Welcome Back from Dean Abramson

Don Anderson Hall building exterior

Don Anderson Hall, home of the J-School

Boy, what a summer it’s been. Could there be any doubt that we need caring, smart journalists now more than ever?

As we prepare to open the doors for another year at the UM J-School, I keep asking myself that question. Just take one news story as an example: we have a presidential election before us between two people who seem to have a very troubled relationship with the truth. How could the average citizen possibly scrutinize statements by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, without professional help from reporters, editors and researchers? Reporters remain, despite the turmoil in our industry, our election ghostbusters: they are uniquely qualified to train their ray guns on statements like Trump’s assertion that the real unemployment rate is closer to 42 percent than 5 percent. And we still need someone to jump on distortions like Hillary’s insistence that the FBI Director called her statements about her email server “truthful.”

While the need for good reporting remains clear, the way to pay for it is not—the crystal ball remains cloudy on that point. As comedian John Oliver pointed out recently, even he ruthlessly rakes through the work of journalists in the search for joke material, without signing up for a subscription. Oliver’s appeal to recognize the work of journalists got a lot of play, but I predict it will have zero impact on the financial plight of the news biz. That’s because pity is not going to help us make news profitable again. Only innovation and hard work will.

So, as we start the year I will present our students with this simple challenge: come help us save the world from a flood of lies. It’s our job.

By Larry Abramson

Professor Matthew Frank Uses New Mediums to Cover Stories of Changing Regions

Portrait photo of Matt Frank

Frank is an adjunct professor for the UM J-School.

When Mountain West News launched 17 years ago, it went by the name Headwater News and it served as an aggregation site for news in the region. Over the years, important Montanans and environmental journalists like Tracy Stone-Manning and her husband, Richard Manning, have worked for the outlet.

Matthew Frank has imagined a whole new look for Mountain West News. He collaborated with the school’s dean as well as Larry Swanson, the director of the O’Conner Center for the Rocky Mountain West, to expand the potential of this journalism platform.

“Matt Frank’s gotten involved and re-designed our various programs, re-designed the entire site, and created it in a way that can be more easily accessible,” said Swanson.

Frank integrated the radio component, Mountain West Voices, with the rest of the news site, and then expanded their social media presence include Twitter and Facebook. However, Frank uses Medium as the main outlet for Mountain West News’s written stories.

“I love Medium, because as a writer, it’s a really great writing platform, and it also displays stories in a very clean, visually-appealing way,” said Frank. “When you’re reading a physical magazine, there’s the serendipity of flipping the page and coming across a story that you never though you would read, but there you are, reading this incredible story.”

Medium offers the same potential for readers and writers to discover new stories. All of Mountain West News’s work becomes embedded into their website, so people can find their content in one central location, as well as other places online. Frank said, “It’s about leveraging the virality of these different platforms.”

The other key element Frank introduced to Mountain West News was the ability for the group to produce its own original content, instead of merely curating the work of other journalists.

“When we played around with the idea, we realized that we needed our own content, and I consider him [Frank] one of the best news-writers in the state,” said Swanson. “He’s brought a lot, both in terms of being a good writer and reporter, but also an investigator.”

Both Swanson and Frank share the goal of reporting on issues that shape the economy and the lives of those in the Rocky Mountain West. So far, Frank’s stories have examined topics such as the Bakken boom and bust, the Tongue River Railroad’s connection to today’s coal market, and the impacts of solar panels on residential housing.

“There’s no better way to understand the nuances of energy policy and how they affect people, than to go to a coal mine and meet coal miners who have had friends lose their jobs, it’s a really powerful thing and it changes your perspective,” said Frank. “You can look at charts all day long…but you have to think about the people to make sure your journalism has a certain empathy about it.”

The new version of Mountain West News wants to continue its collaboration with UM’s School of Journalism, and it’s currently in fundraising-mode to make sure the project continues to capitalize on its potential. It already syndicates content for free to outlets like High Country News, Inside Climate News and the Missoula Independent, to make sure the stories reach the communities where the issues most matter. With financial support, Frank could create an internship or fellowship position for graduate students to work with him and produce more investigative pieces.

“Ultimately, we want to add other contributors because in-depth feature-length stories take time to produce,” Swanson said. “This would be a great place for journalism students to get background and experience, and it would help weave together the trends on the environment and natural resources in the region.”

Stay up to date with Mountain West News on Twitter @MTWestNews, Facebook and its homepage, and check out the latest stories with Matt Frank on his Twitter account, @mfrank406. This summer he’ll be tweeting and story-telling from his tent, as he bikes across the state, teaching a class through the Wild Rockies Field Institute called “Cycle the Rockies: Energy and Climate Change in Montana.”

By Jana Wiegand

Missoula to Berlin: The Field Experience

Missoula to Berlin members and Dean Larry Abramson listen to tour guide Alischia Kusche in Berlin. Photo by Sachi Sinhara.

Missoula to Berlin members listen to tour guide Alischia Kusche in Berlin. Photo by Sachi Sinhara.

Today in Berlin, a new piece of journalism was born. Maybe that doesn’t qualify as news, but if you had the chance to be there at the birth, you might share my appreciation. 18 UM J School students put together a web site bursting with articles, photographs, graphs, charts and social media. Their focus is a major story on the world stage: the refugee crisis facing Germany, and specifically Berlin.  The miracle is that many of them had never written for publication under deadline before, and no one had every done so in a foreign country. The quality of this work, and the experiences that led to it, is solid proof of what our school believes: the best way to train journalists is to put them in the field.

The UM J School backs trips overseas because they provide a concentrated version of the classic journalism encounter: stepping into a strange world, pulling back the veil and then making sense of it for an audience. Confronting that challenge in a foreign country raises the challenge to the tenth power, making the learning process is that much more intense. Here in Berlin, students have had to talk their way into asylum homes, youth shelters, burial facilities, bike cooperatives and many other nooks and crannies of the refugee world. They’ve struggled with setback after setback: interviews that were cancelled, crabby bureaucrats who refused to return their calls, and the endless challenge of working in foreign languages. They figured out how to move ahead, and save their stories. I can’t think of a better learning experience.

Last Saturday night was our deadline for filing our final stories, and our students experienced the Sturm and Drang of crunch time. Students kept the train on the track, contacting each other about final corrections, and editing copy over and over. At some points, the faculty went to bed, and the students took over. They took ownership of the enterprise, pushing each other to polish the final product. Once again, that’s a learning experience that’s hard to create in the classroom.

As we wrap up our work here, we’re sitting down with students to get their assessment of their three weeks in Berlin, and the months of preparation that got them here. Almost without fail, they remark on how different it is to work in the field versus doing classroom assignments. They all see how they could have been smarter and more successful if they had asked a few more questions, taken photos from different angles, or tried just a little harder. Those are the real lessons they will take into the newsroom, or to whatever field calls to them. You can see their work here. Thanks to everyone who helped our students get here, and watch this space for more news.

Larry Abramson