When we think of journalists who have built individual brands, national names are the first to pop — Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, Andrew Sullivan.
But the factors that have opened doors for these journalists to build names and strike out on their own aren’t exclusive to national media. Better access to audiences, the rise of social media and the hunger for specialty journalism are all happening in state, regional and local media markets as well.
In Montana, one journalist who has seen these opportunities and jumped at them is Ed Kemmick, a longtime and well-loved newspaper columnist turned entrepreneur.
Kemmick was one of the first newspaper journalists to have a blog, and it was a popular one. In 2005, when online media started to take hold in the state, Kemmick’s City Lights blog (named for his column) was a good example of how to do a blog at a newspaper well (he is a veteran of the Billings Gazette, a well-respected Lee Newspaper in the largest city in the state.) As a writer and blogger, Kemmick was funny and personal and committed to his community. That paid off in a meaningful following for his blog and column early on and now it’s paying off for him as he builds Last Best News, a site that “tells the story and covers the culture, people and places of Billings and Eastern Montana…”
Last Best News is gaining traction, has solid advertising support and is filling up Facebook news feeds in Montana with a mix of reported news, personal essays and slice-of-life features.
I asked Kemmick a few questions via email recently to have him shed some light on how personal brand journalism is working in local markets, how his project is going, what the role of first-person journalism is in the modern media landscape and what this all means for niche and hyper-local journalism.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Courtney Cowgill: Tell us about Last Best News and how it came about, including what made you make the leap after how many years at the Gazette?
Kemmick: I had been with the Gazette nearly 25 years when I left there last December. I was a nightside editor for seven years and went back to reporting in 1996. I decided to make the leap because I didn’t see much of a future at the paper. The Gazette was and is a good paper, but Lee Enterprises is run by greedy, rather unintelligent people who made some terrible business decisions and as a result the corporation is nearly $800 million in debt. It no longer seemed to matter how good the Gazette was; Lee Enterprises was going to continue demanding cutbacks in a hopeless attempt to pay off that debt.
I thought vaguely of looking for a different job, but in the winter of 2012-13 I began thinking of starting an independent online news business. I can’t even recall what pushed me in that direction, but I pursued that idea until launching Last Best News on Feb. 1.
So far, what’s the best part about doing your own thing?
Kemmick: The freedom. I work hard, and I’m finding that I’m never really off the clock, but I can do what I want and how I want to do it. And I really like working out of my apartment. My dogs seem to think the arrangement is pretty cool, too.
What have been a few surprises along the way? Challenges? Pitfalls? Have you had a moment yet where you reconsidered this leap?
Kemmick: I haven’t seriously reconsidered the leap yet, but on many occasions, usually when I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning fretting over seven or eight things I’ve got to do, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. But a good interview, a good story, a good photograph, even a good headline, can be a sovereign remedy.
The big challenge was just getting everything ready to go. I have a web designer/host who did all the technical chores, but I still had to sell ads, obsess over the look of the site and the logo, buy equipment and supplies, fill out paperwork, line up and then work on stories, consult with supporters and contributors — and all this while still working full time at the newspaper.
What are your measures of success? And, have you reached any yet? (Side note: What are your numbers, which I now know you watch more carefully than you’d like, and are you happy with them?)
Kemmick: Practically speaking, there is only one measure of success — whether I can make a living. I’m not paying myself lavishly, but I haven’t missed a paycheck yet. Then there is success in terms of readership and site visitation. Here the main tool is Google Analytics, which slices and dices data so many different ways that one could spend half the day treading water in that sea of numbers. I basically confine myself to looking at two things on Google Analytics: the number of unique visitors on the previous day, and the real-time snapshot, which shows you exactly how many people are on the site at a given moment, where they are in the world and which story (or photo or widget) they are viewing. On my biggest day ever, when I broke the news that the city’s Building Division was reviewing plans for what would be the biggest house in the history of Billings, it was ridiculously exciting to go the Analytics and see that 35 or 50 people in dozens of states and several foreign countries were reading my story. On that day, slightly more than 5,000 people visited the site. On the slowest day ever, a Saturday on which I posted no new stories, I had 131 visitors.
I also can’t help checking Facebook numbers. I post something on Facebook every time I put up a new story on Last Best News, then track the number of “likes,” shares, comments and the total number of people the post was “served” to. It is a pretty fair indicator of how popular a story is, but it can also be a bit misleading.
Despite all these damned numbers, I try to keep my eye on the prize, which is building a site one story at a time, trying to create something people will enjoy and trust. No matter what the numbers say now, good or bad, I keep reminding myself that the numbers won’t matter much until I’ve been at this a year or so, and have developed (or not developed) a regular readership.
