Prairie Lights: A best-of list for all of our ‘new visitors’

Rodeo

John Warner

A bird’s-eye view of an imminent collision between a cowboy and the dirt, at the Brockway Dairy Day Rodeo.

If I had to choose my favorite story out of the 600-some pieces that have been posted on Last Best News in the 17 months of its existence, I think I’d go with our story on the Brockway Dairy Day Rodeo.

It was ridiculously fun, for one thing. I spent the whole day taking in unforgettable sights and interviewing a succession of characters so interesting, entertaining and down to earth that even before I started to write the story I was regretting how much I’d have to leave out.

Ed Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

Better yet, I spent the whole day, and on into the wee hours of the next morning, in the company of John Warner, a photographer of rare talents. I suppose it would be more accurate to say “in the vicinity of,” rather than “in the company of.” We mostly went our own ways, I filling a notebook and he a memory card, until he shot something I just had to write about, or I talked to somebody he just had to shoot.

I knew his photos would be great, as always, but I was still in awe when he shipped them over a day or two later. I ended up running, by my count, 55 of John’s photos with the story, a record that should stand for quite a while.

They were so good that a shot like the one above—which is basically a three-act play with all three acts unfolding simultaneously—was buried in the middle of a very long photo gallery. Did my story do the photos justice? I don’t know, but they inspired my best efforts, and it’s damned fun to write when you’re inspired.

You might wonder why I’m bringing all this up. Well, one thing you do when you are the proprietor of an online newspaper is, you keep a close eye on numbers.

No, not the money numbers. Those numbers aren’t high enough to warrant a close eye. I’m talking about the numbers generated by Google Analytics, which show how many people are visiting the site at any given moment, what they’re reading, whether they’re reading on a tablet, phone or laptop, and whether they’re in a car or a bathtub—that sort of thing.

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One statistic that always catches my eye is how many “new visitors” come to the site. It’s not uncommon to find that more than half the readers in any given time period are new visitors. In the past 30 days, for example, an average of slightly more than 1,230 individual users visited the site every day, of whom about 60 percent were new visitors.

That’s good. That means we’re expanding our reach and, with luck, slowly adding to the roster of regular readers. But I imagine some of those new visitors saying to themselves, “Well, that story was pretty interesting, but I wonder what the rest of this site is all about. I would look, but like all people nowadays, addicted to my devices, I’m too busy.”

With those readers in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to pick some of my favorite stories and features that have been published on Last Best News since we went live on Feb. 1, 2014.

Another collaboration with John Warner, one that involved another daylong adventure, resulted in our story on the Shonkin Sag, a relic of the Ice Ages between Great Falls and Fort Benton, with its spectacular, Niagara-dwarfing dry falls. We actually did this story for the Summer 2013 issue of the Montana Quarterly, then saved the story to run as the top story on the day Last Best News debuted.

Are you seeing a theme here? I haven’t worked with John nearly as much as I would like to have done, but he was with me on my two favorite stories. Another collaboration was our April Fool’s Day spoof in 2014. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do a spoof until John presented me with his Photoshopped picture of a surfer riding a wave on the BBWA canal.

The photo was so good (and I tried not to give too much away in the story) that many, many readers, even astute readers I happened to be friends with, were taken in by the spoof. All in good fun: there’s no shame in that.

Speaking of collaborations, I was lucky enough to work with Stan Parker, a young journalist now living in Brooklyn, on a story about the big snowstorm of 2014. Stan created a memorable video that combined footage of the aftermath of the 2014 storm with scenes shot during the “snowpocalypse” of 1955. Watching it again, it makes me realize that we need to do more videos around here.

Badlands

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Weird, beautiful rock formations are everywhere in the Terry Badlands.

Last fall, I enlisted a couple of friends to spend a day exploring the Terry Badlands, something I had been meaning to do for, oh, 25 years or so. It was worth the wait. I ran a lot of my own photos with it, which makes me wonder if John Warner has ever been there. That amazing place and John’s camera would be a match made in heaven.

A weekly feature of Last Best News—I am addressing the prototypical “new visitor” here—is my Sunday column, Prairie Lights, the successor to my City Lights column at the Billings Gazette. What is the column about? Anything under the sun, though come to think of it I have written about other corners of the universe on occasion.

I thought I should pick one column to bring to your attention here. Maybe I should have chosen a more Montana-centric piece, but this column, from just about a year ago, brought back good memories. In it, I had some fun making fun of Ann Coulter, and that just never gets old.

Another regular feature, which ran every two weeks from May 2014 to this past January, was Lay of the Land, a series of essays about life in Montana. I wrote one piece, but the others were written by contributors. I’m so grateful to all of them that I probably shouldn’t pick a favorite, but here goes: I’ve read Brittany Jensen’s “Ripple Effects” at least half a dozen times now, and it chokes me up every time.

Way back when this site was new, there was a huge reader response when I posted the affidavits in the criminal case again then-state Sen. Jason Priest, who had been charged with assault.

It wasn’t much work either to obtain or to publish the documents. What made it memorable is that I posted them because the Gazette would not, and for reasons that still strike me as ridiculous. Coming so soon after Last Best News went live, it was a good reminder of the role that an independent press can play in a town dominated by a big paper that sometimes falls down on the job.

I liked this story, a history of the changes that have come to Montana Avenue over the past few decades, because it was a good reminder of something else: that the news is not always new. Sometimes you need to take a step back and remember how we got here.

I have to include the story of Kate Morris’ grain bin house. I was mainly pleased with this because the response from readers was so strong. I thought the project was incredibly cool, and it’s nice to know that sometimes my tastes are shared by others.

I’ll leave you with one more, a story I wrote about a magical day and night my wife I spent at the Yellowstone River Lodge outside of Park City. This year we’ll do it right, canoeing down to the lodge from Columbus.

No, wait. We might as well end with one more from John, his priceless gallery of photos about his diminutive, adventurous, altogether pesky little dog, Benny.

Editor’s note: If you ever thought it would be a good idea to share a Last Best News story, now’s your chance. Thanks.

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