In September of last year, my wife Kathy and I purchased a 16-year-old newspaper called the Local Rag. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it makes one stop and think: how did my predecessors do this? Where did the Local Rag really come from and how does it work? To answer these questions for our readers, we’re pleased to present part one of this multi-part saga: History of the Local Rag.
Our story starts almost two decades ago. A woman named Lou Ward, who owned a newspaper in New Mexico called the Jemez Valley Voice, wanted to take some time off from work and focus on just being a mom. She sold the paper, and calculated that it would provide enough money to live for a year in her favorite place: Red Lodge, Montana.
Unfortunately for Lou (but, in the long run, fortunately for Red Lodge), her buyers defaulted on the loan and Lou found herself looking for work. She took a part-time job tending bar at the Snow Creek, but that didn’t provide enough income to live on, so she got a full-time job at the Bierstube on Red Lodge Mountain. The stage was set.
“The more people I got to know thru the Snow Creek and Bierstube,” Lou told me, “the more I learned about what was going on around town and how many interesting people there were. No disrespect to the Carbon County News but there seemed to be a whole ‘nother civilization in Red Lodge that I never read about in it. I was only there ten months before I couldn’t stand it and had to start a local paper.” Thus, the Red Lodge Local News was born.
Then, as now, the newspaper was free, funded by advertising. Bringing in advertisers in the beginning wasn’t easy. For one thing, Lou wasn’t your typical business-suit-wearing ad salesman. She was a devout headbanger, and walked into businesses with a nose ring, blonde and black-dyed hair, tattoos, ratty Levi’s, and a heavy metal shirt trying to sell ads. Nonetheless, she got their business. Ads were just $10 per column inch, which helped.
“It took a lot of faith for the merchants to trust me that first time,” Lou said, “but they did, fair play to them all.”
Pulling together content wasn’t particularly easy, either. Lou really wanted her new “Red Lodge Local News” to appeal to everyone in town. She didn’t have many contributors back then, so she spent a lot of time talking to people in the bars for news, digging through books, and surfing the Web. She drove around town with her camera looking for photo opportunities.
Deliveries were a lot of fun back then, too. “I delivered a paper to every house in town on foot,” she said, “during which time I got chased by every dog in town (three times bitten) and I left a handful into each business… and there weren’t many businesses operating at that time?downtown nearly looked like a ghost town at night. I was a stress case the last week of every month, usually pulling a 72-hour straight shift to get it to the printer on time.”
A lot has changed since those days. The Local Rag uses the United States Post Office to handle most of the deliveries these days (more expensive, but a whole lot easier), but we’re also covering a whole lot more ground. Lou covered all of the houses in Red Lodge. Today, the Rag is distributed to every P.O. Box, mailbox, and rural route address in Red Lodge, Bearcreek, Belfry, Bridger, Fox, Luther, Roberts, Roscoe, and Washoe. In one of the future installments of this history, we’ll explore delivery more closely.
Lou’s original vision was to have a paper that appealed to everyone in town, but it was clearly her baby from the start. “I needed it as a vehicle to express myself,” she told me. “It was my very own soap box, bulletin board, bragger’s book and information exchange. My mind never shuts down and the only way I can quiet it down is to put its thoughts, dreams, ideas, tips and stories on paper! It wasn’t always fun either, it was a lot of work doing it all by myself.”
Since she always had another job going (tending bar in the beginning, working at Yellowstone Printing later), the profitability of the paper wasn’t a big issue for her. She envisioned a free publication?which it still is today?and kept the ads as cheap as she could. “I always felt sort of guilty getting paid for something I loved doing,” she said. It wasn’t always fun, because putting out a paper like this by yourself is an immense amount of work. Overall, though, she loved what she did.
Lou had little tolerance for bitching and moaning. The disclaimer on the back page of the paper each month said, “If you notice mistakes in this publication, please consider that they are there for a reason… We try to print something for everyone and some people are just looking for mistakes.”
Red Lodge has a very eclectic mix of people, with a broad range of interests. Every editor has tended to provide their favorite places and favorite events with a lot of free press (e.g., the two-page article last month about Robert Burns Night in Red Lodge). Lou’s favorites were snowboarding, ski-joring, and the Beartooth Rally (the big Harley event in the summer). Under her management, The Local Rag wasn’t impressed with rich people nor was it disgusted by poor. Everyone was equal in importance, although she did give short shrift at times to what she referred to as the “trust fund babies.”
