With my trip to Texas and all the Tuney Award hoopla, I nearly neglected to notice that the Billings Outpost turned 10 last week. The first issue came out on Oct. 16, 1997.
None of the years have been easy, but the 10th has been one of the toughest. To recap: We struggled through the startup years and made a small profit in 2002. In 2003, we were approached by nearly the entire Thrifty Nickel staff about coming to work for us. We took them on, expanded dramatically, and took a beating. Since then, we have been trying to recover, and we essentially got back to break-even point last year.
But the expansion left us saddled with debt, and we have been struggling to work out from under it. This year, we lost some people, and had some illness that knocked out a key person for a couple of months. Our printing bill went way up; through September, we have spent $7,000 more on printing than we did last year, although we have printed fewer pages. The landlord just jacked up our rent by 12 percent -- and he wants a $100 late fee because I couldn't get around to paying this month's rent before we had to head to Texas for the funeral.
Just last week, I learned that our mailing service has tripled its charge for handling our weekly mailing of subscribers' newspapers. Apparently, it is trying to shed small customers. Of course, we have been hit hard by Albertsons, which allowed the nation's most predatory newspaper chain, Gannett, to charge us to be in their grocery stores. An advertiser just stiffed us for $1,500 worth of ads. And our aging computer equipment is starting to cost us money.
Add to all of that the growing uncertainty over whether newspapers in general have a future, and these are not fun times. Yesterday, I looked through the masthead of the Missoula Independent and saw 23 names listed, with at least one spot, that of editor, open. On Friday, I wrote paychecks to three Outpost employees -- not counting me; I couldn't afford a paycheck for myself. So the Independent is printing roughly twice as many pages as we are with about six times the staff. No wonder I'm tired.
Friday night at the High Plains BookFest, I talked briefly to Dennis Swibold, whose Copper Chorus looks at the rough-and-ready past of Montana's press. We talked a bit about the hard times for the press today.
"Well," he said, "you're doing the Lord's work."
If that's the case, I told him, I wish the Lord would help out a little more.