Story by Jacob Baynham, photos by Bess Brownlee
On the main street of Stevensville, shouldered between an antique shop and a fabric store, stands a narrow brick storefront with a green awning that’s home to a weekly newspaper called the Bitterroot Star. There’s a bench out front, and a pot of geraniums. Inside, tables and chairs are set out for anyone wanting to sit and visit. A cooler is stocked with fresh eggs laid by the hens of the Star’s editors and owners, Michael and Victoria Howell. There’s artisan chocolate made by their neighbor, and grass-fed beef raised by the owner of the drugstore down the road.
You almost have to check your iPhone to see what year it is. There’s a soda fountain on the next block and a saloon a few doors down. And yet here, at the center of town, in 2014, is a newspaper that still covers high school sports, the town council, and school board meetings. It might not be riveting reading for an outsider. But the knots that bind a community are tied in its pages.
Old-world as it seems, Stevensville didn’t always have the Star. In fact, the town might not have a paper at all were it not for an entrepreneurial hitchhiker and a poor family driving a school bus to Montana.
Michael Howell came to Missoula from Texas in 1974 as a graduate student in philosophy. Victoria moved from California and met Michael when she was waiting tables in the Mammyth Bakery. He came in every day for a cup of soup. One day he asked her on a date.
Eventually, they had a couple children and set out traveling. In 1985, they decided to move back to Montana. They bought a school bus in New Mexico that would be their home, and started driving.
Somewhere in Utah they stopped for a hitchhiker named Harry Van Horn. At first, Michael and Victoria didn’t know whether to believe his stories. He said he spent time in prison before being pardoned by President Reagan. He was the sports editor of the Houston Chronicle, he said, until his wife left him on account of his drinking. Disillusioned with his desk job, he set out to travel the country and write a book about the homeless.
He started newspapers along the way, he said, sticking around just long enough to get them off the ground. “He was a Johnny Appleseed of newspapers,” Michael says. “He’d get them started and then leave.”
Michael and Victoria heard a great deal more about Van Horn as they traveled, and grew to like him. In Deer Lodge, they spent their final $2.75 on donuts. Van Horn asked what they were going to do for money. Michael and Victoria didn’t have anything lined up. They hoped for construction work and odd jobs.
“Why don’t you start a paper?” Van Horn asked.
The Howells had no experience in journalism. But Van Horn was an able, if eccentric, teacher. He took them to the Mission Valley and showed them how to sell ads for a paper that didn’t exist. He got a picture of Arlee High School’s graduating class and canvassed local businesses asking if they’d pay $10 to appear in a congratulatory note below the photograph in the first issue of the St. Ignatius Enquirer.
They collected $70, which they took to a second-hand store in Missoula and bought a Pentax camera, a Royal typewriter, some border tape, a roll of film, and a developing canister. “And then we went and started a newspaper,” Michael says.
The Enquirer only survived a few months. But Michael and Victoria were learning. They moved down to Missoula and started a quarterly called The Missoula Senior Citizen Voice. The paper was so successful they decided to start another in the Bitterroot.
While selling ads in Stevensville, they met Bill Perrin, a banker who asked if they’d start a community newspaper.
“At the time there was no weekly newspaper in the Bitterroot,” Michael says.
There used to be two weeklies, until E.W. Scripps bought and shuttered them, to focus on the local daily, the Ravalli Republic. Michael and Victoria agreed to start a weekly. They called it the Stevensville Star. They were living and working out of their school bus, which they’d parked at a fishing access outside of town. One day a Fish and Wildlife warden came to inform them of the two-week camping limit. They agreed to move the bus, but couldn’t start it. When the warden gave them a jump, Michael took his photograph and put the story on the front page of the next paper.
The Star came out against all odds in those days.
Van Horn stuck around until falling in love and eloping to Idaho (he was last seen in Grangeville), and then it was just Michael and Victoria.
Their children slept on the floor while they worked. Without a darkroom, Michael developed his film in the ice-cream shop.
“I’d go into the bathroom, turn the lights out and shove my coat under the door,” he says.
But the paper’s reception gave Michael and Victoria the encouragement to continue. “There was a craving for it,” Michael recalls. “You’re forming an image of your community. It’s sort of like a person getting a mirror that’s never had one before. They can finally look at themselves in more detail.”
That the paper is still running under the same ownership nearly 30 years later is no small achievement in the world of community papers, says Ed Kemmick, a retired reporter for the Billings Gazette, who writes a blog called “The Last Best News.”
“The reason they work is because they’re established,” Kemmick says. “People trust them. That’s the biggest edge that weeklies have. They’re part of the community. They know the stories worth pursuing.”
The effort and cost of producing a weekly have pushed many owners to sell out to media corporations. In 2000, Todd Mowbray sold four independent weeklies in the Flathead Valley to Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based company that owns the Missoulian, the Gazette, and the Bitterroot’s daily, the Ravalli Republic. (Lee owns 46 mid-sized dailies in 22 states.)
