Off the record 

What Montana media can learn from the communities it left behind

Three days before Christmas, the Bigfork Eagle's two employees received an email from their parent corporation's regional publisher asking when they could meet. The request came as the reporter and editor scrambled to finish the week's issue from their small office on the north shore of Flathead Lake, an otherwise dull space they'd decorated for the season with a string of holiday lights—the fat, plastic kind that look like multicolored buds on a vine—and a small artificial tree in the window. They put the issue to bed, and the next morning they visited the publisher at his office, 18 miles away. Inside, he told them to finish the next edition quietly; it would be the paper's last.

The decision to stop printing the Bigfork Eagle was "pure economics," Daily Inter Lake Publisher Rick Weaver told readers a week later, in the paper's final edition. "But we are not going away," he also wrote, referencing plans to shift coverage online. That's why he refused to publish a eulogy submitted by one of the Eagle's former owners for what once touted itself as "The Best Little Weekly Newspaper in Montana."

It's not easy to find a copy of the Eagle's last edition. The local museum didn't save any, nor the local library branch, which doesn't have space for archives (though an older patron suggests looking online). Even library headquarters in Kalispell seems to have misplaced it. Recent issues are stacked in a dusty upstairs closet, where the newest Eagle on file is dated May 27, 2015. The librarian shrugs at the missing seven months and insists the closet be kept shut so the rest don't disappear, too.

The May 27 edition is a reminder that the Eagle isn't alone in its demise. The week's opinion page led with a guest column decrying a decision by Lee Enterprises, the state's biggest newspaper chain and Missoulian parent company, to dismantle its Capitol Bureau and cut loose "Montana's two premiere (sic) journalists."

click to enlarge 1-i23cover.jpg

Two decades after the internet ushered in the information age and transformed the world's news habits, the resulting upheaval has plainly destabilized Montana's fourth estate, from Bigfork to Missoula. The Missoulian's struggles, in particular, have spilled into public view since strained finances forced a change in publisher, followed by the messy and disputed exit of former Editor Sherry Devlin as the paper looks to more aggressively change with the times.

Related story: Lee pursues rural audience online

In many respects, the state's small-town papers have been better shielded than places like Missoula from the turmoil caused by an uncertain advertising model and evolving reader habits. But the ground is beginning to shift in these places as well. A report released in May by the Solutions Journalism Network found that while community newspapers in Montana are still a vital part of the rural places they serve, residents are quickly turning to social media to stay connected. And even where these papers aren't endangered financially, the study found readers in small-town Montana are often starving for the kind of information they believe would help them chart their communities' future.

"The results, in some communities, are what might be called news deserts," the report concludes, "places that lack access to reliable, relevant information needed for people to participate effectively."

The forces seen as conspiring to bring down the Eagle, from corporate neglect to new digital platforms to fading relevance, are playing out across the state. Media outlets—big and small, print and digital, family- and corporate-owned—are racing to find their place as readers and communities transform.

"I still think there's a demand for news," says University of Montana School of Journalism professor and state newspaper historian Dennis Swibold. "But we'll just see how essential each piece of that is."

Beginning to fracture

The backyard patio behind Bigfork's Garden Bar is lined with the signs of bygone local businesses. Dozens of them cover the walls that enclose the popular watering hole, including signs for Creative & Native, Kravingz Cafe, Hotel Bigfork and Wild Mile Restaurant & Deli. They even extend to the ceiling of the covered stage in the back. With the Eagle apparently gone for good, Donna Lawson, who owns a downtown liquor store called The Jug Tree, jokes with a friend about who should pull down the newspaper's sign and haul it to the bar.

The Eagle's faded and brown sign depicts a bald eagle swooping down. A brighter replacement sign painted by cartoonist Jerry Sprunger was waiting in the wings, but no one got around to hanging it before the paper shut down.

Bigfork was one of the last communities in the state whose paper could boast its own political cartoonist—a 30-year practice maintained by Sprunger and his father that was part of the "time-honored tradition" of picking up the paper each week, Lawson says. Jerry's cartoons—which he recently sent the Indy by post, having sworn off the internet after he once downloaded a virus—lambasted the Koch brothers, caricatured the Montana Legislature and poked fun at local culture and politics. When wealthy landowners began building a private bridge from their shoreline property to Dockstader Island, Sprunger reimagined it as a Golden Gate "bridge to nowhere," complete with a fish police force that would patrol the lakebed for trespassers.

click to enlarge Small towns can feel like “news deserts” to residents if they aren’t getting the information they need to solve local problems, according to a new report by the Solutions Journalism Network. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • Small towns can feel like “news deserts” to residents if they aren’t getting the information they need to solve local problems, according to a new report by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Sprunger's editorial cartoons are emblematic of how Montana's newspapers have helped bring their communities to life. Readers looked to the bundled newsprint on their doorsteps each day or week to see a mirror image of their triumphs and struggles, to learn about the world and to participate in their collective community dialogue. Swibold, the UM journalism professor, thinks of them as a glue that binds a place together, or a two-dimensional town square. It's especially true in Montana's small towns.

"They're still sort of alive in their communities," he says. "The community thinks of them that way. It's like a public entity."

But as communities have grown or shrunk or migrated online, their newspaper reflections are beginning to fracture. Readership nationwide has been declining steadily for more than a decade, with less than one-quarter of adults under 45 reading a newspaper each day, according to the most recent Pew Research Center data. In Montana, 37 percent of all adults reported reading their daily newspaper "regularly" last year. The loss of readers has been much slower in small towns; slightly more than half of adults in Montana's rural counties still say they read their paper regularly, according to a 2015 survey by the Greater Montana Foundation.

The more troubling statistic involving readers in small towns is how they view their local newspaper. The Solutions Journalism Network report found that only 20 percent of rural residents across the intermountain West consider their local news source to be consistently relevant and reliable. The insight was gleaned from a series of surveys and focus groups in 10 communities with varying levels and quality of professional media coverage, including Seeley Lake, Philipsburg, Anaconda, Ronan, Whitefish and Ravalli County.

"We found that news ecosystems in these places are often patchy in terms of both quantity and quality," the report states. "In some cases, people in small mountain towns manage to get news and information via a mix of word-of-mouth communication and traditional news outlets. But when it comes to complex, often deeply ingrained local challenges and what can be done about them, the knowledge and understanding that could drive productive citizenship is more elusive."

The vast majority of Montana newsrooms resemble the outlets scrutinized in the "Mountain News Deserts" report, with the town's entire newspaper staff smaller than the intrepid team of four Boston Globe journalists popularized by the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. The Eagle, for instance, had just a reporter and an editor, and the owners of family-run papers in Seeley Lake and Lincoln juggle all duties, from ad sales to circulation to newsgathering.

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