By Megan Petersen
In 1965, Mel Ruder won a Pulitzer Prize for his almost-solo coverage of a 500-year flood in the small town of Columbia Falls, Montana. In the midst of disaster, he cranked out extra issues of his weekly paper, the Hungry Horse News, and supplied other media organizations around the state and the country with a series of stories crucial to his close-knit community.
Today, the Hungry Horse News’ headlines range from a local teen who bowled a nearly-perfect game to almost constant coverage of nearby Glacier National Park.
The mission has not changed: To find and report the news that matters for the people who live the stories, closely tied to each other and the town. But more than a decade ago, the business supporting that mission began to evolve. The Hungry Horse News, along with many other Montana papers, changed hands and eventually crossed over from private to corporate ownership — a move that didn’t sit well with many readers at the time, with implications still apparent today.
Mel Ruder’s model, and that of his immediate successor, Brian Kennedy, was a diverse newsroom of multiple reporters with versatile responsibilities, all under a central figure who played the multi-faceted role of publisher, manager, editor, photographer, reporter, community gatekeeper and even delivery boy.
This community-centric model is the key to successful coverage of small-town news, says Todd Mowbray, former owner of several papers in the Lake County area. Back in the day, Mowbray employed correspondents in St. Ignatius and Charlo, editors and reporters in Ronan and Polson, and a correspondent on the west side of Flathead Lake.
Reporters on location knew what was happening in every town, and what issues actually mattered to the people, he said. Every school board meeting, every city council meeting, every non-governmental function – someone needed to report “not a distillation of the facts but the reporter’s interpretation of the ambiance, the zeitgeist of the meeting,” Mowbray said.
But that decentralized model changed under corporate ownership, both at the papers once owned by Mowbray, the Hungry Horse News and other North Valley weeklies. In 1999, Kennedy sold the Hungry Horse to Lee Enterprises, which began to consolidate the businesses of several local papers. Mowbray sold his papers to Lee at approximately the same time. At the Hungry Horse News, the Whitefish Pilot, and the Big Fork Eagle, once-bustling newsrooms were reduced to their skeletal forms, with one editor, reporter, and photographer. Reduced staffs lacked the resources to fully cover the weekly happenings of a small town, and pages became hard to fill. To eliminate white space, Lee turned to the other reduced newsrooms, and the papers went from deep community-specific coverage to surface coverage spanning cultural boundaries – stories that were, Mowbray said, of peripheral interest, displacing essential news.
“If you run it like the MBA model, everything’s a number. In mathematics, if you have the numeral ‘2,’ and any two will fit in the spot,” Mowbray said. “If you’re running a business as a human enterprise, you have human beings in the equation.”
Readers of the Horse noticed the change and responded with decreased subscriptions. After six to eight months of the corporate model, Lee gave up collectivization, ended the cross-community story sharing, and allowed the North Valley papers their independence.
In 2002, Lee sold the Hungry Horse and its sister papers to the Hagadone Corporation, a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, based conglomerate, just just after figuring out how to apply a corporate-run small-town news model. Hagadone owns 19 publications across the country, nine of which are located in Montana. In the last decade, it has employed a hands-off approach based on both trust in local editors and dedication to in-depth local reporting.
Hagadone has made the effort to keep today’s Hungry Horse News as similar as possible to what it used to be.
The major differences are in the relative collectivization of advertising and internal operating affairs. An editor/reporter and photographer/reporter staff the newsroom, both of whom live in the Flathead and stay plugged into community affairs. Glacier Park photography remains a significant staple that has carried over to the Web. At least four columnists also contribute, and material is shared between towns only when it is relevant — such as a sporting event involving teams from both towns.
“The publishers have deliberately kept it the same,” Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia said. “That’s coming from the top. They’re saying, ‘Let’s keep this a hometown newspaper.’ Because it really is a feel-good community newspaper.”
But to some extent, the damage has been done. The audience that began shrinking under Lee’s regional consolidation hasn’t fully recovered in the age of new media. Internet news and regional dailies like the Daily Interlake have bumped the Horse out of the main competition for the area’s main news source. Weekly circulation at the Hungry Horse News is now close to 3,000 — lower than in pre-Pulitzer times, and only half of what it was in the 1980s before the onset of cable TV and Web-based media.
Still, papers like the Hungry Horse News will always be important because they mirror what’s happening in a given community. “There’s a space that community newspapers fill that no one else can do,” Michael Jamison, former Horse reporter and editor, said.
Wade Muehlhof, Flathead National Forest public affairs officer, agrees. “Weeklies are essential because they have this connection with the community,” he said. “They cover a big gap that a daily just can’t get to.”
Bowling league and senior center bridge scores, local sports, Eagle Scout projects and obituaries will have a strong following with local weekly readers no matter who is in charge.