UM Journalism Joins New Google News Lab Initiative

Google News Lab text logoThe University of Montana School of Journalism announced Monday that it was joining other top-tier media schools in the launch of a new Google “News Lab University Network” in an effort to better train new and existing journalists in data, search and emerging technologies.

The Network is the latest effort by the School of Journalism to deploy technologies to tell and distribute stories in new ways.

School of Journalism Dean Larry Abramson said the initiative comes in response to student demand, and to changes in the industry. “Our students tell us they want more training in digital tools to make them more competitive when they hit the job market,” Abramson said. “The News Lab partnership will equip the entire school—faculty, students and staff—to stay ahead of changes in the news landscape. The faculty and I are very excited about this opportunity,” said Abramson, who arrived at UM in 2014 after nearly 30 years with NPR in Washington, DC.

Abramson has moved to accelerate changes in the school, bringing in noted media critic and change agent Jay Rosen and establishing the relationship with the Google News Lab.

The new University Network will provide resources and support to the top universities around the world, in exchange for feedback and input to help guide News Lab curriculum and training materials for journalists, professors, and the future journalists of the world.

“Being a part of the Network from the beginning gives us a great opportunity to have access to the latest tools and techniques being developed by the leading technology firm in the world,” said Lee Banville, who teaches web and digital reporting at the school and ran the Online NewsHour for 14 years before coming to Montana. “This will put our digital news reporting projects on par with far larger programs.”

As part of the network, Montana professors will work with Google to develop lessons and test new products in the classroom as well as offer feedback that will help make sure new tools serve a wide array of journalism outlets, including smaller, more rural newsrooms all across Montana.

In the past the J School has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and pioneered work with the Public Insight Network project.  Google News Lab trainer Scott Leadingham visited the J School in October for a daylong workshop on digital tools. In addition to students and J School faculty, working journalists from across Montana attended the training session.

Google started the News Lab in 2015 “to empower innovation at the intersection of technology and media,” according to the company. Google-trained experts collaborate with educators and newsrooms around the world to explore the frontiers of data analysis, mapping and graphics.

The University of Montana School of Journalism launched in 1914, and has trained generations of journalists in print, broadcast, photography and new media. The school is regularly ranked among the top 10 journalism schools in the United States.

Welcome Back from Dean Abramson

Don Anderson Hall building exterior
Don Anderson Hall, home of the J-School

Boy, what a summer it’s been. Could there be any doubt that we need caring, smart journalists now more than ever?

As we prepare to open the doors for another year at the UM J-School, I keep asking myself that question. Just take one news story as an example: we have a presidential election before us between two people who seem to have a very troubled relationship with the truth. How could the average citizen possibly scrutinize statements by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, without professional help from reporters, editors and researchers? Reporters remain, despite the turmoil in our industry, our election ghostbusters: they are uniquely qualified to train their ray guns on statements like Trump’s assertion that the real unemployment rate is closer to 42 percent than 5 percent. And we still need someone to jump on distortions like Hillary’s insistence that the FBI Director called her statements about her email server “truthful.”

While the need for good reporting remains clear, the way to pay for it is not—the crystal ball remains cloudy on that point. As comedian John Oliver pointed out recently, even he ruthlessly rakes through the work of journalists in the search for joke material, without signing up for a subscription. Oliver’s appeal to recognize the work of journalists got a lot of play, but I predict it will have zero impact on the financial plight of the news biz. That’s because pity is not going to help us make news profitable again. Only innovation and hard work will.

So, as we start the year I will present our students with this simple challenge: come help us save the world from a flood of lies. It’s our job.

By Larry Abramson

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