vision for what the Gazette could become, under the right owner.
Gulledge was, in his own words, “blown away.”
“Kemmick sees a shift coming,” Gulledge said. “He’s convinced — and now so am I —that readers in this region are just fed up with the internet and want to go back to simpler times, when you sat down with a great big hard-to-fold newspaper and just read the damned thing without a thousand and one distractions.”
Dennis Swibold, a newspaper historian and media analyst at the UM School of Journalism, said Kemmick and Crisp — who have been dismissed as “dotards” by some media watchers — are likely to silence critics by the sheer boldness of their concept.
“It’s an idea whose time came and went and is now coming back again,” Swibold said. “It will be interesting to watch the markets on Monday. This development is going to come as a shock to Craigslist and Amazon, among many others.”
Kemmick said the shift back to print-only could be just the beginning of an overdue revolution in the way news is produced and delivered.
“We’re thinking pretty seriously about allowing cigarettes, or at least e-cigarettes, back in the newsroom,” Kemmick said. “You have to balance reasonable health concerns with the widely acknowledged benefits of heightened creativity and the ability to concentrate.
“After that, who knows? I can almost see the day when we return to green eye shades, real film in cameras and” — Kemmick paused to wipe away a tear — “manual typewriters.”