Once on the verge of leaving journalism, a Montana reporter launches a nonprofit news outlet

Photo of John Adams by Dylan H. Brown

The last time I talked to John S. Adams, nine months ago, he was living in a cabin on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, where he used a stack of old newspapers to stoke fires in a wood-burning stove.

An accomplished political reporter, Adams had recently left the Great Falls Tribune amid a much-publicized Gannett restructuring. A couple of Montana’s top political journalists had just been let go by another chain when we spoke, creating a hole in the state’s media ecosystem. At the time, Adams was underemployed and eager to get back to work. But he wasn’t ready to be a media entrepreneur.

“I’m hoping that somebody comes up with a model and then says, ‘You know who we need? John Adams,’ and then I’m ready to go,” he told me then. “But I don’t know the likelihood of that happening. I hope that happens, that’s my great hope.”

Since then—with a little prodding from others—Adams has decided to try to build that model himself. The 37-year-old has started his own nonprofit news outlet, The Montana Free Press, under the fiscal sponsorship of the Institute for Nonprofit News. Adams chairs MTFP’s board, which also includes an attorney, former Democratic and Republican state senators, and an ex-investigative reporter who is now a licensed private investigator.

They’ve just started raising money, about $5,000 in the first few weeks. But since January, Adams has placed MTFP stories in more than a dozen outlets, including the state’s major newspapers. He hopes to obtain significant grant support over the first year, and eventually to develop a broad, sustainable mix of small and large donors. There’s no guarantee of success, of course—small news nonprofits have met with all sorts of different outcomes since they started proliferating a little less than a decade ago—but he’s giving it a shot.

 I spoke with Adams by phone one night last week about what it’s been like to take the plunge, and we followed up over email. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity.

You once told me you hoped someone else might start something in Montana, but now you’ve done it yourself. What made you stick with journalism instead of doing something else?

When we talked last I was kind of on the fence. I had started my own business and was doing some freelance work, and I was doing some writing and I was doing some consulting and that kind of thing. So I was kind of riding that line of doing the whole PR thing. I’d done a little of that, mostly for nonprofits and stuff. I did have one corporate client where I was writing some blog posts that had government angles, tracking transportation bills and stuff. So I was getting closer and closer to that line, on the verge of kind of crossing into a realm of pure sort of PR-type work. I felt if I did that, then that would really hamper me in terms of ever going back to being a journalist.

Nobody was knocking on my door saying, “Hey, John, we’d love to pay you a reasonable, professional salary to be a journalist in Montana.”

But you did find some people willing to help you raise money to start something of your own, though?

[I got a call from Greg Lind, a doctor and former state Senator from Missoula.] At the time Lind called me he was distraught, like many people, over the loss of the statehouse reporters. Apparently he had been calling around to his friends in Helena to see what could be done about it. His friends apparently sent him my way and he called me up out of the blue.

He asked if I was still interested in doing journalism. I said I was, but I didn’t know how I would get paid. He said, “What if we could raise enough money to pay you a living wage?” I said great. That’s a totally oversimplified version of the actual conversation, but that’s it in a nutshell.

So why a nonprofit model?

I looked at a for-profit model and I looked at a nonprofit model, and I weighed he pros and cons. Ultimately I decided the way that I would be most satisfied that what I’m doing is my work and that it’s completely independent and that I have total editorial control over everything is the nonprofit model.

So I gathered together a group who I considered to be smart, talented, go-getter-type individuals with knowledge of the reporting world. Former journalists, people who are passionate about journalism, inner-circle-type folks, and I got them together and said, “What do you guys think about this?” And we started approaching some people who have some money in the state and we said, “We want to do this, we think that there is an appetite for this kind of independent, unbiased, investigative/political journalism in Montana, do you agree?”

And what we heard was, unanimously, “Yes, we think this is worthwhile.”

And so we were sort of challenged to come up with something. So I came up with the name Montana Free Press, bought the domain, and then I built the website, and then I populated it from my old blog The Lowdown.

