This is issue number 952 of The Billings Outpost. It also may be the last.
At this writing, a chance remains that the paper will be resurrected in some fashion. But it will be under different management, with somebody other than me running the show. In the meantime, we are suspending publication.
I also am announcing here a partnership with Ed Kemmick of Last Best News to help produce one of the most imaginative and readable websites in the state. You can see our work together at LastBestNews.com beginning Feb. 1.
Deciding to go with his online publication rather than keeping this dead-tree newspaper alive was a no-brainer. The Outpost has history on its side. Last Best News has the future on its side.
But letting go of the Outpost was hard on much deeper parts of me than my brain. Eighteen years is a long time to do anything, and I have personally put every single issue of this paper to bed except one. With few exceptions, I have written every headline, edited every story, selected every photo.
There have been lousy years in there financially, but also some good ones, and the Outpost posted a string of modest but real profits in recent years. Through the first quarter of 2015, that pattern appeared to be holding and even improving – solid profits and modest revenue growth, accompanied by a fairly dramatic paydown of long-term debt.
But the bottom fell out in May, and we have not been able to recover. We needed a strong fourth quarter to bank enough cash to get us through the typically slow winter months. Instead, we had our worst fourth quarter ever. Given that newspapers all around the globe are going through similar hard times, I just couldn’t see a way out.
It would break my heart, except that after 30 years in print journalism, there isn’t much left of that shriveled little nut to break.
When I write the complete history of “Mistakes I Have Made in Business” (which will run to 25 volumes and sell three copies, two of them to relatives), the history of the Outpost will focus on two key events. One was the initial business plan, which called for printing 40,000 copies a week and distributing the papers individually to homes all over Billings.
It was an ambitious gambit, and we actually pulled off the complicated logistics behind it all. But we could never sell enough ads to cover the expense, and we switched to free-rack distribution the following year. That worked better, but it took a couple of years to fight our way to profitability, and by then we had exhausted our working capital.
The second event was in 2003, when practically the entire staff of the Thrifty Nickel defected to the Outpost: three sales reps, a production person, two delivery drivers and a combination classified ad rep and office guru.We got some new capital and ramped up sales and production. But Lee Enterprises, which owns both the Thrifty Nickel and the Billings Gazette, came after us hard, bringing in sales crews from out of state and offering customers ad rates that even we, with our low overhead, could not match.
We took a beating and in some senses never recovered, struggling year after year to scrape by and slowly chip away at the debt we incurred in the expansion. Virtually every penny of profit in the last five years went to pay down debt, and in a touch of irony, we had just finally paid off a big chunk of that debt in September before the disastrous fourth quarter took just about everything we had left.
Given a do-over, would we have taken on those Thrifty Nickel people again? In a heartbeat. It was an unprecedented opportunity to give this city the weekly newspaper we always had dreamed of: chock full of ads and reporting and entertainment and puzzles and just about everything a curious reader could have wanted. Wherever our minds may have erred, our hearts were in the right place.
As it is, we never managed to attract the classified ads, or real estate ads, or car ads, that we needed. We did, bless their hearts, have loyal and continued support from a solid cadre of advertisers who ran with us week after week and paid their bills on time. I won’t take the space here to list them, but if you have enjoyed the Outpost over the years, then you have seen their ads many times, and they deserve your continued support.
At this writing, we remain in negotiations with potential buyers, so it is possible that the paper will go on. More about that if and when it happens.
The good news is that, whatever happens to this paper, the dream that inspired it remains alive. The paper’s aspiration was always to provide an independent and reliable source of news outside the shackles of corporate control.
That aspiration lives on at Last Best News, where Ed Kemmick and I have been sharing selected stories since the site came into existence. Ed and I worked together at the Gazette many moons ago, and both of us have long weighed the possibility of working together again.
We already have been together on enough camping expeditions, hiking expeditions, bicycling expeditions, music-listening expeditions, canoeing expeditions and drinking expeditions that a full accounting would be, if not quite of Lewis and Clark proportions, enough to fill a small volume, and with better spelling.
My heart has been in print journalism since practically before I could recite the alphabet. I was drawn to newspapers partly to unravel the mystery of how something so different and fresh could come out every single day.
Thirty years later, I am still trying to solve the mystery. The nearest I came to ascribing it all to divine intervention was one long night early in the Outpost’s history when we had a large, very crucial issue to get out. One major ad required a particular software program, and we could not get the program to load on any of our computers.
Finally we gave up and went back to work on the rest of the paper, hoping for a miracle. The miracle arrived on schedule. After sitting idle on my computer for half an hour in the middle of the night, the program cranked up, and we got the paper out.
By and large, papers do not get out by divine action. Mostly it is just a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people—too many to name here, but they deserve more credit for anything you may have liked in these pages than I do.
Not many people know that when the Outpost launched back in 1997, we actually spent a long and dreary afternoon weighing the possibility of launching it as an online paper. It would have been an ambitious and innovative undertaking, and probably an utter disaster. Although we did not know it at the time, that was right at the beginning of the dot-com bubble, and the bubble popped within a couple of years, dragging down hundreds of ambitious and innovative undertakings.
Now the Internet has come of age, and Last Best News, another ambitious and innovative undertaking, has been leaving an indelible mark on Montana journalism. I hope that our work there will continue, and expand, the Outpost’s 18-year-old mission of bringing a fresh, alternative take on Montana news.