NewWest.Net, the Missoula-based new media company that for nearly five years has tinkered on the cutting edge of next-generation journalism, may have lost its last foothold. On Thursday, the site’s co-founder and lead visionary, Jonathan Weber, announced he is leaving Missoula and will assume the role of editor-in-chief at a similar online venture, Bay Area News Project, in San Francisco.

It’s too soon for an outright obituary—Weber says NewWest will continue in his absence with a new part-time publisher—but the venture’s promise has certainly waned. Weber’s departure comes after a year of layoffs that reduced the Missoula staff of eight full-time employees a year ago—plus numerous other contracted contributors throughout the region—to just six part-time workers now.

“It has always been a difficult business as a business, and that remains the case,” says Weber. “But I believe we’re still in a decent position with our core team to continue in my absence, and I believe there continues to be a lot of potential in the idea.”

Weber’s not alone. Industry leaders have always kept a watchful eye on his vision of innovative, community-based reporting.

“NewWest is very ambitious,” says Douglas McLennan, founder of Arts Journal and a leading figure on web-based journalism. “There are all sorts of things to admire about the effort, and I think all around the country a lot of people who have been following the evolution of journalism have been watching NewWest with a great deal of interest.”

Count us among NewWest’s many admirers. Weber and co. raised the bar for online publishing. The company’s successful business conferences sparked important debate on topics like development in the West. And many of the site’s award-winning original stories—Hal Herring’s 2005 series on meth in the Flathead comes to mind—eclipsed any other work on the topic, including our own.

Competition among journalists makes for better coverage, and a better city, and we’ll be as disappointed as NewWest’s dedicated readers if it goes offline.

In any case, our loss is the Bay Area’s gain. Weber’s passionate about what he does, something he actually touched on in a recent business column for Slate.

“A lot of companies are about more than just making a good return,” he wrote. “They’re about creating something great, something that the founders really care about and think is important. Sometimes you have to take the view that failure simply isn’t an option…And if you fail, well, you’ll have learned a lot.”

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