For a day or two, I have been mulling over comments to my "Newspapers today and tomorrow" post asking what goals I had for The Outpost when I started. I don't think I can answer that in 30 words.
For starters, I anticipated that by now we would be a much more vigorous and stronger independent voice. I've always thought that a weekly with just a couple of reporters could drum a daily on a regular basis. So much energy at a daily is dissipated in the sheer dailiness of it -- the endless meetings to cover, cops and courts, sports agate, photos to take, pages to lay out, the holidays and vacations -- that it seemed reasonable to believe that while we could never be as comprehensive as the daily, we could break stories, anticipate stories and write stories that hit closer to home just about every week.
I thought we would be able to link up with other weeklies in the state to create a truly independent statewide source of news. For example, we might have been able to share a Capitol reporter, go in together on investigative projects of statewide dimensions, and so on. We might even have a built a statewide advertising network to give customers powerful alternatives to the behemoths.
Instead, we're all struggling. Even the Missoula Independent, the gold standard among Montana alternatives, has managed to survive only because it has found buyers at crucial times who could cover the ongoing losses of its early years.
The rest of us, undercapitalized and understaffed, fight a Catch-22: We can't attract advertisers without readers, we can't attract readers without stories, we can't pay for stories without advertisers. We tried to break out of that trap in 2003 with the insertion of a shopper inside the Outpost, but while the experiment temporarily greatly boosted revenues, it was not a money maker and it alienated many readers who just wanted a newspaper.
So now I still can't afford two reporters; I can't even afford me. So I'm holding down three part-time jobs while also trying to publish a weekly with editorial expenses as close to zero as possible. And it shows. It's a trap from which we have been unable to devise an escape.
Why hasn't it worked better? I would need 30,000 words to empty my mind on that topic. Obviously, newspapers are hurting as an industry; our timing may have just been bad. Obviously, I've made my share of mistakes. Obviously, this is a tough town; I've never believed that a conventional alternative could make it here, but finding the right niche has been a difficult challenge. Obviously, Lee Enterprises has taken some hard shots at us at crucial points.
We have had a great deal of vital support from loyal readers and that has kept us going. But getting the larger public to see that their interests are ultimately best served when they have access to thriving Montana-based alternatives to the corporate behemoths has been the most difficult part of this venture.