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