Last words, maybe, and a few thanks from Last Best News


John Warner

Few things are quite so striking as a sunset — or is it a sunrise? — on the prairies of Eastern Montana.

I was planning to ride off into the sunset today, but if I may appropriate an observation by Benjamin Franklin, it looks as though I might be heading in the direction of the rising sun.

In the week since I announced that Last Best News would cease publication today, I have heard so many expressions of interest in reviving it in some shape or form, with or without my continued involvement, that it appears likely that this independent online newspaper will live on.

I’ve probably said too much already — after almost 40 years in the newspaper biz, I’m better at exposing secrets than keeping them — and will say no more on that subject for now.

And so, whether this is the end of the tale or only of the first chapter, I wanted to write one more column of thanks to all the people who have been involved in this adventure.

Although this has been mostly a one-man show since I launched Last Best News early in 2014, nothing has been more gratifying than the flood of contributions — in the way of stories and photographs — from so many friends and former newspaper colleagues. I never expected to be so blessed in this regard.

My records tell me that we’ve published about 2,600 posts over the life of Last Best News, of which slightly more than half were written by me, followed by David Crisp with about 320. David and I had been colleagues at the Billings Gazette, both working the 3-to-midnight shift as editors, more than 20 years ago, and this chance to renew a working relationship was one of the best things about this undertaking.

In time, many Gazette refugees (and refugees from other Montana newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises) would also contribute to Last Best News, including Craig Lancaster, Chuck Johnson, Jan Falstad, Eve Byron, Dan Burkhart, Linda Halstead Acharya, Jim Gransbery, Jennifer McKee, Luella Brien, Jeff Gibson and Anna Paige, who is now back at the Gazette.

Two other former Gazette colleagues played large roles in the launching and continuation of Last Best News. Ruffin Prevost, who had started his own online publication, Yellowstone Gate, after leaving the Gazette, was my mentor and fount of advice as I began toying with the idea of following his trail.

Steve Prosinski, who left his position as Gazette editor about seven months before I made my exit, was one of the first people I told my plans to, upon which he offered his services, gratis, in any way he could. He has been a constant helper ever since, editing, advising, writing and even contributing photo essays, after discovering (as did I) how much fun even an amateur photographer could have.

Steve went from being the best boss I ever had to one of the most agreeable collaborators a person could wish for.

Former Gazette photographers David Grubbs and John Warner also offered their services, though David only at first, before his post-newspaper success left him too busy (and out of state) to keep contributing.

John, fortunately, stuck around Billings, and he and I teamed up for some of the best stories published on Last Best News. Simply put, they were stories that I knew would be good, and demanded a great photographer. Among them were the three April Fools’ Days spoofs we collaborated on, one of which gave us the second-highest daily readership numbers we ever had.

One big consideration in wanting to move on from Last Best News was having the opportunity to do some serious freelance writing, and of talking John into working on as many of those pieces with me as possible. In some shape or form, we’ll continue to collaborate, right, John?

Other contributing journalists, photographers and writers, some I’d known for years and some of them new to me, included Brian D’Ambrosio, Charlie Denison, Adrian Jawort, T.D. Mischke, Tom Vandel, Marshall Swearingen, Joel Harris, Phillip Griffin, Stella Fong, Pete Tolton, Russell Rowland, Paul Driscoll, John Clayton, T.J. Gilles, Alexis Bonogofsky, Stan Parker, Alexis Adams, Mike McCormick, Bruce Lohof, Larry Olson, Mary Moe, Evan Barrett, Jim Elliott, Cal Cumin and Mr. Bitters and Olive, our undercover tavern reviewers.

Two students, Stephen Dow from Rocky Mountain College and Desiree Kling from MSU Billings, served as interns for Last Best News and both of them produced impressive, promising work.

Marian Lyman Kirst approached me about writing an occasional column on bugs, which turned into BugBytes, a brilliant and hilarious series of natural-history dispatches accompanied by her astounding photographs and illuminating drawings by Danielle McCracken, Elley Swan, Logan Hendricks and Louis Habeck.

Toward the very end of Last Best News, Sherri Cornett proposed a series of interviews with “Billings-area leaders who are committed to creating a vibrant community for all.” OK, I told her, but you’d better get cracking. Which she did, and her Voices from the Valley series was a fitting coda for this site.

Another big supporter was George Moncure, founder of the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., which he recently sold in pursuit of his own need for time and new prospects. George advertised on Last Best News, gave us good advice, plied us with beer, gin and vodka, all made on the premises, and was the one who suggested a big fundraiser at the Garage Pub. We ended up having three such events there, which made us some much-needed dough and some new friends.

Speaking of the Garage Pub, it was there I met Roger Kettle, a Scottish cartoon writer of some renown in Great Britain, who had made a habit of periodically exploring the West with his friend Alan Gray, with the Garage as their base of operations.

And then, somehow, Roger became a writer for Last Best News, contributing some of the finest, funniest things we published, his later work illustrated by his friend Steve Bright, also a Scot and one of the best cartoonists in the United Kingdom. Didn’t I say something about having been blessed?

We are also bottomlessly grateful for the writings and the support of comrades-in-arms Martin Kidston and Sherry Devlin at the Missoula Current, Jenn Rowell at The Electric, Todd Wilkinson at Mountain Journal and John Adams at Montana Free Press.

Closer to the heart of things, I owe thanks to Matthew Struck, my web master and all-around technical guru, who calmly saved my bacon on many dozens of occasions. And thanks to Dan Berry, a former ad salesman at the Gazette, who rounded up many of the ads on this site in the first couple of years, and to ad designer Melanie Fabrizius, yet another Gazette refugee, talented, gracious and endlessly creative.

Thanks to my accountant, Patty Driscoll, another bacon saver, and to the advertisers who stuck with us from first to last: Buchanan Capital, Cape Air, the Downtown Billings Alliance, Russ Plath Law, and Jon Rutt and his recently sold business, AquaSystems. Thanks also to Jon Stepanek and his colleagues at KTVQ, who entered into a wonderfully beneficial partnership with Last Best News.

Special thanks to my wife, Lisa, and daughter, Hayley, editors of first resort and sounding boards of uncommon patience, as well as out-of-town daughters Jessie and Pari, who often assured me, in the words of former Gazetteer Kristi Angel, that “the old man’s still got it.”

To all the hundreds of readers who made voluntary monthly donations, occasional contributions or one-time offerings to Last Best News, you were life-savers.

Mostly, thanks to all our readers over the years. Because we were independent, we really could think first of their needs and wants and desires, and then try to meet them. They responded with tens of thousands of expressions of gratitude and support, in the form of comments, emails, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, phone calls, letters and face-to-face encounters.

They gave me faith that journalism still matters, that Billings is a fine place to be, that Montana deserves our best efforts. Whatever happens to Last Best News, please continue to demand and to reward good journalism.

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