The new edition of Montana Journalism Review tracks Western journalists as national and global events push them past their comfort zones.
From local coverage of refugee resettlement to an experiment in right-wing news immersion, the 2017 issue of MJR scrutinizes how news professionals are responding to growing distrust in the media and ongoing changes in the industry.
Titled “Far From Comfort,” the magazine examines advocacy journalism, emerging business models and gender gaps in sports coverage and news management.
“With the proliferation of fake news and echo chambers, we worked hard to find stories that advance the conversation and show the state of the media in the western United States,” Managing Editor Claire Chandler said.
Work on the 46th edition began last spring, when Editor-in-Chief Henriette Lowisch and Executive Editor Keith Graham, both journalism professors, selected the student staff that puts together the annual magazine founded by J-School Dean Nathaniel Blumberg in 1958.
Over the following seven months, student editors, writers, photographers and designers learned how to problem-solve and work together as they brainstormed story ideas and headlines, recruited contributors, sold ads and got the 68-page book ready for print.
While Art Director Delaney Kutsal envisioned the magazine’s design elements, from color scheme to formatting, senior editors Diana Six, Katy Spence, Dakota Wharry and Bayley Butler handpicked stories and took them through three rounds of editing. Contributors to MJR 2017 include former Missoulian Editor Sherry Devlin and Wyofile reporter Dustin Bleizeffer as well as J-School alums Evan Frost, Tess Haas, Carli Krueger and Hunter Pauli. Current faculty, graduate and undergraduate students also wrote and photographed stories, including staff writer Maddie Vincent and staff photographer Olivia Vanni.
In October, final drafts were sent off to Copy Chief Taylor Crews, who organized her team for the stringent fact-checking and copy-editing process. Designers got their hands on copy in early November and faced a quick two-week turnaround.
In addition to the print magazine released on Dec. 16, 2016, MJR published its stories on its website at mjr.jour.umt.edu, under the leadership of Web Editor Matt Roberts. It also produced Framing a Movement: The Media at Standing Rock, a web documentary orchestrated by Senior Editor Kathleen Stone and funded with the help of the J-School’s Blumberg Fund for Investigative Journalism and UM President Royce Engstrom.
Montana Journalism Review is the product of a journalism capstone course offered each fall. The magazine is financed through ad sales and support from the School of Journalism. The print edition is sent out to 750 subscribers across Montana, the nation and the world.
You know you’re in the right journalism program when, before the semester has even started, you race to campus at 6:55 am, jump into cars with 10 strangers and drive two hours just to get a close and personal look at the largest toxic waste cleanup project in the country.
And instead of being the slightest bit grumpy, you feel like you have finally found birds that share your particular brand of nerdy feather.
Staring into the Berkeley Pit may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it tends to be right up the alley of new graduate students in the University of Montana’s graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism.
It’s become a tradition to kick off the program with what Professor Nadia White calls the “Super Fun Superfund Tour” – a daylong immersion into Montana’s storied mining and extraction history.
This year, the new cohort moved backwards through time and space, tracing the Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula toward its headwaters near the Continental Divide.
The Clark Fork and its tributaries are the veins through which toxic pollutants from a century of copper mining near Butte have spread. Each mile of the river is in a different state of restoration, reclamation, stagnancy or conflict.
Our first stop was Dry Cottonwood Creek ranch – a working cattle ranch owned by the non-profit Clark Fork Coalition located on the Upper Clark Fork. It’s a living laboratory for river and soil reclamation.
Rancher Maggie Schmidt showed students the sections of the river that are in the process of being cleaned up and explained the impact the reclamation project is having on her ranching operation. The visit was a window into how the federal government’s Superfund program plays out with private landowners and the agriculture sector on the ground.
Our caravan then wound through the town of Opportunity, which continues to be the dumping ground for other places’ hazardous waste. Brad Tyer, one of our chaperones and author of the book “Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” offered insight as to how some communities, lands, and rivers in Montana may be restored, but there is almost always another one that becomes a kind of sacrificial lamb in exchange.
We stopped for lunch in Anaconda, which is famous for its remnant landmarks from its smelting days. At Smoke Stack State Park, I looked around to see my fellow graduate students clambering over a brick wall to touch slag from the old copper smelter with their bare hands.
Finally, we landed in Butte, the “black heart of Montana,” to meet up with Tom Malloy, the reclamations manager for Butte-Silver Bow County. Malloy lives and breathes environmental reclamation. He knows more sneaky passageways to mining sites than just about anyone else in the county, or maybe the entire country.
Malloy treated students not only to a bird’s-eye view of the Berkeley Pit, but also to a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, which is hidden from the general public’s direct sight.
Seeing the legacy of extraction helped some students ground their ideas about these infamous places.
