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Launching a Newspaper in the Digital Age

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

As I prepare the June issue of the Montana Press for publication, I look back on the last eight months and a lifetime in the publishing industry under a new light, a modern era of “fake news” where journalists like me and the people I employ and work with are often described as the “enemy of the people.”

I hear often that “print is dead” but somehow, readers are picking up monthly issues of the Montana Press, sharing it with their friends, reaching out to us to thank us for providing this service, and in general trusting our reporting and seeing us as an ally and not a foe.

While the industry is going through sea changes with giants like the Washington Post and the New York Times fighting to evolve in a digitally dominated world, I’ve found a simple truth across Montana: people still read newspapers.

Montana Press Publisher Reilly Neill

A week ago, a reader reached out to let me know every single issue of the Montana Press (out of 400 delivered) was gone at our main distribution box on Central Avenue in Great Falls. I pointed the reader to the lobby at the O’Haire Motor Inn where we stock over 200 papers monthly and at other Great Falls locales such as Cassiopeia Books and Mighty Mo Brewing. If print is dead, where are the newspapers going?

Well, you’re holding one in your hands right now and we thank you, dear reader, for encouraging us to scour the state for interesting news, arts, and cultural coverage and share it with you and thousands of others.

When my husband Brad Snow and I conceived the idea of the Montana Press in the summer 2018, we had no idea that we would be doubling our distribution outlets monthly only a year later. Having previously published the weekly and then bi-monthly Livingston Current newspaper in south-central Montana for nearly a decade, I knew Montanans liked to be informed and entertained by local stories focusing on what we all have in common, “The Best of Montana.”

After publishing a community newspaper in Livingston, I turned my talents at public service to representing the community in the Montana State House as a Representative. While in Helena, I learned what a “small town” the state of Montana really is. We are a collection of individuals with more commonality than difference, especially when it comes to the arts, culture, entertainment, weather, our history and even sometimes our politics.

As an independent-leaning politician for a few years I was lucky enough to get to know so many wonderful people in the state on all sides of the aisle and recognize what we all have in common: a love of our great state. When I launched the Montana Press, I hoped to bring the same spirit of commonality I often witnessed (sometimes with surprise) in the Montana State House to the pages of the newspaper, and as an added bonus, to stop having to choose sides between the political parties.

For most small Montana communities, the newspaper is a meeting place, a clearinghouse of pertinent local information found nowhere else. While the internet has made some news more accessible, it struggles to replicate the charm and flavor of a local community on the printed page. As much as a reader can track down information online, nothing can replace the ability to pick up a local news briefing at the community grocery store or coffee shop.

While initially we planned to focus on central and eastern Montana and communities underserved with arts reporting, we quickly expanded to include the Missoula area after learning of the end of the Missoula Independent. (I spent years working with the Indy in the early 2000s, even planning and executing their 10th anniversary party which included a retrospective from their extensive hard archives at the time.) I have a great appreciation of what the Indy meant to Missoula. When I learned the Indy had shut its doors, we found a way to begin distribution in Missoula and attempted to fill some of the void left by the closure of the weekly newspaper there. Now Missoula has become one of our largest distribution areas.

Communities in Flathead Valley and Big Sky are lucky enough to be able to support a thriving alternative media but we believe every community across the state should have access to the free press. It’s our mission and vision to provide this service.

For nearly a year now, I have worked to bring an alternative media source to the whole of Montana. While a reader occasionally run across a typo or two, please know this is largely a one-woman operation. I assign and collect stories, edit and design content, work with the local printer in Livingston and even deliver nearly every issue myself. We have an outstanding team of contributors, proof readers, distribution helpers, a staff photographer, a brilliant accounting firm, and more, but running a newspaper is 2019 is not always an enterprise profitable enough to employ a full staff, especially right out of the gate.

I’ve never been in the publishing business to make a big profit. We want to provide a community service and jobs for talented professionals. Newspapers and news reporting of the future already includes non-profit models and creative new business constructions in order to adjust to the loss of advertising dollars to digital sales. In my view, more newspapers should be “Benefit Corporations,’” like a hospital or thrift store, in order to make revenue, re-invest it in the product, and continue service to the community.

I have to admit, since starting the Montana Press, I’ve been accused of being politically-driven or working for a large, exploitative corporation. To set the record straight, this newspaper was founded on a capital investment my husband Brad Snow and I made to start a new, woman-run business in Montana.

Maintaining journalistic ethics will always be our primary objective, not pure profits. We are a family-owned, woman-run, independent business like many across the state.

So, to all our readers, thank you! We now know that a free, state-wide arts publication is too hot to keep on the stands and we have a real readership devoted to devouring our product each month. Now, go and tell the businesses you love to support about our work and help us build a community on the page! With the support of our readers and a thoughtful business community, we can continue to celebrate “The Best of Montana” each month and share the good news with citizens across the state.

—Reilly Neill

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