After 16 Years Printing a Weekly Newspaper, Flathead Beacon to Switch to Online-Only Format

Beginning in April, the Beacon will discontinue the print edition and consolidate its efforts as a digital-daily publication; the Flathead Living quarterly lifestyle magazine will remain as its flagship print product

By Tristan Scott
The Flathead Beacon as seen on June 20, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On May 23, 2007, with the newspaper industry in steep decline, the Flathead Valley awoke to an unlikely new resident: a 24-page tabloid called the Flathead Beacon.

Eight-hundred-and-twenty-three issues later, produced and distributed over a period spanning nearly 16 years, the Beacon is preparing to publish its final weekly print edition before switching to an online-only format. Even as the Beacon pioneers a new path forward into the digital age that is more timely, innovative and economically sustainable, it will continue to produce a suite of print products, including its flagship quarterly lifestyle magazine, Flathead Living.

But even as an independent news organization with statewide reach, the Beacon is best known locally for its weekly print edition, which has served the Flathead Valley and its outlying communities with unflagging energy, earning the perennial distinction as the state’s best large weekly. And yet, for years the attentions of the Beacon’s reporters, editors, photographers, and designers have increasingly shifted to digital platforms, especially the company’s award-winning website, flatheadbeacon.com, which the Montana Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest routinely recognizes as the Best Overall Website, and last year ranked it above all the state’s largest dailies.

Meanwhile, the state of the traditional newspaper industry has continued its downturn, with advertising revenues shrinking and printing and freight costs growing exponentially. In the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Beacon’s weekly page count endured a sharp contraction, dwindling from a publication that averaged 72 pages — and often ran to more than 80 — down to a 44-page tabloid. Weekly circulation for the Beacon has also tapered off from a sustained height of 25,000, and its distribution radius has been compressed.

The Beacon is not alone as it chooses to focus on the health of its digital operations.

Recognizing that local journalism is in crisis, a recent report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism drew on a team of experts in digital innovation, audience understanding and business strategy to make recommendations and help chart a new path forward. The 2022 report found that at least one in five of the 100 largest newspapers in the U.S. are now publishing two or fewer times a week in a print edition. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025. The nation lost more than 360 newspapers between the waning pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022. All but 24 of those papers were weeklies, serving communities ranging in size from a few hundred people to tens of thousands.

Conversely, growth on the Beacon’s digital side has been steady, and with the print edition discontinued, editorial staff will have more ability to focus on refining its online offerings, including a daily newsletter that continues to recruit new subscribers as well as an expanding podcast network.

According to Flathead Beacon Editor in Chief Kellyn Brown, the size of the newsroom will not change, nor will the Beacon’s price point — from its inception, all of the Beacon’s print products and digital content have been available for free, an important variance from the industry standard. Although the scaled-down scope of its print publications will result in some cuts on the production and delivery side of operations, the Beacon’s print media are produced under contract by out-of-state manufacturing facilities.

“The size of the newsroom is not going to change, which was important to me and important to our ownership,” Brown said. “This transition will make us more nimble so that we can deliver news faster, without losing focus on the in-depth, investigative accountability journalism our readers have come to expect. In a way, this was a long time coming, and we wanted to make a preemptive decision to change how we deliver the news rather than wait and hope that the trends that have accelerated in recent years in the news industry would somehow reverse. I felt, and so did our owner, that we needed to get ahead of a transition from a print weekly to a more digital-oriented product.”

Indeed, the newspaper’s shift to a digital-only format embraces a fate whose likelihood was recognized from the outset, when television personality and part-time Bigfork resident Maury Povich, along with his wife, Connie Chung, a trailblazing broadcast journalist, launched the weekly newspaper by hiring Brown, then a 26-year-old city editor at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, as the Beacon’s editor in chief.

“My wife, Connie Chung, and I have had a home in the Flathead Valley for 25 years,” Povich said. “We both were products of broadcast journalism, and my father was the sportswriter for the Washington Post for 75 years. It’s in our blood.”

Still, Povich said, as a business investment, there were plenty of detractors who cautioned him against launching a newspaper.

“All my business associates thought we were nuts,” he said.

With the support of Povich and Chung, Brown assembled a staff that included two reporters and a photographer, who cobbled together the first edition of a newspaper whose initial circulation ran 7,000 copies. Since those inauspicious beginnings, the company has quadrupled its circulation while adding a whole new division to its ranks, Flathead Beacon Productions, which services clients with their marketing, branding, social media, and web development needs.

It’s a credit to Povich’s instincts — and to Brown’s enduring commitment to local community journalism — that he remains at the helm of the organization 16 years later, with the company having grown from a tiny weekly newspaper with four employees to a diverse media, marketing and production firm that employs more than 15 full-time staff, including four reporters, a photographer and media director, and a managing editor.

“We will continue to be a presence,” Povich said. “But with the changing times, the Beacon has to adapt. We are no longer a weekly paper. We are a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, daily news outlet that you can access on our website and our daily newsletter, which is being read by the thousands every day. Even though we are discontinuing the print edition of the Flathead Beacon, we are not lessening our mission to give the residents of the Valley the best in journalism.”

For Brown, a reprieve from producing the resource-intensive print edition means more time to focus on and refine the Beacon’s delivery of digital content, but he said it signals a bittersweet moment in his 20-year journalism career.

“While some of our readers who pick up our print edition every week and have been loyal to us for a long, long time are going to be surprised and disappointed by this decision, it was not made in haste,” he said. “We value their support and hope that they’ll make this transition with us.

Povich agreed. “We can reach many more readers in this digital age, and more than anything I’m so proud that you have given the Beacon your trust for all these years,” he said. “I have the utmost confidence that you will continue to do so.”