Journalism student Matt Blois’ only prior connection to the Pit was from hearing about it on Radio Lab. “I expected it to be much more sinister looking – bubbly, green and horrible looking,” he said. “It was strange to see it and know it was so acidic, because it looks so benign.”
Tromping around with Malloy was like having an all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes drama of Butte. I knew he had saved the best for last when he said he was going to take us to “Slag Wall Canyon”, a first for students as well as for our chaperones.
We pulled up next to a trickle of water outside of town and ducked under a crumbling archway. Soon, we were watching Silver Bow Creek meander between 30-foot walls constructed of bricks made from smelting waste. To the untrained eye, it was beautiful and eerie at the same time.
But to Malloy, it was another environmental disaster waiting to happen. He told us that toxic tailings are buried just beneath the slag walls. Meaning that if a big flood were to occur, or the slag walls proved structurally unsound, the old chemicals would be unleashed into the creek, enter the Clark Fork and make a dash for the Columbia. All of the reclamation and healing efforts at places like Maggie’s ranch would be undone, and the water supply of this area would be severely compromised once again.
As Malloy pointed out this risk, we thought hard about what it meant in the big scheme of things. As emergent journalists, how can we talk about slag walls and this one creek in a way that connects our audience to the hard and complex choices we all have to make? What about the ones we don’t make, but are implicated in? And how do we do that gracefully, without scaring the public away?
For his part, Malloy advocated for the creek to be re-routed away from danger. He made it sound as if changing the path of an entire creek was a relatively quick-and-easy fix, and to a reclamations specialist, perhaps it is.
But long after we arrived back in town, a little late and very hungry, I kept thinking about progress. I wondered how someone like Tom Malloy defines progress in his work on a daily basis when he is surrounded by problems created decades ago and solutions that will take a century. And how we are willing to define “solutions” themselves – when it’s so much easier to wish some of these harms had never been caused in the first place.
I hope the questions that bubbled to the surface that day will stay present as we willingly and bravely enter the fray as journalists, listeners, storytellers and witnesses.
Every Monday morning, adjunct professor John Twiggs started class with a countdown, reminding the students how much time remained for them to finish their documentary. That number started with 15 weeks, but on the first day of finals week, the countdown hit the final 48 hours of production.
The documentary, “Aging Out: Autism in Montana,” will premiere at the University Center Theater on Friday, May 13, at 7 p.m. as part of the Senior Showcase. However, the rest of the state will get to see the show on MontanaPBS on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m.
Upper-level journalism students have the option to take the Student Documentary Unit every spring semester. However, this year’s group started researching ideas for the show back in December. A class vote revealed an overwhelming decision to pursue the topic of autism and how it impacts the lives of Montanans.
After more research, the students noticed a significant gap in autism care as individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) transitioned from school-age to adulthood. With the number of individuals being diagnosed with autism on the rise, they realized that the stress placed on the limited number of current care options for adults with ASD was ill-prepared to meet the needs of the incoming wave of adults on the spectrum.
“I want to do something that’s worthwhile, and I feel we have a good group to do it,” said senior Peter Riley, the director of the show. “Everybody knows we have each other’s back as a team, and everyone’s really stepped up and come to the table with some fresh ideas and some talents.”
The students traveled across Montana to follow the lives of four families, each with a child on the autism spectrum. As a class, they chose their main characters to reflect a diversity of ages, abilities, finances and access to care. The class spent quality time at home with their characters, attending therapy sessions and time at the workplace too. Students also interviewed autism specialists to shed insight on autism itself, the diversity care options and relevant legislation in Montana.
Once the group made the transition from shooting to editing, Twiggs told the class, “It’s time to take a hard look at what you do and don’t have. Get everything on the table that shows your best moments.”
Since then, the students have rewritten their scripts and finessed the edited footage to tell a story that speaks to the unique situations of each family, while also capturing the overarching struggles that unites them all.
“It’s definitely the most worthwhile thing I’ve done at the J-school,” said Andy Anderson, the director of photography. “It’s also been the hardest project I’ve worked on, without a doubt, but I think we have a really good pairing of people with skills. We just have killer writers and awesome videographers.”
The majority of the members in Student Doc will graduate the day after the documentary premieres on campus.
“I think Doc is a wonderful experience. We may not get the chance to do this thing for quite a while, if ever again, so let’s step out strong and leave with a product that we can be proud of,” Riley said. “I’m so thankful to be surrounded by a group of individuals that thinks that way too.”
Check out the 30-second and 60-second trailers for the documentary on the Facebook page, “Aging Out: Autism in Montana,” which will also air on MontanaPBS in the days leading up to the television premiere. Students also plan to post behind-the-scenes footage from the making the documentary, providing exclusive insight to their process and the families they followed.
The complete documentary will be available via the MontanaPBS website after the scheduled air date on Tuesday, May 24, at 8 p.m. Past documentaries from the Student Documentary Unit can also be accessed from their website.