“Two of my favorite people in town were Don Coutts and Mike Farley,” she said, “both as different as day and night, but both so real and genuine. I loved seeing them sitting together at the Red Lodge Café at lunch because it symbolized what makes Red Lodge so unique – an open-minded place where people are just people and this awesome little town lets them live their lives the way they want without judgment or prejudice.”
Some of the questions I asked in the interview got pretty calm answers. One that really got a reaction from Lou was when I asked what the single most important characteristic of a paper like the Local Rag is that distinguishes it from papers like the Carbon County News or Billings Gazette.
“I don’t know how to say it nicely so I’ll just say it the way I feel it,” she responded. “Because a local rag doesn’t give a fiddler’s fart about hard news, controversial issues, political bickering and scandal that embarrasses locals. Leave that crap to the ‘real’ newspapers. A local rag should be something locals read to feel good about their town, something that reminds them why they live there. Man, I don’t want to know the dirt on other people; it makes me feel sorry for them or angry at them and it’s just none of my beeswax who’s shagging who or who got busted for dope or who has a drinking problem… I DON’T WANT TO KNOW! And I sure as hell don’t want to print it.”
All newspaper editors make mistakes, and Lou was no exception. Dates seem to be a common bugaboo. She’d mix up the dates on the masthead frequently (as your current editor did last November), and often mixed up the words “bizarre” and “bazaar,” which she said mortified the church ladies. Probably her most embarrassing day was when she walked all over town selling ads with a huge rip across the back of her skirt that exposed her “sexy boxer shorts,” and nobody mentioned it to her.
Despite Lou’s stated goal of avoiding the big controversial issues, she did manage to annoy a few people around town. When she was pouring beers on Red Lodge Mountain during a particularly bad ski season, she used the term “Rock Dodge” instead of “Red Lodge,” which didn’t make her bosses very happy. For the most part, she avoided offending people intentionally, but there was one particular incident that led to the paper getting a name change.
Lou remembers it well: “That woman who had the Northern Lights newspaper was so offended by my Christmas issue jokes that she went to every one of my advertisers and asked them to boycott that ‘local rag’ for being so paganistic.” It wasn’t a big financial hit to the paper, although Lou did lose one advertiser over it. “Then I changed the name of the paper from The Red Lodge Local News to The Local Rag just to piss her off. Twenty years later, I’m the good Catholic girl who’s appalled at the way young girls dress these days and wondering whatever happened to decency… who’da thunk it.”
From the moment she and her son arrived in Red Lodge, they loved the town. “My son said it best,” she told us. “We’d been there a week or so and he came home, dressed like his then-hero Ozzy Osbourne, and said, ‘Mom, the people in this town are awesome. They don’t look at me like I’m a scumbag when I’m dressed like this — they say hello! Is that cool or what’? That’s the incredible thing about Red Lodge. People will give you a chance to better yourself and they’ll support you with their friendship and trust as long as you’re making an effort to walk on your own two feet.”
It wasn’t always wine and roses in town though. During time living here, her father committed suicide, she divorced her husband when she found he was cheating on her, the love of her life turned out to be gay, and her son developed a meth addiction. Her friends in town were patient with her during the hard times, and her son’s meth addiction led to what she still feels is the best article she ever wrote.
“I wrote it because the shame of keeping that hell secret was making me sick with depression and I was hoping the truth would set me free,” she said. “It did set me free, and it helped him accept his situation (once he came out of rehab in MCDC). But the most amazing thing was that it filled my mailbox with letters and my answering machine with messages from so many family members in town who were going through the same thing — I had no idea, thought it was just my screwed-up family. I still get requests for it from people in Red Lodge.”
The rough times just made her love Red Lodge more, though. “I was fat and hated my body, I drank too much and smoked like a freight train, I was crazy with codependence, and every man I dated either dumped me, cheated on me, used me or was too lost in alcohol or drugs to be available to me. I was a mess. But this precious town stood behind me while I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Red Lodge for the contentment I have in my world now.”
Throughout the process, she stuck (for the most part) with her policy of not printing bad news, sad news, gossip, police reports, obituaries, politics, and religion. To quote from the front page of a 1993 issue, “As usual, we invite readers to make suggestions and comments about what they’d like to see in our pages. We aim to please… no sleaze.”
Obviously, Lou didn’t end up staying in Red Lodge forever. In next month’s installment of the “History of the Local Rag,” you’ll read about her falling in love with Ireland, selling the Rag (twice!), and eventually leaving town (relax, Jean & Kari — we’ll be getting to you guys soon!).