Why a weekly tabloid owned by Maury Povich might have ‘the best newsroom in Montana’

Beacon reporter Justin Franz holds a marker as Dan Fagre, climate change research coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, takes repeat photographs of Grinnell Glacier on Aug. 17, 2015. (Photo by Greg Lindstrom, courtesy of Flathead Beacon)

Though Brock Osweiler didn’t play a single down in the Denver Broncos’ 2016 Super Bowl victory, a few members of his hometown press were still on hand to document the experience of the backup quarterback.

Flathead Beacon writer Dillon Tabish and photographer Greg Lindstrom flew from Kalispell, Montana, to Santa Clara, California, to follow the local hero. They talked with Osweiler’s parents and recapped the journey Osweiler began as a promising young athlete from the Flathead Valley.

Weekly local newspapers rarely have the financial resources to send reporters to the next city, much less to an event as big as the Super Bowl. But from the top down, the Flathead Beacon isn’t typical. 

For one thing, the publication is owned by Maury Povich—yes, that Maury Povich—and though the daytime television celebrity and his wife, Connie Chung, haven’t given the editorial staff a blank check, he is passionate about seeing the paper thrive.

“Maury and Connie really emphasize that the Beacon should be a must-read every week,” Tabish said. “They put their money where their mouth is by giving us the opportunities and resources to make that possible.”

On his drama-fueled syndicated talk show, Maury, Povich plays the sane center in a collection of cheating spouses, over-the-top rebellious teenagers, and enraged mothers demanding that ex-lovers acknowledge paternity. To his friends, though, it was Povich’s dream of starting a weekly newspaper in 2007 in a far corner of Montana that was truly crazy.

“A lot of people said to me, ‘You’re going to do what? Start a newspaper now, when newspapers are closing?’’” Povich said. “People thought I was kind of nuts.”

But Povich started his career in local journalism, as a television news anchor, and his father, Shirley Povich, was a legendary sportswriter for The Washington Post. Creating a new outlet for traditional local journalism was a way to honor his father’s legacy, Povich said.

He chose Kalispell, which was already served by a local daily, as the base for his new enterprise because he and Chung had bought a home in the area in 1998. They hired Kellyn Brown, then a 28-year-old city editor at The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, to launch the paper. The first edition of the Beacon, totaling 24 pages, was published in May 2007. 

Since then, the Beacon has grown from a staff of seven people to more than 20 employees, with five and a half newsroom positions. The free tabloid now averages 64 pages per edition, with 25,000 printed each week. The paper is ubiquitous in Flathead County, a wide-open place home to 90,000 people, where the economy is transitioning from logging and manufacturing to tourism and recreation and both gun makers and tech companies dot the landscape. Print copies are easily found on newspaper racks, in office waiting rooms, and on coffee shop tables, while the Beacon’s website sees about 100,000 unique visitors per month.

 

I always tell the employees to act bigger than you are. Just because we’re this small paper, doesn’t mean we can’t break big news or cover big stories.

 

The Beacon has also earned numerous Montana Newspaper Association Awards, six times being named the state’s best large weekly, with four wins for best website. Carol Van Valkenburg, who taught for 30 years at the University of Montana’s journalism school, calls the Beacon “the best newsroom in Montana.” 

“The paper does excellent journalism, and Kellyn has created a vibrant work environment,” Van Valkenburg said. “He’s made journalism fun again. I’ve sent a lot of reporters his direction, and they have thrived.”

The Beacon’s editorial formula is a mix of in-depth pieces using bold photos and sophisticated graphics, plus a print wrap-up of the week in local news in charts, numbers and short stories. Outdoor recreation, natural resources, and the area’s relationship with Alberta, Canada, are all regular parts of the coverage mix.

Though the emphasis is usually local, the Beacon doesn’t shy away from statewide issues and Montana politics. A recent cover story, for example, took a comprehensive look at Denise Juneau, the first American Indian elected to statewide executive office and a Democratic candidate for the state’s lone US House seat. A typical local policy-minded piece earlier this month saw the Beacon examining the difficulties of finding affordable housing in Whitefish, the valley’s tourist hub. 

“I always tell the employees to act bigger than you are,” Brown said. “Just because we’re this small paper, doesn’t mean we can’t break big news or cover big stories.” 

In fact, being small can have its advantages, he says. One of the Beacon’s best attributes, Brown said, is its ability to be “nimble” in both content and design. There have been four redesigns of both the print edition and the website.

We’re always looking for new ways to look sharper and draw more readers,” Brown said. “No one tells me I have to go through five layers of bureaucracy to change the look and feel of our product.”

There are other benefits, too. “I want the people who work here to feel like they’re invested in the company,” said Brown. “It’s much easier to do at a small family-owned company.” The Beacon made Outside Magazine’s 100 “Best Places to Work” list for 2014—the write-up makes note of the three beers on tap in the office—and its staff is connected to the community. Senior reporter Tristan Scott leads the Flathead Beacon Running Club, which sets off from the Main Street office every Tuesday.

At the same time, the company has pursued strategic growth. In 2013, the Beacon purchased Flathead Living, a glossy quarterly magazine, and bolstered the editorial content. The company also recently acquired a local marketing agency, now called Flathead Beacon Creative, that offers advertising, branding and web design. A full-time videographer is part of the mix. Together the paper, magazine, and marketing group co-exist as Flathead Beacon Productions.

In an era when newspapers can’t rely on advertising alone, the diversification has boosted the bottom line, said Povich. He doesn’t expect to earn back his investment in the Beacon, Povich said. But, he added, “I do care that the paper can stand on its own in a very difficult environment when it comes to print journalism. And we’re on the precipice of being very much a paper that can stand on its own.” 

Today, Povich operates as a mostly hands-off owner; it’s the “young people who are running the paper,” he says, who are responsible for its success. 

“I look at the Beacon like a father who’s very proud of a child,” he added. “I’m here to help you, but as you get older you’re going to have to figure out some things on your own. I was a little more involved close to its birth, but now we’re almost into double digits and we’re looking for a grand future.”

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Heidi Gaiser is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.