‘They Thought We Were Nuts’

A decade ago, with the newspaper industry in decline, a daytime television host and a few fresh-faced kids decided to start a weekly in Kalispell

By Justin Franz
The original Flathead Beacon office at 217 Main St. in downtown Kalispell.

In 2007, the American newspaper was in decline.

From 2005 to 2008, the market value of publicly traded newspapers nationwide plummeted 42 percent. Between 1990 and 2008, a quarter of all newspaper jobs were eliminated. Circulation was on the decline. Ad revenues were slipping. In 2007, newspapers in Washington, Ohio, Kentucky and Arkansas all closed their doors for good.

Even in Montana, a place where economic trends often arrive late, the industry was facing deep uncertainty.

“Things were getting really tight for a lot of Montana newspapers,” said Carol Van Valkenburg, a retired University of Montana journalism professor. “It was a precarious time.”

Those trying economic conditions made the decision by television personality and part-time Bigfork resident Maury Povich to start a weekly newspaper in Kalispell all the more surprising, Van Valkenburg said. But Van Valkenburg said Povich’s history with journalism, as well as his wife Connie Chung’s media experience, gave the newspaper a fighting chance.

Still, as the people who were on the ground in the Beacon’s earliest days will tell you, it didn’t come easy.

Maury Povich, host of the Maury Show and founder of the Flathead Beacon: Connie and I had been in the valley for 10 years and we come from a journalism family, so it was very important for us to learn about our community, but we thought that there was something lacking in the news coverage in the area. So I talked to Connie about it, and we thought that maybe a new weekly newspaper could survive here and find stories that were not being covered on a regular basis. In addition to that, I thought it could be a nice tribute and legacy to my father, Shirley Povich (a venerated Washington Post columnist), who was in the newspaper business for more than 75 years. So we went about trying to figure out how to start a newspaper.

All my business associates thought we were nuts.

Povich hired Jonathan Weber, now the global technology editor at Reuters, as a consultant to help build a staff. In late 2006, Weber found Kellyn Brown, a 27-year-old city editor at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Kellyn Brown, editor-in-chief of the Flathead Beacon: It was surreal. I didn’t know Maury and I didn’t know how he knew who I was, but I remember sitting in my car in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle parking lot on a conference call and he explained what his plans were. I felt like I was totally under-qualified. I had been a city editor, not the top editor, for about a year, and now someone was asking me if I wanted to start a brand-new newspaper.

After I was hired, I met Maury in Bigfork for dinner. He came up to me smiling and gave me a big handshake. I told him it was great to meet him and that I was going to try and make him proud up here.

Povich: All I could think when I first met Kellyn was, “Damn, you are young.”

Povich encouraged Brown to hire a young staff ready to work long hours. He also told Brown that he wanted the paper to stand on its own and build its own reputation, independent of his career.

Povich: It was very important for me to sit back and let the paper speak for itself. I wanted people to accept the paper on its own merits. I was a talk show host and I didn’t want readers to confuse whatever they thought of me or thought I represented with the newspaper. I didn’t want to be the face of it.

There were people who did not take this seriously. They thought it was some vanity project, but I was intent on proving them wrong. Even if we didn’t make money, I wanted a quality newspaper.

Brown set out to hire a small staff, eventually finding reporters Dan Testa and Myers Reece and photographer Lido Vizzutti. Testa, then 28, had previously worked for CNN and was getting a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana. Reece, then 22, had recently graduated from college in Argentina. Vizzutti, then 27, had recently worked for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Dan Testa, Flathead Beacon senior writer from 2007 to 2011: Kellyn and I met at a coffee shop in Missoula for an interview, and after talking for a bit, we went next door to Charlie B’s and things got a little looser. We really got to know each other there. I think Kellyn was trying to assemble a group of people who could not only put out a good product but also stand to be with each other for 24 hours a day, every day, and not want to kill each other. He was strategic in how he hired people.

Lido Vizzutti, Flathead Beacon photographer from 2007 to 2013: It was a dream job. It was an opportunity to start from scratch, to build something totally new.

Myers Reece, Flathead Beacon writer and contributing editor: I graduated from college in Argentina in early 2007 and then I did some traveling in South America before coming back to the States. When Kellyn called me, I had been couch surfing for a few weeks and trying to figure out my next step.

Brown: I’ve always joked that I saved Myers from the jungle.

Reece: There really aren’t even that many jungles in Argentina. I mean, there are some, but I wasn’t in them.

Brown: I probably have embellished the story a little over the years.

Reece: I guess you could say he saved me from the jungles of aimlessness.

Brown: The newspaper moved into an old shoe store in downtown Kalispell. We had to rip out all of the shelves, and then we had a massive truck roll up Main Street with a bunch of office furniture.

Vizzutti: We spent the entire day putting together IKEA desks and chairs. We were not only building a newspaper; we were literally building our desks, the ones that are still being used today.

Brown: For the first issue, we were going to have a contributor write the cover story but it just didn’t work out, so we had to scramble something together a few days before we went to print.

Testa: Kellyn came to me and said, “We have to find a story for the front page and it’s gotta be good.” So we stood at the white board for a while trying to come up with an idea. While this is happening, I’m also getting ready to go back to Missoula for my graduation ceremony, which my parents were flying out for. But that morning my mom called me and said, “I don’t want you to be too worried, but your dad is having chest pains and didn’t think we should get on the plane. I’m following him in an ambulance to the emergency room right now.” That was literally the most stressful day of my entire life. Later on, it turned out my dad was fine and we came up with a cover story.

