Today is the first birthday of Last Best News, launched on Feb. 1, 2014.
I’d like to shoot off fireworks from the Rims, buy everyone in Eastern Montana a drink or maybe have one of those airplanes pulling a banner fly across the state for a few days, but I’ve got a bunch of stories to write, so probably not.
Anyway, it’s been a hell of a year, as far as I can remember. Former Billings Gazette colleague Ruffin Prevost, who launched his own digital newspaper a couple of years before I did, told me early on that I would, more than anything, love the freedom.
But he also told me that while I would never be on the clock again, I would never be off the clock, either. Boy, do I know what he meant now. The freedom I’ve experienced since becoming a slave to Last Best News has been indescribable.
When I left the Gazette 13 months ago, after a 34-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor, it seemed like an auspicious time to take the leap into independent online journalism. Nobody seems to really know anything about the future of traditional print journalism, least of all the newspaper executives who feel the noose tightening around their necks.
Small, independent online voices like Last Best News are springing up all over the country, and I think we’ll only see more of them, and in Montana, too. At the moment I am most interested in two nonprofit outfits, the Montana Center for Investigative Reporting and mtvigilante.org.
Both organizations are run by smart, dedicated people and they have limitless potential. I look forward to working closely with both of them, and with other online reporting operations to come. For more about my goals and my take on the changes sweeping the newspaper industry, go here for an extended interview I did with Courtney Lowery Cowgill, herself a pioneer in digital journalism in Montana.
As I said in my introduction to Last Best News a year ago today, I was most looking forward to exploring Eastern Montana in search of good stories and interesting characters. I haven’t gotten out as much as I would have liked (time and resources being harder to come by than I anticipated), but there have been some memorable trips.
Photographer John Warner and I spent a hot day in Brockway, covering the annual Dairy Day Rodeo, and I went by myself to spend a very cold day in Wibaux, to write about the magical little brewery there. I have been to dozens of towns and ghost towns, among them Outlook, Madoc, Scobey, Antelope, Redstone, Glentana, Homestead, Ingomar, Neihart, Montague, Square Butte, Geraldine, Two Dot, Ringling and Checkerboard.
Just typing those names brought on a terrible spell of rambling fever. I will do everything I can to continue getting out on the road as often as I can.my first quarterly report, let me give you some details about the past year. As of Saturday, according to Google Analytics, readers spent 350,062 “sessions” on Last Best News, or a little under 1,000 sessions a day.
We also had 540,264 page views and 192,563 users—though one reader checking in at various times on a desktop computer, a tablet and a smart phone would count as three “users.” The statistics can be quite enlightening, but also confusing.
On Facebook, we recorded our 3,000th like on Jan. 1, which was a cool coincidence, and that number had crept up to 3,100 by Saturday. Over at Twitter, we have 993 followers.
But wallowing in statistics makes me think of journalism contests, of which there are so many. I’ve won plenty of awards myself, but I’ve also judged newspaper contests. I realized long ago that it wasn’t all that important if a jaded fellow reporter in another state, given a few minutes to “judge” a stack of stories, thought my stuff was any good.
What matters more than awards and statistics—really, the only thing that matters in this business—is how your work is received by your readers. And readers of Last Best News have let me know—via comments under stories, emails, phone calls, personal encounters, Facebook comments and shares, even a few honest-to-god letters—that they like what I’m doing and want me to keep doing it.
I can’t exaggerate how much that support means. Because this is essentially a one-man show, I’m never ambivalent about Last Best News. I’m either convinced it’s the best thing since Johannes Gutenberg came up with moveable type or a spectacular failure, a digital Hindenburg. The mood swings are usually dependent on what work I produced, or failed to produce, on any given day.
Essentially a one-man show? Let me explain. According to my site statistics, I had published 439 posts as of Saturday. This column would raise that number to 440. The stats also tell me that I produced 350 of those items (351 as of today). But the stats—just like those produced by Google—are not entirely clear to me.
They tell me, for instance, that my main contributor, Billings Outpost publisher and editor David Crisp, had 28 pieces on Last Best News this year. But my own physical count on the site tells me he contributed 32.
In any case, in order of frequency, other contributors were Ruffin Prevost, Stephen Dow, Brian D’Ambrosio, Craig Lancaster, Jeff Gibson, Russell Rowland, Pete Tolton, Stan Parker, Stella Fong and Virginia Cross. They all contributed at least two pieces. Another 32 people contributed one piece each.
Many of those contributors appeared in our Lay of the Land series, one of the things I have been most proud of. This series, which ran every other Wednesday between late May and early January and will continue as an occasional feature, has taken a wide, deep look at what it means to live in Montana. I’d like to gather them into book form one of these days. When I get some free time…
Behind the scenes, my main support (well, after Mrs. Kemmick) has been Matthew Struck, my web host and technical adviser. One of the most important days in the brief history of Last Best News was the day Dan Berry offered to help sell advertising. Give him a call. Steve Prosinski, former editor of the Gazette, has been invaluable as a volunteer editor, sounding board and guidance counselor.
I also need to thank my advertisers. It’s all quid pro quo—they do hope I steer consumers their way—but many of them also advertise as a show of support for independent, community-minded journalism. At the risk of being insufficiently grateful to the others, let me thank the folks at Buchanan Capital for their long-term advertising and their many other ways of supporting what we do here, which included hosting our launch party a year ago.
I also need to thank the many people who’ve clicked on the Support Now button on the home page. This slow but steady source of support has meant a lot to me, especially on those few occasions when the Last Best bank account was getting alarmingly low.
Let me remind everyone that access to Last Best News is entirely free, with no annoyances, distractions or obstacles. Which makes it all the more gratifying that a handful of faithful readers have set up automatic monthly donations, as a kind of voluntary subscription.
One more thing I need to mention is that the press of business is such that I know I have neglected to respond adequately to every story tip, suggestion, or encouraging word. My memory is so bad that I often forget that I shouldn’t trust my memory. So, if you sent me a story idea and I expressed some interest but haven’t followed up yet, don’t assume I abandoned the idea. More likely I forgot about it or mislaid the note I wrote to myself. Get ahold of me again, please.
I was powerfully excited a year ago. I am even more excited now. I’ve learned so much and feel I’ve done so much, but a year is only a year. So stick around. There is a lot more to come, and this adventure has a long, long way to go.