The Billings Outpost

It started with the Ratfink Gazette

A life in print

By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost

Central America´s English-language weekly, the Tico Times, just folded. I was glad to get some stories in before the end.

The Tico Times for 56 years ran as a play on words. “Tico time” is to Central America what “Indian time” is to Montana.

As some people have a weakness for bringing in stray cats and dogs, I´ve had an affinity for the independent, alternative and salt-of-the-earth, seat-of-the-pants journalism.

And like stray cats and dogs, these upstarts tend to die, often after a short life.

I refuse to get on a guilt trip and beat myself up as the black widow of independent journalism. But the record is pretty long, and the Outpost is the last one standing.

One publication I had stories in from beginning to end was a Missoula Maoist weekly back in the early 1970s that prophetically called itself “The Borrowed Times.”

Here´s a list of the alternative and/or independent outfits I´ve written for that now are gone. It is not a complete list by any means. And oh, the technology.

It started with the Ratfink Gazette, which I did for a few years in high school for no particular purpose. Every week during the school year it covered the fictional exploits of such Mossmain High School (“Home of the Mudcats”) characters as Teddy Fink Baumgartner and his cheerleader girlfriend, Bubbles “VaVa” VaBoom. The Ratfink´s circulation was limited by the fact that everything was typed with one finger on a manual typewriter and in the days when mimeograph was king I could hit only hard enough to make three carbon copies.

The original was tacked to subscriber Chet Blaylock´s wall in the history/English room at Laurel High School. So, as we say in the journalism biz, it had limited circulation but immense readership.

My father, Elroy Gilles, founded two newspapers once the Linotype had been usurped by “cold type” and a typewriter could be used to the produce the Pipeline (the Laurel refinery union paper) and Golden Hoofbeats (which published saddle club news and ads for horse tack).

What I remember most about the procedure is that to “justify” the type lines (make each line end evenly) we had a unique method of typing every story twice. In those days, typewriters had a bell that would ring about six characters from the end of a line. What the typesetter would do after the bell would be to type 1-2-3-4-5-6 and when retyping the line put in extra spaces to make the line come out even.

Montana’s premier alternative weekly throughout the 1950s and 1960s and even into the ’70s was The People’s Voice, a progressive, pro-union paper published by Harry and Gretchen Billings.

When I went to college to defer (dodge) the involuntary conscription we called the draft, I remember how many suburban and country-club students were shocked by the alleged radicalism of some of the profs and/or some of the incendiary items they were forced to read.

But heck, I was from a union town and you´d shoot some hoops and go in for a glass of water and there on the kitchen table would be The People´s Voice, a far cry from the safe, clichéd Babbitt-like offerings of The Billings Gazette, which until 1959 had been owned by the Anaconda Co. and had interlocking management with Montana Power and other scions of Montana´s toxic, industrial landscape.

The aptly named Borrowed Times was more than a mere hippie rag. I mean, they were downright Maoists. You know, the chairman. The Red Book. The Cultural Revolution (have you eaten today?).

Seriously. They were the opposite of the Beatles’ song “Revolution.”

I hear people talk about socialism and communism and I just have to laugh. I was just a stringer. I didn´t take part in the leaderless all-night discussions or consensus directives.

Since it was run as a collective, there were no by-lines, as some writers might get the idea that some writers were better than others. Or maybe they were thinking ahead and were looking out after their reporters if capitalism did win out and they sought employment sometime in the future.

It was one of those items you don´t necessarily put on your resume.

Next was Billings’ Farm and Ranch forum, founded by L. Mark Bowman, a former colleague of mine in the Pat Goggins empire. It was a monthly free-distribution farm publication. I remember we had actual typesetters, and I hoarded the cold type and used it to self-publish a history of Montana agriculture, “When Tillage Begins.”

Mr. Bowman was able to sell out to The Billings Gazette, which dabbled with it for awhile before closing it down.

For a while the editor was the late Charlie Femling, who summed up the ag journalist’s lot with this sentence: “They took somebody they´d like to get rid of but couldn´t (me), found a subject matter they didn’t know about or care about (agriculture) and put them together.” They did get rid of Mr. Femling before closing shop.

While working for a short-lived petroleum publication, The Roustabout on Oilfield Avenue in Shelby, I also wrote for a publication called The Montana Eagle. I had previously been fired for an article I had written for the Eagle, one entitled “Fraud on the Hoof,” about cattle-auction shenanigans to cover a downturn in the seedstock cattle market caused by low bottom lines and the fading of the Proud Breed With the White Face (Herefords). An auctioneer, Mr. Goggins was not pleased with the reportage although some of the insider info had been overheard coming from his very lips.

Often, freelance publishers are a year or two late and a few dollars short when it comes to riding the undulating waves of Megatrends. Such was the case of the Roustabout. The fact that the vast majority of our readers were in Canada oil fields and the Canadian postal service had a shutdown strike almost the moment I walked into the door may have spelled demise even if petroleum prices hadn´t tanked in the played-out fields that brought you Dempsey-Gibbons more than half a century earlier.

I was in Denver writing stories about the beginning of the end for farm credit and the collapse of an overleveraged house of cards when the futurists at Cowles Media (then owners of the Great Falls Tribune) figured the ag boom (which was already busting) would be an ad boom and started a weekly tabloid insertion called the Farm and Ranch Trib (never mind the unseemly acronym).

Flying in the face of reality, this farm-country journal survived but did not prosper and when Gannett bought the Tribune I had my first spiked column. It was about the sale.

It began: “I know now how that old cow must feel when she goes up the loading chute for a trip to the auction.” My betters called it unprofessional. If I had wanted to be unprofessional, I would have said “slaughterhouse” instead of auction.

But it had been a few good years writing the latest soap-opera scripts for the collapse of this house of cards later to be mimicked in dot.coms and housing bubbles – and the rise of such outfits as the Freemen.

I tried a few years of politics as an aide to Rep. Pat Williams. Under some sort of internal equal-time provision, I decided that having worked for Republicans all my life, I might as well try a Democrat.

Mr. Williams’ opting out of seeking re-election coincided with the beginning of yet another alternative weekly, the Great (Falls) Times even before the internet had raised its hoary head.

Much like the current alleged business plans of many evolving and scrapping print publications of today, Lauran Dundee´s Great Times first gave away its content, then tried to charge (a lot) for it. I crudely compare this to ... well, you can´t give it away on the street for weeks or even years and then expect to charge the same johns for it later.

Even then, I knew a fool’s errand when I saw it and a lack of business plan as well as a curious disincentive to sell ads (“It’s a conflict of interest if I sell for commissions”) of course spelled DOOM in large letters.

I have written for The Outpost almost since its inception and as far as I know it’s still going. And I´ve written for other outfits that have not gone belly up, like Time Magazine, the New York Times, Successful Farming, the Western Producer.

But for every live body, there are thousands in the graveyard.

T.J. Gilles, formerly of Billings, lives in Central America. The Outpost is still going.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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