Tell us a little bit about how you built your “brand” with your column and then your City Lights blog (even if you didn’t know at the time that “building a brand” is what you were doing) and if/how that has paid off in your new venture.
Kemmick: The first person I pitched this idea to was a good friend, who was also my editor at the newspaper. He said, “Well, you do have a brand.” He was partly joking, knowing we both hated that word as much as we hated calling the newspaper “a product.” But he partly wasn’t joking, and of the next 10 people I mentioned my plans to, six or seven also spoke of my “brand.” I prefer “reputation,” embracing the concept rather than the vogue word, but it’s true: if not for all my years of building a “brand” at the Gazette, Last Best News wouldn’t have been possible.
I certainly wasn’t trying to develop a brand when I started writing a column in 2000, or when I started one of the first newspaper blogs in Montana in 2005. But I always had a bent toward first-person writing and engagement with readers, going back to my days on the Montana Kaimin, the student newspaper at the University of Montana. I have long argued that it is good to show readers that we reporters are not objective writing machines. They don’t believe it anyway, so why work so hard to maintain that fiction?
I built my brand simply by writing news stories that were accurate and fair, and by writing columns and blog posts that were opinionated but not mean-spirited — well, most of the time. I have been told countless times by readers that even when they didn’t agree with me, and some of them did so very rarely, they still enjoyed reading what I had to say. That is a high compliment, and it speaks to a long career of building relationships with readers. I think it’s worth adding that I took pains to answer all but the most vile emails and letters, and to return phone calls.
You are one of those individual journalists who has been able to build a reputation strong enough that they could break away and make something happen on their own. So far, that trend – the Nate Silvers, the Ezra Kleins, the Andy Carvins etc., they’ve all been big national names striking out on their own or leveraging their own “brand” but you’re in a small state in a relatively small city (albeit the biggest in the state). What do you think is at play here? Is this a trend that you see sticking – on any level, but particularly with local or even, dare I say, ‘hyper-local’ markets?
Kemmick: I think the dynamic is the same regardless of scale or geography. Readers want to cut through all the noise on the Web and read someone they feel they can trust, or whose writing they enjoy. I do think it will stick because you don’t need a lot of money to sustain an independent news website like mine, so I think we’ll see more people branching off their own. But I also think this whole thing is in its infancy, and we’ll see a lot more innovation and experimentation, leading who knows where.
What advice would you give for someone wanting to follow your example?
Kemmick: Read everything you can about how these websites work. A good starting point is LION. LION stands for Local Independent Online Newspapers. Also check out http://www.micheleslist.org/, which has listings and nuts-and-bolts descriptions of hundreds of hyper-local news sites. And if you don’t know much about the technical side of building and running a website, don’t sweat it. I was told I had to learn all that stuff, but I found an excellent web host/designer who sensibly asked, “Why would you learn all that crap if you didn’t have to? You concentrate on the writing and editing.” So I did, and I couldn’t be happier with the arrangement.
Last Best News is a mix of reporting – including pretty hard news stuff like getting a hold of the affidavit in the arrest of state Sen. Jason Priest – and essays and some of your first-person storytelling. Tell us about that mix and what you’re trying to accomplish there.
Kemmick: The mix is simply what I like to do, and what I liked to do when I worked for newspapers. In my 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I wrote hard news, features, restaurant reviews, columns, music reviews, profiles, editorials, book reviews and even some entirely fabricated “news” stories — like this one — with the approval of my editors! I’d like to think it helps bring in a wide mix of readers, but I also do it to keep myself sane and interested in what I’m doing.
You’ve been an advocate that there is a place for first-person storytelling in journalism — why is that?
Kemmick: For the same reason that a mix of perspectives works in fiction. Some stories just demand to be told in the first person. Outdoors reporters have always known this, but why shouldn’t other reporters do it as well, at least when they’re writing feature stories? I haven’t done any Hunter S. Thompson-like first person hard-news reporting, but I think we can agree that he rather pulled it off.
First-person can be done so badly or so well, do you have any tips for when it works to get personal and when it doesn’t?
Kemmick: It usually works best when you’re telling a story in which your involvement was more than peripheral, which means leaving yourself out would be like neglecting a perfectly good source. For instance, when I stumbled onto the Knievel clan and dozens of their good friends in the Pekin Noodle Parlor drinking and crying and reminiscing in the hours after Evel Knievel’s funeral in Butte, I couldn’t have imagined telling it in anything but the first person. This was a blog post, however; I admit that most newspapers might have blanched at printing what I wrote.
