Eagle touches down with fresh format after nearly 4-year hiatus

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The Eagle has landed — again.

In your hands is the first issue of the re-imagined Bigfork Eagle, first published in 1976 by accountant Dale Jay Singer, a Bigfork transplant by way of Missoula. The weekly newspaper known for its hometown focus, sports coverage and plucky cartoons enjoyed a 39-year run, before falling on hard times and ultimately shuttering its print edition in December 2015.

But this community by the bay is a persevering one, and when the residents of Bigfork decided they wanted their local paper back, it was only a matter of time. The idea was first broached during a town hall meeting — a gathering that was, like many things in this town, brought into being by a handful of determined volunteers. With help from the Bigfork Chamber of Commerce, Hagadone Corp., and perhaps most vitally, the residents and local businesses of Bigfork, that musing became a reality.

While we look forward to the next chapter in this publication’s storied history, we must also take a look back at what has come before.

The first Bigfork Eagle hit newsstands Dec. 15, 1976. Back then, the local weekly didn’t have a name other than “Bigfork Newspaper,” so Singer held a contest to determine a proper name for the periodical and offered a $25 prize. Five judges, including Singer and Eagle staff writer Pat Cenis, chose “Bigfork Eagle,” submitted by Paul Turner, from a pool of 61 entries.

“We’ll do our best to produce a newspaper that is up to everyone’s expectations,” Singer wrote in the inaugural issue — and for a handful of years, he did just that. But not everyone was a fan — his landlord so disapproved of his editorials against gambling, that Singer had to move the Eagle from Bigfork to his home office on the Swan Highway.

Graphic artist Terry Licence bought the paper in February of 1979, and designed a new logo for the paper featuring a flying eagle with its wings extended, set behind the text. Licence also decided a change of locations was in order and relocated the paper to an office in the Lake Hills Shopping Center that summer.

For a time, disagreement over school politics resulted in the birth of a rival paper, the Mountain Standard Times, published by former Eagle editor Bill Cenis with partners Mike and Annie Dockstader. They were eventually bought out by local businessman Bruce Peck, who released the Times for free, once each week from October 1978 until Licence purchased the paper and swiftly folded it in March 1979.

On June 1, 1983, Licence sold the outfit and relocated to take over a larger publication in Estes Park, Colorado. Marc and Ginny Wilson ran the Eagle in partnership with Robert P. Dalton, who formerly worked for the Associated Press along with Marc. They were three “big city journalists … who’d long dreamed of owning our own newspaper,” Wilson wrote in a 2016 column for Newspapers and Technology Magazine. “If we’d known what we were doing, we probably wouldn’t have bought the paper — but our time at the Eagle was among the most memorable years of our lives.”

Under the Wilsons, the Eagle boasted a strong opinion page and regular columns along with pointed yet entertaining cartoons by local wildlife artist, Elmer Sprunger.

“Elmer was great artist who would get paid thousands of dollars for doing a painting … but he loved cartooning,” Wilson said. “For $12 a week he did these great cartoons for the Eagle.”

In 1986, the Eagle added a print shop to its repertoire, necessitating a move to a building on Montana 35. For four years, the Eagle also took home the award for best weekly paper in the state.

“We used to call ourselves the best little weekly newspaper in Montana,” Wilson said.

The paper enjoyed great support from the local business community and was integral in fostering community dialogue and a sense of identity for Bigfork.

“There really is a need in a little unincorporated town for something that holds things together,” Wilson said.

The Eagle’s coverage and editorials helped convince the county commissioners to approve the Swan River Nature Trail, and when organizations needed volunteers, Wilson would issue the call in the Eagle and “volunteers would just show up — it was kind of remarkable,” he said. Once, when the nativity scene was stolen from the local Catholic church, Wilson penned an editorial that inspired the perpetrator (or rather, their parents) to return the items.

“The paper also stirred up hornets nests all the time, too,” Wilson said. “We were not afraid to get in trouble.”

The Bigfork Eagle was also among the first news outlets to publish online. The Eagle went live in 1996 as part of the TownNews.com network, a content management company Wilson founded in the back room of the Eagle.

“We were one of the very first papers in the country, maybe the very first weekly to move into computerized type setting,” he said. “It was a very big deal at the time … it was kind of a famous paper around the newspaper community.”

Wilson ran the paper for a total of 14 years, alongside his wife Ginny, before selling the Eagle to devote his full attention to TownNews. The Bigfork Eagle was purchased by Lee Enterprises, a publicly traded company that publishes 46 papers throughout the country. However, under the umbrella of the conglomerate, the Eagle failed to thrive. In the early 2000s, Hagadone Corp., based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, purchased the paper, along with five other Montana weeklies, including the Hungry Horse News and Whitefish Pilot.

The paper saw a number of editors over the years under Hagadone, but maintained its mission of providing quality community news. However, the changing economic landscape and rise of the digital marketplace forced Hagadone to shut down the print edition of the Eagle in December 2015, and instead publish content on the web.

But now is a time to celebrate.

We are overjoyed to return — and to be doing so at the request of the community.

We are also committed to provide this town with coverage that is both honest and relevant, and to do so with integrity, accuracy and in compliance with the highest ethical standards of journalism. »

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