Breanna McCabe: ‘It’s An Incredible Feeling When Someone Trusts You With Their Story.’

By Tessa Nadeau and Jamie McNally

Breanna McCabe has helped inspire the next generation of journalism students even as she returns to her alma mater to tackle a graduate degree and produce a documentary project that’s taking her into remote locations in Montana and Canada.

Originally from Missoula, McCabe chose to stay close to home for school, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Journalism School in 2009. She landed a job at University Relations at UM where she produces videos and edits publications. This year, she decided to continue her education as a graduate student in the School of Journalism’s Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism program.

She earned the Crown Reporting Fellowship at UM, which sponsors graduate students producing stories about the environment in the “Crown of the Continent” region.

McCabe’s project takes her to the edge of the tree line in Northern Montana and Canada to study the challenges of the whitebark pine trees. She is producing a documentary about how climate change, disease, and pests have devastated the species of gnarled trees that exist on the edge of where trees grow and what people are doing to save them.

To this UM alumna and graduate student, it’s not just another story. 

“I care deeply about nature, and I worry about our planet’s future. I see storytelling as my best shot at making a difference for future generations,” McCabe said.

McCabe says getting to travel places rewarding, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole time.

“Climbing up the side of a mountain with no trail, with a video camera and tripod was trying,” McCabe said. “But now the task of sifting through footage to tell the story that captivated me is perhaps a bigger challenge.”

McCabe is hopeful that this is just the first of many long form stories she gets to tell.

She says that when it comes to being a journalist, she is most grateful for the conversations.

“I feel so fortunate every time someone opens up to me, whether I’m rolling or not. It’s an incredible feeling when someone trusts you with their story,” McCabe said.

McCabe says the foundation her professors provided her with is what she is most thankful for and it is why she is continuing her education in Missoula.

“I knew I was learning from the best, and they always pushed me to do better. So did my classmates. We had a great group of broadcast and production students who felt like family by graduation,” McCabe said.

McCabe is more than a student at the school, though. For many students she is also that professor who first engages with them, teaching the intro news writing class over the past several semesters. Her students say she’s a professor who cares about their progress in the program and inspires them to try harder.

This story, which is part of a Thanksgiving week series called “Thank a J-School Grad,” was produced by the Fall 2018 Social Media and Engagement class at the Journalism School.

 

Reporter’s Notebook: Organizing That BIG Story

By Samantha Weber, Reporting Fellow, Crown Reporting Project 

Working with the Blackfeet Nation, I met person after person able to share fascinating stories and insights. The story I thought I was going up there to find morphed and grew and before I knew it I had far too many characters and angles and details fighting for space in a finite Word document.

That’s what I always find the hardest about writing longer pieces. I get invested in every single one of the people I meet and my brain gets pulled in each of their directions. As I move into the writing phase, it’s difficult for me to decide what needs to be cut out, as so much of my reporting – their stories and insights — will be. Has to be. The more I care about the story, the harder it is for me to slash through notes and eliminate unnecessary voices. (Spoiler alert: I care about this particular story a lot.)

Drafting an outline makes it all feel a little more manageable. Writers have various ways of setting themselves up for the big venture into a first draft of a feature story. Most people I’ve talked to have some sort of outline system they employ, generally with personalized touches. It can be a messy, frustrating process.

In the past, I’ve typed out the main points I want to make in the order I plan on making them, with brief notes about which sources and what information to bring in where. I type it at the top of my draft document and leave it there, deleting bits as I write them out. This is sometimes preceded by a handwritten version on a piece of notebook paper or a collection of my favorite office supply, sticky notes. Nothing fancy.

This time, that wasn’t really cutting it for me. I’d transcribed hours of interviews, I read all the documents that sources recommended and I’d organized all of my files. I had approximately 28,000 words of interview notes staring me down, patiently waiting to be distilled into a story of approximately 1/14th that length. It was daunting, to say the least.

Then, in the midst of outlining attempts, I moved into a new apartment that just happens to feature the most magical writing tool I’ve ever encountered.

On one of my walls, there’s a four by five-foot blackboard-bulletin board combo bolted to the wall. When I first saw it, I thought, “Huh. Kinda strange.” Then I realized how fabulous it was.

Soon after moving in, while sitting in a camp chair at my makeshift desk, I decided to take a break from the scary number of files on my laptop to doodle on the blackboard. Before I knew it, I had a functional outline scrawled across the board and blue chalk on my face. Colorful patches of sticky notes have since bloomed all over the cork.

