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.

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.

Crown Project Reporter Tracks Mussels

Invasive mussels are aquatic hitchhikers.  They have spread across the U.S. by attaching to watercraft and getting a ride to lakes and reservoirs.  Boat inspection stations like this one in Ravalli, MT are an essential firewall to prevent further infestation, but the hours are long and staffing is thin.  Crown Project reporter Beau Baker hung out at the Ravalli station, which is just south of Flathead Lake.  Listen to his audio postcard at our Crown Tumblr site.Ravalli fixed