So now you’re kind of a one-man nonprofit news outlet publishing original journalism, and I see you’re partnering with newspapers. How does that work?

It’s been a pretty easy sell to the newspapers. Montana is a small state, so I know a lot of these people either personally or by reputation.

The first one was in the Bozeman Chronicle. What happened was I found that someone who I used to view as a competitor had made an FOI request for the same information I had requested months earlier. I thought, shit, I don’t really want to have to compete with him on this. So I called him up and I said, “How about instead of us working against each other we work together?” I talked to him about it, he looped his editor in on it, and I sat down with his editor, and I said, “Why don’t we just combine resources and you guys provide some editorial services. You give me a copy edit, we work together on this story, you get first crack at it, I publish the story in your paper first, and you guys give me a little bit of editorial oversight.” And they said, “Yeah, that works great.”

So that’s how it worked. It was on their website that night, it was in their paper the next day, and then I went around and called up a bunch of other editors I had relationships with and I said, “Hey, this story is now available for you to run as well.” The Chronicle got their scoop and then these other papers have the opportunity to run it.

That’s kind of the model I’m working on right now. If I publish on my website it’s available for anybody to use, but if I’m working with a paper they get first shot at it. They get it free. For me, the bottom line is that the people of Montana get this information.

One of the things we talked about in June was how you were much more into being a journalist than trying to run a business. Now you’re doing both.

Yeah. Definitely one of the things I’m having to get used to is being the face of an organization. I’m doing a lot of public radio, a lot of interviews where I’m talking about my reporting.

The biggest challenge is money. We just started raising money. I guess the thing that surprises me the most is just the amount of work that goes into something like this. I mean, it’s a tremendous undertaking. For someone who is a journalist who has no experience as an entrepreneur, a businessperson or whatever, to start something from the ground up, there are so many details that you have to be on top of at all times. I basically spend about 12 hours a day doing this job right now.

When you talked to me in June I was living in my buddy’s cabin. I’ve had the advantage of being in the position to take a lot of risk, and put a lot on the line because I didn’t have a lot to lose. That’s a lot different from somebody that has a mortgage payment, kids in school, whatever. I can’t really give good advice to somebody else because I can’t imagine most people are going to have the good fortune that I have had of a strong network of people who are willing to help keep me afloat while I embark on this crusade.

What resources have been helpful to you in this venture?

The Institute for Nonprofit News and other individual nonprofit news organizations. A huge breakthrough for me was just looking up INN’s membership list and just cold-calling editors. I think INN provides a tremendous resource to anybody starting one of these things, but even more so I think calling up INN members and just talking to these individuals and saying, “How did you do it?” Most of these organizations come from a similar genesis story. A lot of them are former disgruntled employees from some major corporate newspaper chain who left and started their own thing. But everybody who does it does it differently. Some people raised money first before ever publishing a thing. I think I’ve published in more newspapers than some members who have been around for a long time. I had a different model.

Everybody is supportive of everybody else in this business. If you’re doing this, it’s because you believe that journalism is really important, and you’re doing it because you have this—I don’t want to say hero complex, but you definitely believe that this kind of journalism is really important and really matters. Most people want to help other people who want to do this kind of thing. The advice I would give is to talk to as many of us as you can, because nobody’s got it figured out yet.

Is this model possible and sustainable in Montana?

I think that’s an open question. I haven’t answered that yet.

How will you judge success?

If I’m talking to you a year from now I will consider that a success. I’ll do this as long as it seems viable. Right now I know that I’m at the kind of point of the spear in Montana with this. I’ve got to give it at least a year I think [to get MTFP on solid footing]. I think we’re going to get enough funding. I think if we raise $150,000 in our first year and are able to hire a staff member, that will be a huge success. I think if we’re able to cover the legislature in a meaningful way and provide unparalleled content to every news organization in Montana, I’d call that a success. 

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.