Reporter’s Notebook: Following The Thread While Covering a Big, Complicated Beat

Hemp grows in a field near Stevensville, Montana. Photo by Kevin Trevellyan.

By Kevin Trevellyan

My nascent journalism career has included a few beats thus far. I covered education at a daily paper, as well as science and city government—unwieldy, amorphous subjects. Part of learning to report a beat is deciding which stories are worth pursuing beyond the obligatory ones. Sure, you need to cover the city council meetings, but what will you work on in between? An analysis of the effects of partisan versus nonpartisan elections? A profile on the longtime city clerk? A records request on communications between local business leaders and elected officials? There isn’t really a “correct” answer, so much as one that represents your journalistic priorities and how they can best serve your audience.Like those beats, which are basically topics, my current focus on hemp – yes, hemp — is similarly expansive. This spring I received a Crown Reporting Project fellowship. My winning pitch was to examine the potential of hemp as an export crop for farmers along the 49th parallel.

As one cliché goes, one can wring 50,000 uses from the fiber, grain and cannabinoids of the 16-foot-tall plant. So, there’s plenty to learn about the crop, and the challenge becomes deciding which angles to include in my long-form print story about Montana’s burgeoning hemp economy.

Hemp, I’ve learned, is a beat of its own. Instead of shaping coverage with stories published over a span of weeks and months, I’m forming a single piece with the varied ideas, sources and scenes that will make for something rich and well-rounded.

Well-rounded, but hopefully focused. I’ve identified a main character or two with whom I’ll spend considerable in-person time. At this stage, though, most of my interviews have been done over the phone. And on nearly each call, new things seize my interest. This or that farmer co-op trying to market boutique hemp-derived products, a lab here researching new crop varieties, or a farmer over there who feels treated more like criminal than businessman. I furiously type these interview returns into my Word document; often they’re followed by exclamation points and bolded for emphasis after I take the phone off my shoulder.

Cold presses in Fort Benton are used to process hemp into oil. Photo by Kevin Trevellyan.

That’s the thrill of discovery. But what do I do with all that junk after the initial excitement of discovery fades? For 20 or so minutes I burn the retinas from my skull staring at the pages and pages and pages of notes on my laptop. Then I relocate to the couch with a novel to “clear my head.” Not every thread can be woven into a single story. It’s difficult deciding which belong, and which muddy my main points.

Still, gaping craters in my reporting lie beside mounds of interview excess. I’m figuring out what I don’t know, but should. It always feels like there’s another phone call to make and person to visit. And there actually is, at this stage in the reporting process. But I don’t know if that feeling will evaporate even after I’ve actually collected the goods.

In the meantime, I keep making calls, combing archived newspaper clippings and seeking technical documents. But reading what I’ve gathered over and over, the material can lose its sheen. A quirky fact becomes mundane with familiarity, and it’s sometimes hard not to eventually think “does anyone even care about this after all?” The worst part is having kind, thoughtful people ask about the thing. Getting beers with a friend: “You’re working on a story about hemp? Can you tell me about it?” Phone call with mom: “Did you see this article about CBD?” In fact, I swore I heard my cat meow “decorticator” the other day after I finished a particularly technical interview about hemp processing equipment.

If the extended reporting process is responsible for my fatigue, though, it also jumpstarts waning enthusiasm. Just when I’m thoroughly tired of hemp — wishing it were still illegal to grow; that I could move on to a story about anything else — I learn something new that gets me hungry all over again. Or I see how an interview or scene could fit into the larger story, and the whole project becomes clearer. Then I start this process again, but I know slightly more and the finished product seems a little closer.

Graduate student Kevin Trevellyan is working with New York Times journalist and author Jim Robbins on a Crown Reporting Project fellowship, which includes Kevin’s work investigating the rise, and legalization, of hemp. See more about the project here.

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.