In retrospect, the reason why the board is so life changing seems obvious. This is a bigger story than I’ve worked on in the past—I needed far more space than usual to arrange my thoughts. It’s like being able to spill my brain out in front of me and move around all the puzzle pieces. I can color-code to my mildly obsessive heart’s content and each time I look at what I’ve created on that board, I feel a little more at ease with how tourists and train stations, campgrounds, cultural differences and bison will all fit together.

Honestly, now I have no idea how I ever got anything done without a blackboard. Put simply, I’m smitten. Consider this blog post a love letter.

I’ll keep scribbling and tacking and shuffling until I’m done writing. Until then, you can safely assume I’ll be pacing around my kitchen, staring at a board that’s starting to resemble a wall in the office of a TV detective who’s just about to solve an elaborate mystery.

Samantha Weber is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism master’s program at the University of Montana School of Journalism. She’s a reporting fellow with the Crown Reporting Project, which seeks to inform public understanding of landscape-level conservation, conflicting demands for natural resources and community efforts to build climate resilience. Students head into the field backed by a mentor — a veteran journalist familiar with their area of work. The Crown Reporting Project bridges journalism, science, policy and conservation, helping students develop specialized expertise that can lead to careers in science or environmental journalism.

Reporter’s Notebook: Local Guides Lead Graduate Student Samantha Weber Across Time, Vast Landscapes

By Samantha Weber, Crown Reporting Project

BROWNING, MT — Ernie Heavy Runner can often be found at a desk in the corner of the Blackfeet Heritage Center & Art Gallery near the middle of Browning, Montana. At 81, the elder docent is content to wait for visitors to seek him out. When they do, as I did, he leans forward in his chair and spins tales that illustrate how vast the landscapes just outside the building are, and how embedded they are in the culture of the people who live there.

Heavy Runner traces his people back on the land surrounding the Heritage Center to times when names like “The Backbone of the World” were first bestowed on the mountain peaks that define the horizon west of Browning.

Photo by Robinsoncrusoe [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons.
Imagining time and personal history on that scale is disorienting. I know what countries my great-great-grandparents were born in, but beyond that, I lose track of my family’s stories. Heavy Runner’s go back dozens of generations, to a time when the terrestrial world and the spirit world informed each other more completely. He can explain how the early Blackfeet people learned to tap into nature’s higher power, the spiritual and visceral significance of the bison to his tribe and the lessons his ancestors learned from the land and animals they lived among.

“Science says if you can’t measure it, you can’t calculate it, it doesn’t exist,” Heavy Runner said, grinning and throwing his hands in the air. “But hey, the world’s full of mysteries.”

I’ve come to Browning, the largest town on the Blackfeet Reservation, to learn about the relationship people here have with Glacier National Park and what that relationship could produce for the tribe in the future. People like Heavy Runner have become my guides along the way on a winding journey over miles and time that would otherwise be difficult to grasp.

Understanding the Blackfeet people’s past and its context within the national park story is crucial to writing a story about their future.

Photo by Samantha Weber.

Those mountains to the west of Browning mark the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. Mountains to the southwest are the Badger-Two Medicine area. All are now owned by the federal government, as national park or Forest Service lands. All were once Blackfeet territory.

Less than 200 years ago, the U.S. government removed many tribes from their ancestral homelands and relocated them to unfamiliar, undesirable places. But the Blackfeet people have lived around the Crown of the Continent – including the east side of Glacier National Park – for centuries.

They held the lands of East Glacier National Park, but sold them during times of unthinkable hardship to the federal government. Those became the heart of the park — a lure to recently record-breaking throngs of tourists – backpackers, adventurers and drive-through admirers.

How have the Blackfeet people related to these lands since they sold them to the federal government? And what kind of new relationship might they build with these lands and the millions of people who come to visit them these days?

Heavy Runner feels that time has chipped away at the cultural understanding he shares with visitors.

“Each generation loses a little something,” he said. “It gets eroded.”

Building a stronger tradition of cultural tourism might help retain the knowledge—passing it to tribal members as well as visitors from near and far.

Heavy Runner is just one of the many Blackfeet people who sees opportunities in the herds of tourists who come to experience “The Backbone of the World.” Each person I speak with sheds a bit more light on how the tribe’s deep relationship with the land can help them engage with that tourism and chart a new course for the future.

Samantha Weber is a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism master’s program at the University of Montana School of Journalism. She’s a reporting fellow with the Crown Reporting Project, which seeks to inform public understanding of landscape-level conservation, conflicting demands for natural resources and community efforts to build climate resilience. Students head into the field backed by a mentor — a veteran journalist familiar with their area of work. The Crown Reporting Project bridges journalism, science, policy and conservation, helping students develop specialized expertise that can lead to careers in science or environmental journalism.