Prairie Lights: 3 cheers for state’s growing online news

MFP

The Montana Free Press is one of a handful of new online journalism ventures in Montana.

Talking to Martin Kidston last week, I almost felt as though I was interviewing myself again.

The former Missoulian reporter quit his job at the end of December and launched an online newspaper, Missoula Current, in early January.

“I just decided I didn’t want to work for a corporate paper,” he said. “It’s a broken template, really.”

Ed

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Ed Kemmick

The Missoulian, like the Billings Gazette, is owned by Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain based in Iowa. Kidston thought the Missoulian “was becoming more of an advertising product than a news product.” At the same time, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Lee, hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and floundering in a new media world, was not prepared to reward good, hard work.

Missoula Current, like Last Best News (which launched Feb. 1, 2014), is a for-profit business. Kidston has been concentrating almost exclusively on editorial content so far, but he has begun selling some ads and he hopes to be able to make a living as an online reporter, and maybe even take on a partner or two someday.

“These are exciting times,” he said. “With technology, we can do anything.”

In Helena, John Adams also fled from corporate journalism, in his case the Great Falls Tribune, owned by Gannett, the newspaper chain that publishes USA Today.

Adams was the Tribune’s capital bureau reporter in Helena until the Trib announced it was restructuring the newsroom and invited Adams to apply for a new position, that of “state capital columnist.” After stewing on it for a while, Adams called his editor “in a fit of rage” and said he wouldn’t be applying for a new job.

He was laid off as of March 1, 2015. He had some money saved up and a friend’s cabin to live in for a while, so he took some time off to figure out what he was going to do. All he knew at that point (another déjà vu for me) was that he wanted to continue working as a reporter and wanted to stay in Montana.

After doing some freelancing and consulting work, he, too, launched a news website, The Montana Free Press, last fall.

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Adams decided to go the nonprofit route, meaning his site won’t have advertising and will rely on donations, foundation funding and sponsorships from individuals and organizations.

The Montana Free Press will focus on in-depth reporting, investigative journalism and news analysis. Like other nonprofit news outlets, it makes all of its content available to anyone who wants to use it.

We have published some of Adams’ work at Last Best News, as have newspapers and magazines across the state. He has also been doing on-air interviews with Eric Whitney on Montana Public Radio and will soon be doing the same with Jackie Yamanaka on Yellowstone Public Radio.

Over at the Missoula Current, Kidston’s model is closer to that of Last Best News, trying to cover a bit of everything on a regular basis, with an emphasis on local government reporting. He’s also a good photographer and he has been making good use of video clips.

Kidston said he hears every day from readers who are delighted to have an alternative to the Missoulian, which, like the Gazette, has a website that seems expressly designed to be annoying.

“They’re hungry for something different,” Kidston said of his readers. “They really are.”

Adams said his goal is simply to provide the kind of in-depth coverage that traditional newspapers seem less and less capable of delivering.

“I really do believe there’s an opportunity through what I’m doing to strengthen journalism as a whole in Montana, even if it’s just a stopgap until we really figure it out,” he said.

new currentAdams hasn’t paid himself yet, but he has incorporated as a nonprofit, assembled a board of directors and recently opened a bank account. He’s going to make a big push for funding, which will include a series of gatherings around the state to introduce himself and his new venture.

Like Kidston, he wants to be self-sustaining and eventually he’d like to bring on another reporter or two.

Kidston, who likewise hasn’t drawn any pay yet, said he can probably make it until July on his savings, which gives him some time to sell more advertising. He doesn’t sound like he’ll give up easily.

“I’ve already decided I’ll sell my house and move into a flop to make this work,” he said.

There is another model of journalism under construction in Montana that is different from for-profits like Last Best News and Missoula Current and not quite like the nonprofit Montana Free Press, either.

That is Mountain West News, an online news site published under the aegis of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. Established as Headwaters News in 1999, it was for most of its life an aggregator of news from other sources, with some occasional original reporting.

But last month, on its 17th anniversary, Mountain West News announced a new mission: “(I)n response to the decline in news coverage and writing capacity we see throughout the region by traditional media, we will now produce substantive and fully contextualized news stories and features on the most important trends and developments shaping the larger Rocky Mountain West.”

To that end, it has partnered with the University of Montana School of Journalism to fund a full-time reporting position, which was filled by Matthew Frank, an experienced reporter and adjunct faculty member at the journalism school.

Initially at least, Frank’s emphasis will be in-depth reporting on energy development in the region, since that is the subject “we think has the greatest potential for causing massive transformative change in our region.”

I hope others are as encouraged as I am by these fledgling attempts to reinvent journalism. The old model is creaking and clanking and seems ready to collapse, but people are still interested in the news and a lot of good reporters are itching to do good work.

It’s not a question of which new model is best. From here on out, journalism is going to be delivered in a lot of different ways, with lots of different funding mechanisms.

People who care about the future of Montana and who value good journalism need to support these new models with their readership, their donations, their advertising and their encouragement.

We’re all in this together.

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