You seem to have a pretty good list of advertisers on the site – how’s that working? What is your sales effort like and do you hope to pay the bills by chiefly advertising? How’s the donation button going?
Kemmick: So far, the advertising has basically replaced my newspaper reporter income, assuming I avoid tax liability for the first few years. I pre-sold nearly all my ad slots before I launched, which goes back to the idea of trust and reputation. Before I even had a site, people who knew me and my work “got” the concept and agreed with me that it would work. Four months later, I haven’t had to go back out yet in search of advertisers because enough new ones have asked to advertise to replace those I’ve lost. Right about now, however, I need to get serious about selling some new ads. The donation button is doing well, bringing in just what I had hoped — enough extra money to pay contributing writers and photographers, at least on an occasional basis.
It seems that the way forward for independent, individual-driven startups is to find a niche. The “narrow and deep” idea. Would you agree with that? And if so, what do you see as your niche?
Kemmick: Finding a niche probably is the way forward … generally speaking. As I think I may have mentioned before, that was the advice I heard over and over at the LION Publishers conference in Chicago. But as I explained to folks there, I was hoping to do the opposite of that — going broad, trying to cover a whole region, because that region, Eastern Montana, was no longer getting the kind of coverage it once was. Still and all, finding a niche probably will remain the standard solution, especially for anyone launching a news site in a big city.
Do you think publications like yours — other spinoff/startups/niche sites — are competition to traditional publications? How has the reaction been to your site from newspapers in the state who might see you as competition?
Kemmick: You bet they’re competition, especially if they’re supported by ad revenues, as LBN is. Newspapers, Lee newspapers in particular, were used to having most of the advertising in small markets, so any inroads into their market share is felt by them. If they weren’t so greedy and intent on rewarding corporate officials in far-off towns it wouldn’t matter so much, but we all know how that works. I’ve heard very little from folks within Lee, but I am partnering with the Great Falls Tribune, or at least selling them freelance pieces on a regular basis, and I hope to do more of that with other non-Lee papers. I would partner with the Lee papers but I have been told they are not interested right now.
How has social media helped in building your reputation and/or the marketing of Last Best News? Would you have been able to reach this far 10 years ago without the aid of social media?
Kemmick: Social media is, for better or worse, really important. I use Facebook to tease every story I write, and Twitter to tease most of them. The trick is to make the tease different enough from the headline or the lead, and also to make it more personal. I’ve noticed that on my Facebook stats, almost invariably, 10 percent of the people my post is “served to,” which means the number of people on whose news feed my post appeared, actually click on the post to read more. Ten percent is pretty damned good when a post is served to 10,000 people, as a story of mine was this week (late June). The number of “serves” is pretty much an indication of the number of “shares” each post gets, and it clearly drives a lot of traffic to my site. I think it creates a lot of buzz, too, so even if people aren’t always going to LBN, they are, vaguely perhaps, fans of my writing and my coverage. It’s a small time investment with deep results.
Publications built around one or two people can have a hard time with long-term sustainability because if that person or people leave or get burnt out, there’s no one to carry the torch or if there is, they often don’t carry it as well or have the right following. Is that something you worry about with Last Best News?
Kemmick: Yes, it is something to worry about, which is why I don’t. The banker who gave me a loan to launch LBN often used the “if-you’re-hit-by-a-cement-truck” scenario as we talked about my plans. I understand the need to think about that, but I don’t see what good it does me. There is no plan B. I imagine if I get burnt out or seriously sick or injured, LBN will evaporate. That’s why I keep going to the Y, and walking my dogs when writing gets tedious, and keeping a lot of release valves handy.
What’s your hope for Last Best News in 5, 10, 15 years? Business-wise and editorial-wise?
Kemmick: I’m not much for thinking ahead. All I know is that I want to keep doing the kind of reporting and writing I like, and to continue providing what I think is a good alternative to what’s available on the Montana media market. Eventually I would like to expand to perhaps two or three people, mostly to free up time to do more and better work. And in the long run, I want Jeff Bezos to buy me out for $50 million. Or even $25 million.
Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor, teacher and farmer. As an editor, she works as the managing editor of PBS MediaShift. As a teacher, she’s an adjunct professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, specializing in teaching feature writing, legislative reporting, rural journalism and online journalism. Formerly, she was the editor in chief of the online magazine NewWest.Net, which she co-founded. Before that, worked as a newswoman for the Associated Press. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s helping her husband wrangle 150 heritage turkeys, 30 acres of food, overgrown weeds or their young children.