Q&A: Editor-in-Chief Joseph T. O’Connor
By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
BIG SKY – The copy of Explore Big Sky you hold in your hands is the 300th edition, a milestone in a nearly 12-year journey since the first edition was published under Outlaw Partners as the Big Sky Weekly on Oct. 29, 2010.
Much has changed in the Big Sky community during that time, and EBS as a publication has evolved accordingly. EBS has expanded its print publication to include a robust digital presence, reaching readers across the country through social media, its daily Town Crier newsletter and website. EBS engages with the community not only through reporting but through town halls, events and forums.
“Our goals with this paper include thoughtful journalism, meaningful discussion, quality advertising and community support,” EBS Publisher Eric Ladd wrote in the first edition. “The opportunity of publishing this newspaper is a way to give back to the Big Sky community, and the Outlaw team is committed to making this a world-class publication and is committed to being an integral part of the Montana communities we live in.”
And those goals are what we continually strive for on a daily basis.
“Three-hundred editions later, I’m proud to say we have solidified that mission, and our goal of being a constant pillar for the community and supporting businesses is paramount,” said Outlaw Partners CEO Megan Paulson. “We are thankful for the years of support, hard work and dedication of our team, and being a voice for the Big Sky community and all of southwest Montana. We look forward to the next 300 editions!”
More than a decade after buying his first newspaper company, Ladd is looking forward to what’s next.
“We take great pride and responsibility in being the only news source for Big Sky and proud of the team’s effort in building this media platform,” he said. “We are grateful for the community support and look forward to the continued growth of Outlaw media!”
In reflecting on EBS history and looking ahead at its future, Managing Editor Bella Butler interviewed Editor-in-Chief Joseph T. O’Connor, who’s been an editor with EBS since 2012.
Bella Butler: How has EBS evolved since that first issue was published on Oct. 29, 2010?
Joseph T. O’Connor: We started out much more like a journal or an alt-weekly … I also think that we’ve seen tremendous, explosive growth in the Big Sky area … A lot of the stories that we did early on were enterprise-type pieces, where we were digging up stories. With the expanded amount of people and the explosion since COVID, there’s more traffic, more development, more people, more issues with those interactions in the environment. And with all of that comes more news. I think we’ve become a lot more adept at turning around news quicker. And I think part of that’s really been leaning on the digital side of our publication.
B.B.: Which stories or issues stand out as having some of the most lasting impact?
J.T.O: What’s interesting is I’ve gone back through over the years and looked back at stories we’ve done, and a lot of the same stories and issues we continue to cover today because they continue to be issues and they’re growing along with everything in Big Sky. One might think that growth and traffic and these development projects would be some of the most lasting and most important stories. But you asked about impact, and I think that impact goes deeper than that.
The stories with the biggest impact are the community stories where we can not only reach the local community, some of whom have been here for a long time, to talk about and help us remember our own history, but I think it’s also impactful for visitors, first-time or otherwise, to understand that this is a community and a community has history and these are some of its stories.
B.B.: What role does EBS play in the Big Sky community?
J.T.O.: We are the resource for—the only real resource—for news and information for Big Sky. I look at our role as symbiotic with the community because we need everyone in the community as much as they need us … I look at EBS as a friend of the community, and I don’t mean that as any trite description but more as a real friend who knows you’re not always told what you want to hear but what you need to hear and that’s the mark of a true friendship. That’s how I think about our community.
B.B.: As Big Sky’s only newspaper, what responsibility does EBS have in the community? What are ways Outlaw Partners and EBS are working to fulfill and uphold that responsibility?
J.T.O.: We have a huge responsibility to the community and to ourselves. Some of the tenants that we lean on [as a newspaper] are accuracy, timeliness and being informative. From the day-to-day it means checking facts and quotes. But it also means what stories we choose to run and the tone that we use to tell these stories. We have a responsibility to the community and our readership to be fair. We have a responsibility to be transparent and forthright … We need to call ourselves out when we do make mistakes, which we do.
Another way we can be transparent is through native content or paid content. A lot of news organizations mark these things in different ways. But in my mind the clearest way to differentiate between paid content and news is to have it very much clear toward the top of the story that this is a paid piece of content because if you conflate those two things, you not only confuse your readership but it looks like you’re being dishonest.
There are so many ways that newspapers and media organizations are looked down on these days that any opportunity we have to be forthright and transparent with our audience—we’re going to take that chance.
B.B.: EBS has chronicled a lot of Big Sky’s lifespan in 300 issues. What does the path ahead look like for EBS? What goals do you have for the future?
J.T.O.: I think with any newspaper, especially smaller community papers like ours, it’s really key to have reporters living in the community. This gives them an opportunity to get to know people at a personal level during work but also outside of work and, vice versa, allows the community to see our reporters with boots on the ground and feel like they can approach them and discuss issues with them and bring stories to us. That’s difficult. It’s increasingly difficult in a place like Big Sky. But we are committed to making that happen as best we can just because the news needs to happen from the inside out.
Our goal going forward for EBS is to give the community in Big Sky and our readership the information they need in the way they want it. That can mean more of a digital presence. It can mean expanding print.
I look at [EBS] as a living, breathing thing and like any living thing it has to learn and adjust and I think we’re constantly reevaluating the way that we’re perceived and the way that we’re digested as a news source, the way we interact with the community. Ultimately, I think the goal is that we are able to adjust to the needs of the community.
B.B.: For the first paper you served as editor for in 2012, you wrote that you wanted to hit the ground running. And you did. You said you were sprinting. Are you still sprinting?
J.T.O.: I think I’ll always be sprinting … I think that any runner who has been running for any length of time regularly learns tricks of the trade. For example, I’m still going to be sprinting but there might an inside track I could take to run a shorter distance. But that just means we become more effective in the work that we do and efficient with the time that we have to do it. I think if I ever stopped sprinting, I would have to stop working in journalism.