The East Texas town in which I first worked for a newspaper had a convenience store called the Seven Seas. I loved the name and liked to imagine that the store contained live sharks, salt air, one-legged pirates and exotic dishes of whale and octopus.
Naturally, I avoided going inside. Palestine, Texas, was a small town full of sordid secrets hidden behind closed doors. The Seven Seas was my fantasy outlet, the place where anything still seemed possible.
As luck would have it, one day we happened to be nearby when we needed something, so we stopped. The fantasy ended. The shelves were lined with the same peanut patties, canned chili, Ritz crackers and processed cheese that lined the shelves of every other convenience store I knew.
I have long since lost track of the local publications that have come and gone in the Outpost’s 16-year history. Sometimes I don’t even want to know where they came from or where they went. As with the Seven Seas, the imagining is more rewarding than the reality.
That is sort of how I feel about the Northern Standard, which bills itself as “Billings Montana’s newest newspaper.” It’s a 12-page monthly tabloid that has, apparently, put out at least three issues so far. But why?
The publication itself doesn’t offer many clues. The front page of the March issue, like that of the February issue, lacks any suggestion below the flag that the Northern Standard is a local paper. The lead story, about improved targeting devices on Apache helicopters, comes from RT.com, as do many of the stories on inside pages.
RT.com is the webpage of Russia Today, a Moscow-based news service that claims to have 22 bureaus in 19 cities and countries. It says it has more than 2,000 employees, but the only one most Americans have heard of is Liz Wahl, who gained brief notoriety when she resigned on air in March to protest Russia Today’s “whitewashing” of the crisis in Crimea.
The March issue, similar to the February issue (somehow I missed the January issue) has no local byline before Page 8. There appear stories by Sue Schaefer on a treatment for people who have difficulty swallowing and by Chantelle Biscoe on plans by the Junior League to build a children’s museum.
Page 10 groups stories under a heading called “Intelligent Design.” One finds there stories about physical evidence for a catastrophic flood and for a young earth.
The February editorial page had a story that seemed to make a case for a pro-life position. It also contained a long article by the “NS Staff” about the Federal Reserve that appeared to be saying – OK, I admit, I have no idea what it was saying. My attention lagged by the second paragraph.
The paper has a half-dozen or so advertisers, including one that appears to be offering protection against fluoride in tap water. The masthead lists no owner, publisher, editor or any other human being. It does claim that the Northern Standard distributes 7,500 papers a month, 5,000 to homes in Billings and 2,500 “available for free throughout the Billings area.”
I’m not quite sure where. Between us, Shan Cousrouf and I personally deliver copies of the Outpost every week to more than 150 locations in and around Billings. We have seen the Northern Standard at no more than a handful of them, mostly at relatively low-traffic stops, although the number does appear to be slowly growing.
The question remains: Why launch a newspaper of any dimensions in 2014, a year in which even venerable old publications are giving way to vulnerable new publications?
And do I really want to know? Wouldn’t it be better to keep the Standard as a secret in my heart, the mystery newspaper of my Seven Seas dreams?
But I knew that Ed Kemmick, no sentimentalist, was on the case at Last Best News. So in high journalistic style, I fired off an email to the Northern Standard.
In reply, I got a gracious note from Jeff Biscoe, who said, “All of our staff writers are from Montana. They all share a strong desire for reporting and have a commitment to seek out the truth of critical issues affecting our community, our country and the world, for that matter … . I’ve owned several small businesses over the years but this venture is by far the most fulfilling to me.”
At press time, Mr. Biscoe had not yet responded to my follow-up questions. If he does, I will, with misgivings, relay the news.