Prairie Lights: In LBN survey, readers have their say

Readers of Last Best News, you did us proud.

In late February, we posted a survey developed by the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, which is trying to determine who reads local news websites across the country, and what their readers are like.

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Ed Kemmick

Not long before the survey ended, Peter Bobkowski, an assistant professor at the school, wrote to us and said there had been “a phenomenal response to your reader survey. Whatever you did to convince people to take it is working well.”

I can’t claim any credit. All I did was write and publish a short piece informing readers of the survey and inviting them to participate. When it was over, 458 people had filled out the survey, and 119 of those people also took the trouble to answer the question, “Do you have any other comments about what we can do to improve Last Best News?”

The “phenomenal” response confirmed what I had surmised—that we cater to a large number of involved, informed readers who really care about what’s going on in their world, their state, their communities.

I was particularly impressed to see that 71 percent of respondents marked “extremely satisfied” in response to the question, “Overall, how satisfied are you with the content of Last Best News?” Another 21 percent said they were “somewhat satisfied.”

I was also gratified—and surprised—to see that 78 percent of respondents were somewhat or extremely satisfied with how frequently we post new articles on LBN. I was surprised because I would like to be able to post many more pieces than we do. In the meantime, it’s nice to know readers think we’re doing all right in that regard.

Another reassuring finding: 78 percent of respondents answered “yes” to the question, “After you visit Last Best News, do you discuss articles with friends or family?” Asked to respond to the statement, “Last Best News is one of the primary sources for information about my community,” just under 66 percent of respondents marked “strongly agree” or “agree.”

We’ve heard from many of our readers before, in the form of emails, phone calls, comments under stories and on social media, and even in actual letters, on something called paper. But in the three-plus years Last Best News has been around, this was our first formal survey.

So we thank the University of Kansas journalism school and we thank all the readers who took part in the survey.

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Now for those 119 comments about what we can do to improve Last Best News.
The very first response, as it turned out, brought up a concern that I can deal with right now. The reader said, “It would be helpful for LBN to allow sign ups for emailing news articles/issues to readers.”

I’m happy to report that we do allow it, and in fact encourage it. There is a “Montana Today” button on the LBN home page, Montana Today being the name for our daily email alerts. You can sign up clicking on that space or by clicking right here.

We used to have our own weekly email alert, but starting in mid-January, in partnership with Missoula Current, an online newspaper similar to LBN, we started putting out Montana Today.

That partnership, I see by the comments on the survey, has led to some confusion. One reader, for instance, said he or she “liked Last Best News better as a weekly publication and before it combined forces with a Missoula publication.”

Just to be clear, LBN was never a weekly publication. We publish online only, and we have always posted stories almost every day of the week, sometimes as many as four stories or columns a day. All that has changed is that we alert readers about new content via email every weekday morning, rather than weekly, and the alert also tells you what’s new at Missoula Current.

That really is the extent our partnership. We shared content with Missoula Current before we started the daily email alert and I don’t think we are using any more of its stories now than we did in the past. But we do like using those alerts to bring more independent journalism to your attention.

Believe me, I know how confusing this online publishing business can be. You can access LBN directly, but a great many readers come in through our Facebook page, where we promote every story we post, through the Montana Today email alert, through our Twitter page or through a link posted by someone somewhere else on the web.

When you pick up a printed newspaper, you instantly know what it is. On the internet, with its countless websites and its infinite portals, confusion is inevitable. All we can do is promise to continue doing what we can to lessen the confusion.

About three-fourths of the 119 comments were positive, many enthusiastically so. Two were extremely succinct. You will recall that readers were asked if they had any other comments about what we could do to improve LBN. “No,” said one. “Nope,” said another.

Many of those who did have suggestions asked for more stories, and specifically for more investigative journalism, more news about science, outdoor activities and Eastern Montana, more follow-up stories and news analysis.

We hear you, and we’ll keep trying to do more and do better. Bear with us.

I won’t bore you by going into detail about the laudatory comments, but here are two that made my day: “Best newspaper around. Honest reporting. Glad to support them,” and “Best news source ever! Thank you, LBN!”

The most common criticism was that we are too liberal, too leftist. I counted 17 such comments, though other comments addressed similar concerns without mentioning politics, such as “prefer more news and less opinion pieces.”

Comments from our critics included these: “Stop the liberal bias.” “It’s unbalanced news reporting.” “Clearly liberal slant.” “You are too biased.” “Would be nice if the primary folks, Kemmerer (close!) and Crisp, would at least acknowledge that there are two sides to every issue.”

Our critics have a point, sort of. David and I both show our biases on a regular basis because we both write columns, an endeavor that calls for opinionating, and both of us skew unapologetically left.

In a perfect world, we would have a large staff, and those writing opinionated pieces would not also write news, and vice versa. But besides David and me there are only occasional paid contributors, so we both write news stories and we both write columns.

The important distinction is that when we write news stories we leave our opinions out and we report the facts as fairly and fully as we can. One reader said, “LBN writes opinion-based articles without fact checking.”

Well, the fact is, that is not true. If you find errors of fact in anything we write, whether in an opinion piece or a news story, please let us know. We will correct the mistake (as we have done more than a few times in the past three years) and we will acknowledge the mistake, unless it involves a typo or something similarly minor.

And if you find bias in a news story, by us or anyone contributing to Last Best News, please let us know that, too. We can’t respond to vague, blanket accusations of impropriety, but we will respond to specific criticism.

By acknowledging our leftward tilt, at least we give readers a benchmark by which to measure our fairness. Because we don’t hide our biases, I think we work harder to be fair in our reporting.

On the larger question of whether we run too much political commentary, I would tend to say that, yes, we do. But we are living in an era of unprecedented emphasis on politics, and like so many of our fellow citizens we cannot resist the impulse to weigh in on matters that seem so vital.

We have a president who is reckless, amoral and dangerously ignorant of anything but certain aspects of real estate and reality television. When he starts acting like a real leader, we’ll lighten up on the politics, I promise.

Editor’s note: Click here to read all the Last Best News survey comments.

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