Welcome to Last Best News

I-90 Mountains

John Warner photo

On the road in Montana is where we hope to be as often as possible. This shot was taken from Interstate 90, looking west at the Crazy Mountains.

Montana is the fourth-largest state, but only Wyoming and Alaska have fewer people per square mile. Maybe that gives our stories room to grow. Or maybe all that space between people makes our stories more necessary, makes them a binding agent that holds us together.

At Last Best News, we want to help tell those stories, whatever form they take. We will spend most of our time in Eastern Montana, though we know from experience that it is impossible to say exactly where to draw the boundaries of that geographical construct. For our purposes, it would probably be easiest to separate Montana along a north-south line at Big Timber, and call everything east of there Eastern Montana.

Why Eastern Montana? Because most of Montana’s daily newspapers and nearly all of its magazines are in the western half of the state. There are a lot of fine papers doing good work covering Eastern Montana, but by necessity they focus on reporting local news for local audiences. Likewise, the Billings Gazette, the largest paper in the state, no longer covers Eastern Montana as it once did. Its coverage has become more and more local because, in common with other members of what is called the legacy media, it struggles to sustain a printed newspaper while maintaining a digital presence, even as its staff gets smaller and smaller. We don’t envy anyone trying to keep that balancing act going.

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Our solution is a lean, online-only newspaper that aims not to compete in the race to tell the breaking news, but to gather the best stories in a portion of Montana that is larger than most other states and put them all in one place, accessible to everyone. But before we limit ourselves, let us hasten to add that when the spirit — or the compelling nature of a particular story — moves us, we will venture to Western Montana, to the nearer parts of Wyoming, the Dakotas and even Canada. We will be guided solely by the desire to print stories that we think will be of interest to people in Montana, or to people anywhere in the world who feel an attachment to this state.

So, who are we?

There is another consideration, and to explain it please allow me to drop the editorial “we.” I am also launching this news website because it is the only way I could find of giving myself an opportunity to get paid for doing exactly what I wanted to do.

I worked at the Gazette for nearly 25 years as an editor, reporter and columnist. Most of what I did was satisfying work, but nothing was more satisfying than driving the back roads of Eastern Montana on the hunt for out-of-the-ordinary stories, out-of-the-way places and one-of-a-kind characters, or writing the same kinds of stories right here in Billings. I decided to figure out a way to do nothing else.

Underwood
Never did I imagine I’d be doing it strictly online. My father and grandfather were printers for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the St. Paul Dispatch and I have been a faithful reader of printed newspapers all my life. For more than 30 years, until the ribbon lift broke, almost all the writing I did at home was banged out on the Underwood typewriter pictured here. It was no easy jump to the world of strictly online journalism, but it is a transition all of us are going to make before long, like it or not.

And because this is an online publication, the concept of a “daily” or “weekly” publication does not really apply. There will be some regular features, like my revived column, as yet unnamed, that will run every week, but other news and features will be added whenever the need arises. So drop in anytime and see what’s new.

I was inspired to pursue this venture by something I heard a few years ago. Peggy Kuhr, then-dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana, was on a barnstorming tour of the state on behalf of the J School. At a gathering in Billings, someone asked her, in effect, what good a journalism education was as we approached the end of the era of print journalism.

Her answer was that they were not training students to work for newspapers. They were giving them the skills they would need to reinvent journalism. I liked her answer, and later, when I started thinking about this venture, I suddenly realized that it wasn’t just the 20-somethings who had to reinvent journalism. Why not someone like me, with decades of experience in the business?

And so here I am. I have no hopes of being the Thomas Edison of digital news, but I do plan to have fun reinventing my own career.

In addition to covering the news and culture of Eastern Montana, I plan to write plenty of stories about Billings, too, since that’s where I live and the place in all the world I know best, but I will get out to the far reaches of this state as often as I can. Your suggestions will help. Let me know if there’s something out there you think I need to write about.

A name to live up to

About the name of this site: Most people who know anything about Montana know that “The Last Best Place” is our unofficial slogan. The phrase was coined by William Kittredge as the title for an anthology of Montana writing that he and Annick Smith published in 1998.

“I was thinking of the book ‘The Last Good Kiss’ by James Crumley, and Lincoln’s statement that the U.S. was the last best hope of mankind,” Kittredge told the New York Times. “The phrase popped into my head and I said, ‘How about The Last Best Place’?”

The beauty of the coinage is that its meaning is not entirely clear. But it suggests that there is something about Montana that is priceless and enduring, and that those of us who live here know how fortunate we are. It is my humble desire to write about Montana in a spirit that does justice to Kittredge’s words.

In that same spirit, access to Last Best News is free, and free from obstacles. That means no subscription charge, no restrictions on the number of page views per month, no pop-up ads and no annoying surveys that you have to complete to finish reading a story.

This site is free to readers because it is supported by advertisers. If you like what you see here, show your support for the businesses that make it possible. Check out their ads, click on them, see what they have to offer. And then visit them and spend some money.

You could also demonstrate your fondness for Last Best News by going to the home page and clicking on “Support Now.” Though the site is ad-supported, this is a start-up with a lot more hopes and dreams than assets. Your financial support will make it possible for Last Best News to continue offering free access and a fresh perspective on Montana news. It will also enable me to pay contributors — writers, photographers, graphics artists — what they deserve for their work.

And because we — yes, back to the editorial “we” now — want to make coming here an enjoyable experience, we are using a Facebook-based commenting system. We understand that some people don’t use Facebook because of privacy concerns, but we think it’s the best way of discouraging trolls and encouraging good conversations between real people.

Thanks for stopping by to have a look. We hope you’ll find many reasons to come back on a regular basis.

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