It’s been two years to the month, nearly to the day, since we launched The Havre Herald. Coincidentally, we’ve now made the difficult decision to halt our operation.
The sun has set on The Herald.
Shuttering our news operation is, at its core, a financial decision. There is very little to indicate this operation will become sustainable in the foreseeable future. So we’re going to rip the bandage off and move on, starting today.
Idealism, a sense of purpose, lots of volunteer hours, opportune side gigs, and the backing of our wonderful supporters and advertisers got us this far.
But then a pandemic hit, the world changed, and an upstart news organization’s uphill battle to sustainability became immensely steeper. We’ve made a difficult but, we believe, responsible decision.
By other metrics, The Herald was a success. We published news that mattered, and we did it on a modern, crisp, easy-to-read platform. We published a slew of stories that probably would not have seen the light of day otherwise. Our reader engagement was nothing to sneeze at (please don’t sneeze on anything). Thousands of Montanans, mostly Hi-Liners, read our stories weekly. If views and social media engagement paid in nickels, I could’ve hired an entire editorial staff to bark orders at.
In addition to paying those of us who already were working here, money would’ve afforded much-needed full-time help. I spent a great deal of time on tasks that have nothing to do with news, the sole reason of our existence. We were hardly at a shortage of story ideas and leads to follow. We were, however, usually short on time and in a struggle to focus on the stories that mattered.
We continued to persist for two years because we knew it takes time to get a return on investment, and because we believed, as we were often encouragingly reinforced by readers, that we were doing work that matters.
We optimistically anticipated a turning of the tide. There were hints, little splashes here and there. In February, we made our last stand. We implemented a membership-subscriber model. It needed to work if we were to continue. I made that clear in my call-to-action column. We switched to a membership model after tinkering with the idea of going non-profit but ultimately deciding it wasn’t for us. Instead, we put a paywall on the Cops and Courts stories and the police blotter. We left everything else unrestricted, all part of an attempt to balance incentive for potential paid subscribers while still drawing significant traffic to the site (incentive for advertisers).
Some of you responded. You paid for a subscription. We had a great start. We saw a significant influx of supporters instantly. Lots of splashes.
But the flow of new subscribers turned into a trickle before we reached the halfway point of our goal.
Three months later, we had reached a little over half the subscriber goal we set for February. We were going for 200. About 115 of you had signed up as paid subscribers (we already have stopped everyone’s recurring payment), which equaled about 4% of readers on a typical news week. A small number of you paid for an entire year. Thank you for the show of confidence. That gave us hope. You can email me at [email protected] for a pro-rated refund.
I’d like to thank the two people who helped make this happen, Teresa Getten and John Kelleher, who balanced a full-time job and retirement, respectively, with working to get The Herald off the ground.
Thank you to everyone who supported us: our advertising partners — Kim Cripps at Hi-Line Realty, Holland and Bonine, the folks at Treasure State Title Company, and Hill County — the 115, everyone who called and emailed us with tips and concerns, and our readers.
Our vision that we might have had what was needed to delve into a struggling industry and be the exception to the norm, although never realized, is a chance I’m glad we took. We all learned invaluable lessons. We put out some news and ruffled some feathers. And we even had a bit of fun.
Life Goes On
We’ll leave the website up. We might even update you here and there with some personal goings on.
John will continue to volunteer around town as he heads back into full retirement mode. He’ll always be, to the core, a newshound. I can’t express my gratitude to him enough. He gave freely of his expertise and his time — sometimes he even came in when he was sick — and refused anything in return.
Teresa and I are immensely blessed. Teresa will continue to do what she does — be the best photographer anywhere this side of the Rockies (maybe on the other side, too). Her work undoubtedly will be seen more in the future.
I plan on using what I’ve learned during my more than a decade of writing and reporting to work as a freelancer, which pretty much means I’m open to any enjoyable work that will pay. I’m confident the good Lord will open up opportunities (with the aid of my knocking). Here’s to hoping the world really is my oyster.
It’s been a long, strange trip to arrive at this point.
In 2015, I drove 2,000 miles across the country from Atlanta to little ol’ Havre to take my first job as a news reporter. I’d been a collaborative and freelance writer before that, but the editor of the Havre Daily News — John Kelleher — hired me as a reporter.
Montana had been calling for years before that. The job was an excuse to move here. So now that I had the perfect excuse, I climbed into a scrappy, black, single-cab Ranger prone to fits of swerving at the impact of high winds and drove to the top of Montana. I crammed whatever former life was coming with me in and on that little pickup, including a pillow-top mattress that was wrapped in a tarp and used to cap a truck bed full of clothes and books.
I pulled into a dusty town on the Montana Hi-Line on a dark and windy night in mid-November.
For nearly a week I stayed at the Best Western “on top of the hill,” while experiencing Havre’s infamous housing problem. That issue eventually was resolved thanks to the paper’s publisher, Stacy Mantle, who called a local property manager I’d been trying to reach for weeks and asked him to do his job. I took the first apartment he showed me, an attic studio off Sixth Street, partially because I thought it was either that or live in my truck.
Little did I know that I would meet my future wife and son in this little western, prairie town. I asked Teresa if she wanted to be my girlfriend on the roof of that same attic apartment.
Little did I know that five years later I would still be in Havre.
And I certainly never imagined that we would start a “paper,” much less close it, here.
Now I’m here. We’re Montanans.
Let’s see what the next five years bring.
Supporters, you can reach me at [email protected] if you have any problems with or questions about your canceled subscription. Thank you again for your support.
Paul Dragu was the editor of The Havre Herald. A native of Atlanta, he’s an award-winning investigative journalist and the collaborative writer of the true-life story, Defector: A True Story of Tyranny, Liberty and Purpose. You can email Paul at [email protected]