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


From Print to Broadcast, Sojin Josephson Tells the Stories that Last

As a sports reporter at the Montana Kaimin, Sojin Josephson was used to fast turnover between stories. But when ESPN reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg joined the School of Journalism’s faculty as the fall 2015 Pollner professor, Josephson seized the opportunity to tell the stories that shaped some of UM’s star athletes, both in and out of the sports arena.

photo shows Sojin giving a report in front of a camera.
Photo by Andy Anderson.

Josephson’s feature story, “Finding Feller: A family on and off the court,” delved into the life of McCalle Feller, a senior player for Lady Griz. What interested Josephson most about Feller was not her impressive career stats, but the fact that Feller was adopted and had been trying to connect with her birth parents while at college. To understand her family’s history, Josephson interviewed Feller and her adoptive parents together.

“Between the three of them, they were just piecing together their story as it went along, and a lot of their story happened pre-Calle. She didn’t know a lot of that before, so that was pretty cool,” Josephson said. “If I hadn’t sat down with all three of them at the same time, I’m not sure how much of that would’ve come together.”

She paid careful attention to the dialogue and followed up the formal interview with detailed questions to help her recreate the scenes on paper. Josephson also managed to get in touch with Feller’s birth-father over the phone, adding his perspective to the story. After publishing the piece in the Kaimin in February, the story went on to win second place in the Hearst Awards personality/profile category, granting Josephson a $2,000 scholarship and national recognition.

“I have an unholy love for that story. That story seemed to take everything she’s learned from all her profs and from her peers at the Kaimin, and be the embodiment of what a feature’s supposed to do: make you feel something, make you care,” said professor Jule Banville, who helped edit the piece. “There’s a lot in there that no one can teach. It’s pure talent. And I’m pretty psyched the judges at Hearst recognized it.”

Josephson published another feature-length story in a Game Day edition of the Kaimin last November, called, “Kicking and breathing: Daniel Sullivan’s body quit football, but Sullivan couldn’t quit the game.” A talented kicker, Daniel Sullivan’s relationship with football changed after he suffered a stroke. While other media outlets had picked up on the story of Sullivan’s road to recovery, Josephson noticed gaps and became determined to get the full story from Sullivan.

“I feel like it’s a two-way street with all these long-from pieces, because if they’re not available to talk about the details or clarify the answers to your questions, you’re kind of limited to the story you can tell,” said Josephson. “The Sullivan story and the Calle story were by far my favorites from the entire year. They’re the stories that I was excited about telling, and I got so invested in the people and the stories themselves.”

This spring, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) recognized the Sullivan story, and Josephson received first place in the sports reporting category. The SPJ Mark of Excellence awards also highlighted two of her broadcast pieces from UM News in the television reporting categories: “One-button video studio” and “Veteran dogs work with campus police.”

Professor Ray Fanning, who co-taught UM News, said, “She does a great job at personalizing the news, and she knows how to find a fun and interesting way to explain stories that could’ve become very complicated.”

Josephson’s genuine care for her characters came across even more as she made the switch from daily news reporting to documentary-making. This spring she worked as a reporter for the Student Documentary Unit, which tackled the topic of autism care in Montana. After spending days filming the documentary’s lead family, Josephson continued to stay in touch with them on a daily basis. She said, “You just fall in love with them and really want to make sure that you do their story justice.”

However, Josephson credits the power of the journalism community at UM for its support, whether they’re reporting from the field or spending late nights editing on campus.

“Honestly, the J-school’s been the best part of my whole entire life. I just never imagined loving it so much,” said Josephson. “The professors are the best people I know, and the critical thinking skills and the communication skills and the writing skills—this school teaches you everything to be successful in life.”

Josephson graduated on Saturday, May 14th with high honors and the Outstanding Senior Award in print journalism. She plans to spend a little bit of time at home in Big Timber, Montana, before moving to New York City. This summer she will attend the Summer Publishing Institute at NYU, giving her a professional boost to pursue her interests in the magazine world.

While the J-school community wishes Josephson luck, she’ll certainly be missed in her absence.

“She’s a great journalist, and she’s also a dreamy student to have in class, and just a thoughtful human being to have in your life,” said Banville. “Can we clone her?”

Check out Sojin Josephson’s latest feature-length project with the Student Documentary Unit’s show, “Aging Out: Autism in Montana,” on MontanaPBS online.

By Jana Wiegand