Lee then sold them to Hagadone, an Idaho company that now owns eight papers across Northwest Montana.
Kemmick says a newspaper changes when a corporation runs it.
“Corporate papers really are like corporations,” he says. “When you’re the mainstream media, you feel this obligation to be all things to all people. The independents, they have more freedom with their approach. They can be more informal, and can probably take more chances.”
Independent weeklies can pursue investigative stories, for example, and aren’t as constrained by the economic influence of big advertisers.
Kemmick keeps an eye on Montana’s media. He says that while independent weeklies still remain — the Daniels County Leader in Scobey, for example, has been published by the Bowler family since 1922—the current economics don’t make sense to start new ones. He predicts that the future of community newspapers will be on the Internet.
“You can start with almost nothing,” he says, “a couple thousand dollars as opposed to a couple hundred thousand to start a print paper.” The Bozeman Magpie, for example, is a successful online paper that launched in 2010.
But in the short term, the small community and aging demographics of the Bitterroot may shelter the Star from the economic winds that are buffeting other newspapers. That’s comforting for newspaper nostalgics.
“That whole community feel of sitting at the local diner and reading the paper, talking about it, and passing it to the next guy is lost when you’re reading a publication on your phone,” Kemmick says. “I think papers like this will go a lot longer than the Lee papers. And Lee papers will go a lot longer than big city papers. It’s just a question of scale.”
It may be a question of appreciation, too.Perrin, the banker who first encouraged Michael and Victoria, remembers talking to townsfolk about the need for a paper before the Star began. “I felt that a paper would help bring people together to feel like they’re more part of a community,” he recalls.
Over the years, Perrin has seen Michael and Victoria become part of that community, too. Michael is a member of a river advocacy group, and Victoria is on the boards of the library and the Main Street Association.
“Living here’s a participatory sport,” Perrin says. “They exemplify that.”
Perrin has read the Star since it started. He’s seen it weather controversy — the paper has filed several freedom of information lawsuits against public agencies — and he’s seen it become the forum for community dialogue. (The Star publishes every letter to the editor).
Perrin loves it for its tenacity. “The Star will follow an issue,” he says, “to the point that you’ll find out what’s really going on.”
There’s no better example of that persistence than Michael’s recent coverage of the Ravalli County treasurer, Valerie Stamey. In 2013, Michael heard that the library wasn’t getting its money from the county. He found other agencies weren’t getting what they needed from the treasurer, either. Then someone told Michael that Stamey was driving with expired plates. He checked, and saw they had expired in 2010.
Stranger still, the car was registered under an alias. Michael dug deeper and found that in South Carolina, Stamey was accused of cashing an $18,000 check twice.
“I was able to find out more and more about her,” Michael says. “For some reason it was something that nobody else took the time to do. I’m not sure why. How many treasurers do we know in Montana who go by three different names?”
The reporting caught the attention of other papers, and eventually the county commissioners, who suspended Stamey. It was classic watchdog journalism. “A lot of people recognized they were getting something form the local weekly that no other paper was going to give them,” Michael says. “I can hardly go anywhere these days without people bringing it up.”
Scoops like that, when the Star beat the Missoulian and the Republic, illustrate the value of a locally owned community newspaper. When the treasurer story was unfolding, Michael and Victoria could hardly keep the Star on the stands. Readership spiked to almost double the Republic’s. Some businesses took out ads to support the paper. The Star now has a circulation of 7,200, but still has a meager budget, and an editorial staff of three —Michael, Victoria, and sports reporter Jean Schurman.
But its small size gives them freedom and mobility, too.
“We don’t have anybody telling us what to cover and when to cover it,” Michael says. “We’ve existed on a shoestring for 30 years,” Victoria adds. “We’re still on a shoestring. Would any bigger corporate entity be willing to do that? Heck no.”
The Howells aren’t sure what will become of the Star. They’re in their 60s and haven’t found anyone to take over. They imagine it moving online one day, but they’d have to overhaul their website and they’re not sure the readers would follow. They’d consider selling it—even to a corporation—but they worry about what would happen when they’re gone. Humble as its profits have been, the Star has given the Howells more than an income all these years.
“It’s pretty satisfying,” Victoria says. “We do it all day long, we go home and we talk about it. Nobody’s going to get rich, but we’ve raised our family, and it’s been a lifelong career now.”
For Michael, running the Star has entwined him to Stevensville in a way he never imagined.
“Getting involved in my community has given me a lot of enjoyment,” he says. “People talk about it a lot, but there’s a real truth to it. The joy and rewards that you get, you just can’t measure in dollars. You just can’t.”
Jacob Baynham is a freelance journalist adjunct professor who lives with his family in Polson. He writes for Outside, Men’s Journal, Esquire, and other magazines.