‘It has been an adventure that we could not have dreamed up’

Jan 5, 2021

Michael and Victoria Howell turn the page on a newspaper venture that spanned 35 years since the first edition was published on August 22, 1985.  (Jean Schurmana)

Mullens purchase Bitterroot Star from Howells

Bitterroot (Montana) Star publishers Michael and Victoria Howell have announced the sale of the Bitterroot Star newspaper to Jesse and Sasha Mullen of Deer Lodge, Montana. The Howells have owned and operated the newspaper since they started it in 1985.

The Mullens currently own and operate two other Montana newspapers, the Philipsburg Mail and the Silver State Post in Deer Lodge. They also own the Browsing Bison Bookstore in Deer Lodge, where they live with their children.

Jesse has been involved with newspapers since he got his start as a newspaper delivery boy at the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal. He has been an editor and publisher at community newspapers in Montana, Wyoming, Washington State and Oregon.

Prior to returning to Montana two years ago, he was an executive with Civitas Media based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he worked closely with journalists across the U.S. at Civitas’ more than 100 newspapers. He serves on the Montana Newspaper Association Advertising Services Board and is a member of the Deer Lodge Rotary Club.

Sasha is a veterinary assistant with Clark Fork Veterinary Clinic and a board member of the Powell County Literacy Program.

The couple have a number of horses, dogs and a geriatric mule. In their spare time, Sasha shows horses competitively, and the entire family enjoys camping, cooking, cross-country skiing, reading and volunteer work. The Mullen family are members of the Backcountry Horsemen of Montana and Big Sky Horse Park. They enjoy spending their winter weekends at Discovery Ski Area near Philipsburg.

Jesse and Sasha both look forward to becoming a part of the Bitterroot Valley community.

Michael Howell said that selling the paper is bittersweet because he and Victoria have spent more than half their lives in developing and running the paper.

“The fact is that Victoria and I are both leaving the newspaper with mixed emotions,” Michael Howell said. “How could we not? It has been an adventure that we could not have dreamed up. Running a local newspaper involves an incredible degree of responsibility towards the whole community, and through that, we have developed many deep and lasting relationships with many of the people and the businesses that comprise it. We won’t be leaving all that behind.”

“I don’t think running a small local newspaper ever made anybody all that wealthy,” Michael continued. “It’s too much of a public service. But that service brings in a lot of other rewards that you can’t put a dollar sign on. All the sincere thanks that we have received over the years do count for something, after all. They say when you approach those Pearly Gates, you have to leave all that cash and other accumulated goods at the gate when you enter. But all those other rewards, those ineffable ones, you get to carry right on through.

“The other fact worth noting,” Howell said, “is that we are not getting any younger. Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that my wife and I both have a few good years left in us and could carry on, but one thing we have been increasingly concerned about, due to our age, is how the newspaper would go on without us, since our children were drawn to alternative careers.”

When it was started back in 1985, the paper was first named the Stevensville Star. Howell said they lived in a converted school bus (complete with wood stove and chimney) and published the paper from a small one-room office, which you entered by way of Mary and Ken Vandehey’s Dutch Treat ice cream shop on Main Street, where Mission Bistro is now located.

“We set up an overhead projector in the office to make half-tones and developed the film in the ice cream shop’s bathroom,” Howell said. He said the newspaper took off and quickly expanded to cover Florence and Victor, soon becoming the whole valley’s weekly newspaper, which required a name change, first to The Star and later to Bitterroot Star.

“It has been a long and, at times, trying enterprise,” said Howell, “coming close to failure more than once along the way. But each time, we pulled through and plugged on, thanks to a very loyal advertising base and growing readership. Over time, we became the most read newspaper in the valley, and it has done nothing but grow in advertising and in readership.”

Howell said that over the years, the Bitterroot Star has played a significant role in “keeping our local democracy in working order, standing up for the public’s right to know and to participate in our government’s decision-making processes and providing the community a soap box for expressing their ideas and opinions about anything and everything. We have no doubt that the new owners of the Bitterroot Star will be standing up for the same time-honored values of a free press.”

Howell said that in a nation and a state where small newspapers have been gobbled up by large corporations, he and Victoria are so pleased to be able to hand the reins over to the capable hands of Jesse Mullen. Mullen comes from a newspaper family and appears to have a real understanding of what community journalism is all about. “We are very excited that someone with roots in Montana, and in newspapering, has come along to pick up where we are leaving off,” Howell said.