On May 23, 2007, the Flathead Beacon published its first issue.

Testa: Seeing those first issues in print made it real in a way that it had not been before.

Reece: I remember feelings of excitement and intense anxiety. Now it was a thing. We were actually publishing a newspaper; we weren’t just talking about publishing a newspaper anymore.

Brown: I think the reaction to the first issue was good, but I also think there was some confusion. We mailed the first issue out to everyone in the valley, and I think a lot of people got it and said, “What’s this? Who made this? Who are these people and why did they mail this to me?” I hope people read that first issue.

Bob Hunt, Flathead Beacon advertising director: The reaction from the community was positive. I think they were ready for a new voice.

Povich: I remember being in Bigfork on the Fourth of July and we had a bunch of kids at the parade giving out the paper. It was the first time I was able to watch people as they got their paper, and I was impressed that when the kids handed the paper to people, they didn’t throw it away. They read it. I looked at all the trash baskets in Bigfork after the parade and I didn’t see many papers in them. I was really happy about that.

In the summer of 2007, the Beacon hired a third reporter, Keriann Strickland, 22, a recent UM graduate who was doing an internship at the Billings Gazette.

Strickland: I came up and met with Kellyn and Dan for my job interview at the office and everything went great. Kellyn and Dan then invited me around the corner to Red’s Bar to continue chatting in a more casual environment. Those two proceeded to really enjoy Happy Hour and after a while I started to ask myself, “Am I still in a job interview? Am I allowed to drink?” I ended up sneaking away to the bathroom to call my boyfriend and ask him what I should do because this was not in the book Job Interviews 101.

Reece: In the early days, we spent a lot of time trying to get to know the area. While we were all familiar with Montana, none of us really knew the Flathead well; none of us had lived here. Starting a newspaper is difficult anywhere, but doing it in a place you don’t know or don’t understand is even more difficult.

Strickland: A lot of what we did during those first few months was just explaining what we were while also trying to figure it out ourselves. Most time people would ask, “What’s the Flathead Beacon?” So I’d always carry copies of the paper in my bag so I could show people that it was real, that it was a thing.

Vizzutti: I had a little speech I gave every time: “Hi, my name is Lido and I’m a photographer with the Flathead Beacon. We’re a new weekly publication here.” You had to tell the whole story of what we were every single time we met someone.

It took us awhile to figure out what the important stories were here and who were the primary characters. It took time.

Strickland: I remember a lot of times standing around the white board in the newsroom asking ourselves, “What the heck are we going to put in this newspaper?”

Brown: It would take us an hour to come up with two stories.

We all worked every weekend to put out a tiny 24-page paper that probably should have taken us three days, and even then, we were here late into the evening trying to finish the paper on deadline day.

Vizzutti: I think my favorite part of those early days was being able to explore the valley. Being able to drive around, get lost, and just check stuff out. I didn’t know where the roads, metaphorically or literally, were taking me, and it was fun to just find new areas.

Testa: Not long after we launched, Sen. Jon Tester did a media trip to Glacier National Park to check out the progress the Going-to-the-Sun Road plows were making. That’s something that happens a lot, but we didn’t know that, so I remember Lido and I freaking out that a U.S. senator would let us ride along with him and take pictures of him wearing a hardhat looking at a plow. We were blown away that we were getting that type of access, but it wasn’t that big a news story, but we treated it like it was the biggest story ever. We rushed back to the newsroom and I filed a story that night because it was news that could not wait. We had to get it out there. We didn’t know any better.

Brown: The Democratic presidential primary was super long in 2008, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were actually campaigning in Montana. They were also agreeing to interviews with anyone, so Dan was able to talk to both of them in late May, right around the first anniversary of the paper.

Testa: I think our one-year anniversary party was the night before — it was really fun, I think we even had remote control cars on a track for some reason — but I had my interview with Obama at 7 a.m. the next morning. I was so nervous about sleeping in and messing it up. So everyone had a really good time, and I just took myself home so I wouldn’t make any bad decisions.

Brown: The locals are more interested in stories that directly impact their lives, so I don’t know if the community cared that we talked to Obama and Clinton, but we cared. We were able to get these two presidential candidates on the phone and that meant a lot to the newsroom. A year before, we had to explain to every single person we called what the Flathead Beacon was, and a year later, we were talking to presidential candidates. It was like, “Ok, we’re a real newspaper now.”

It was an interesting year. It was a stressful year. I think I aged a lot.

Reece: One thing that was really important was that we were all friends. We always hung out together. For some people, it might be bad for co-workers to constantly be together, but it wasn’t the case with us. It helped build a camaraderie that filtered through the product. When I think back at the first few years, I have a lot more memories outside the office hanging out with Testa, Lido, Kellyn and Keriann. When you’re a small group taking on such a massive project, if one person isn’t on board, it wouldn’t work. But everyone was dedicated to this effort. That’s what I remember the most.

Strickland: A part of me is not surprised at all that the Beacon is around a decade later, and then another part of me thinks, “How on Earth did a newspaper survive with a handful of twenty-somethings running the show?” We were all babies.

Editor’s Note: The transcript of interviews was lightly edited for clarity and length.