Prairie Lights: Notes on a successful fund drive

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At Last Best News, we stopped the presses almost three years ago, electing to go with an online-only newspaper.

Just after we posted an appeal for donations to Last Best News on Tuesday, I got an email from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.

“Dear Edward,” it began, because Jimmy always calls me Edward, “When the clock strikes midnight, our email fundraiser will end—but we haven’t yet hit our goal.”

Ed

Ed Kemmick

I sent in my pittance, figuring it was the least I could do for all the times I’ve used Wikipedia to settle an argument, flesh out a fact or find something out quickly that otherwise might be hard to find at all.

About the same time, I received a subscription renewal reminder from Scott McMillion, editor of the Montana Quarterly. I still haven’t renewed but I will, and the people on my Christmas list who’ve been getting that magazine from me will be getting it again in 2017.

The point is, I think we’re in good company in asking our readers to chip in, though there are big differences between Last Best News and the Montana Quarterly, and we’re both quite different, obviously, from Wikipedia.

The Quarterly, like the dead-tree edition of newspapers, made with real paper and ink, has to demand money up front, either by subscription or payment for an individual issue of the magazine. It also makes money from advertising.

Over at Wikipedia, Jimmy has no advertising, so he relies almost entirely on donations from users and the occasional grant or corporate sponsorship.

At Last Best News, we are often asked why we don’t charge a subscription fee. The short answer is that it is a dicey proposition asking people to pay upfront for online content, because the vast majority of internet content is free.

I knew from the start—having heard as much from dozens of colleagues at a Local Independent Online News Publishers conference in the fall of 2013—that donations would have to play a role in sustaining this enterprise.

That’s why Last Best News uses a hybrid approach—combining advertising revenue with occasional requests for contributions. Whether you choose to donate or not, everything on our site is free and available to all comers.

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Some online newspapers make regularly scheduled appeals, like public radio and like Wikipedia. I decided to wait and see if they were really necessary, which is why our appeals have been haphazard and irregular, scheduled when we actually need them.

Our system is far from ideal, given its built-in unpredictability, but the independent online newspaper business is still young and a lot of us are still trying to figure out the best way forward.

In the meantime, our readers have always come through. Last week’s fundraiser was everything we had hoped for and more. We should be able to pay our taxes, pay our bills and do a few important things, like joining the Montana Newspaper Association, which will give us access to good legislative coverage in the upcoming session.

As of Saturday, 104 people had sent in one-time donations through Paypal and 16 people mailed in checks. Another 13 people began making monthly donations, bringing the total number of voluntary “subscribers,” who contribute between $5 and $25 a month, to 60.

It was also gratifying to see support come in from all over the state and all over the country. We received donations from people in Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, Texas, California, Nevada, Arizona, Illinois, Oregon, North Carolina, New York and New Hampshire. We even received a donation from Australia—from a native Montanan with whom I’ve traded a few emails.

Within Montana, we received donations from Billings, Missoula, Westby, Red Lodge, Livingston, Great Falls, Medicine Lake, Park City, Helena, East Helena, Bozeman, Fort Peck, Pompeys Pillar, Fromberg, Cooke City, Seeley Lake, Florence, Laurel, Havre and Nye.

I did my best to thank every donor, but a few emails came back as undeliverable. If you made a donation and didn’t get thanks back, please accept our gratitude now.

We’re looking forward to starting our fourth year—and to playing a small part in the evolving reinvention of the news business.

(And if you still have a notion to support Last Best News, please click here.)