Last week, Whitefish residents looking for one of the valley’s weekly news sources were greeted by empty downtown racks: After nearly four-and-a-half years of covering local news, the Whitefish Free Press is suspending publication indefinitely.
“It was really fun and we had just a super reception from the community,” Editor Jake How said. The decision to close – at least temporarily – was financial, he said. “It’s pretty simple, really. Production costs exceeded the revenue from advertising.”
The Free Press was a locally owned and operated newspaper that covered Whitefish news, events and sports. With a weekly circulation of around 2,000, the paper was free at more than 100 locations in and around Whitefish.
Publisher Ron Wright declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he preferred not to talk about the paper’s closing. He did confirm that April 9 was the last issue, but in a letter to advertisers said the closure may not be final. “We are keeping our options open,” he wrote. “Special editions may happen. A revitalized incarnation of the paper may appear. It’s anyone’s guess at the moment.”
Local journalist Chris Tucker first published the Free Press in December 2003. Mike Potter later took control of the company before selling the paper in 2006 to Wright, owner of Big Mountain Publishing. The Free Press’s four current employees will keep their jobs in other roles with the publishing company, How said.
There are approximately 77 weekly papers and 11 dailies in Montana, Linda Fromm of the Montana Newspaper Association said, and around 80 percent of those papers are – like the Free Press – locally or individually owned. She said it’s not uncommon to see some smaller papers come and go.
“Sometimes the little ones that do start up kind of have a struggle, especially if they’re in competition with an already established paper,” Fromm said. “Sometimes, though, they’re able to find a niche and meet the needs that other papers aren’t covering.”
To How, the Free Press’s niche was its ability to do more feature stories. Rather than trying to be the newspaper of record with daily-style news stories, the Free Press could focus on the community and its residents, he said.
“We really felt we were providing a valuable service to the community, especially with some positive editorials and the fact that we weren’t afraid to tackle a lot of issues,” How said. “I can say one thing: I believe that having the Whitefish Free Press, having that paper as competition to the Pilot (another Whitefish weekly), raised the level of journalistic standards for the whole community.”
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