The new edition of Montana Journalism Review tracks Western journalists as national and global events push them past their comfort zones.
From local coverage of refugee resettlement to an experiment in right-wing news immersion, the 2017 issue of MJR scrutinizes how news professionals are responding to growing distrust in the media and ongoing changes in the industry.
Titled “Far From Comfort,” the magazine examines advocacy journalism, emerging business models and gender gaps in sports coverage and news management.
“With the proliferation of fake news and echo chambers, we worked hard to find stories that advance the conversation and show the state of the media in the western United States,” Managing Editor Claire Chandler said.
Work on the 46th edition began last spring, when Editor-in-Chief Henriette Lowisch and Executive Editor Keith Graham, both journalism professors, selected the student staff that puts together the annual magazine founded by J-School Dean Nathaniel Blumberg in 1958.
Over the following seven months, student editors, writers, photographers and designers learned how to problem-solve and work together as they brainstormed story ideas and headlines, recruited contributors, sold ads and got the 68-page book ready for print.
While Art Director Delaney Kutsal envisioned the magazine’s design elements, from color scheme to formatting, senior editors Diana Six, Katy Spence, Dakota Wharry and Bayley Butler handpicked stories and took them through three rounds of editing. Contributors to MJR 2017 include former Missoulian Editor Sherry Devlin and Wyofile reporter Dustin Bleizeffer as well as J-School alums Evan Frost, Tess Haas, Carli Krueger and Hunter Pauli. Current faculty, graduate and undergraduate students also wrote and photographed stories, including staff writer Maddie Vincent and staff photographer Olivia Vanni.
In October, final drafts were sent off to Copy Chief Taylor Crews, who organized her team for the stringent fact-checking and copy-editing process. Designers got their hands on copy in early November and faced a quick two-week turnaround.
In addition to the print magazine released on Dec. 16, 2016, MJR published its stories on its website at mjr.jour.umt.edu, under the leadership of Web Editor Matt Roberts. It also produced Framing a Movement: The Media at Standing Rock, a web documentary orchestrated by Senior Editor Kathleen Stone and funded with the help of the J-School’s Blumberg Fund for Investigative Journalism and UM President Royce Engstrom.
Montana Journalism Review is the product of a journalism capstone course offered each fall. The magazine is financed through ad sales and support from the School of Journalism. The print edition is sent out to 750 subscribers across Montana, the nation and the world.
You know you’re in the right journalism program when, before the semester has even started, you race to campus at 6:55 am, jump into cars with 10 strangers and drive two hours just to get a close and personal look at the largest toxic waste cleanup project in the country.
And instead of being the slightest bit grumpy, you feel like you have finally found birds that share your particular brand of nerdy feather.
Staring into the Berkeley Pit may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it tends to be right up the alley of new graduate students in the University of Montana’s graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism.
It’s become a tradition to kick off the program with what Professor Nadia White calls the “Super Fun Superfund Tour” – a daylong immersion into Montana’s storied mining and extraction history.
This year, the new cohort moved backwards through time and space, tracing the Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula toward its headwaters near the Continental Divide.
The Clark Fork and its tributaries are the veins through which toxic pollutants from a century of copper mining near Butte have spread. Each mile of the river is in a different state of restoration, reclamation, stagnancy or conflict.
Our first stop was Dry Cottonwood Creek ranch – a working cattle ranch owned by the non-profit Clark Fork Coalition located on the Upper Clark Fork. It’s a living laboratory for river and soil reclamation.
Rancher Maggie Schmidt showed students the sections of the river that are in the process of being cleaned up and explained the impact the reclamation project is having on her ranching operation. The visit was a window into how the federal government’s Superfund program plays out with private landowners and the agriculture sector on the ground.
Our caravan then wound through the town of Opportunity, which continues to be the dumping ground for other places’ hazardous waste. Brad Tyer, one of our chaperones and author of the book “Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” offered insight as to how some communities, lands, and rivers in Montana may be restored, but there is almost always another one that becomes a kind of sacrificial lamb in exchange.
We stopped for lunch in Anaconda, which is famous for its remnant landmarks from its smelting days. At Smoke Stack State Park, I looked around to see my fellow graduate students clambering over a brick wall to touch slag from the old copper smelter with their bare hands.
Finally, we landed in Butte, the “black heart of Montana,” to meet up with Tom Malloy, the reclamations manager for Butte-Silver Bow County. Malloy lives and breathes environmental reclamation. He knows more sneaky passageways to mining sites than just about anyone else in the county, or maybe the entire country.
Malloy treated students not only to a bird’s-eye view of the Berkeley Pit, but also to a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, which is hidden from the general public’s direct sight.
Seeing the legacy of extraction helped some students ground their ideas about these infamous places.
Journalism student Matt Blois’ only prior connection to the Pit was from hearing about it on Radio Lab. “I expected it to be much more sinister looking – bubbly, green and horrible looking,” he said. “It was strange to see it and know it was so acidic, because it looks so benign.”
Tromping around with Malloy was like having an all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes drama of Butte. I knew he had saved the best for last when he said he was going to take us to “Slag Wall Canyon”, a first for students as well as for our chaperones.
We pulled up next to a trickle of water outside of town and ducked under a crumbling archway. Soon, we were watching Silver Bow Creek meander between 30-foot walls constructed of bricks made from smelting waste. To the untrained eye, it was beautiful and eerie at the same time.
But to Malloy, it was another environmental disaster waiting to happen. He told us that toxic tailings are buried just beneath the slag walls. Meaning that if a big flood were to occur, or the slag walls proved structurally unsound, the old chemicals would be unleashed into the creek, enter the Clark Fork and make a dash for the Columbia. All of the reclamation and healing efforts at places like Maggie’s ranch would be undone, and the water supply of this area would be severely compromised once again.
As Malloy pointed out this risk, we thought hard about what it meant in the big scheme of things. As emergent journalists, how can we talk about slag walls and this one creek in a way that connects our audience to the hard and complex choices we all have to make? What about the ones we don’t make, but are implicated in? And how do we do that gracefully, without scaring the public away?
For his part, Malloy advocated for the creek to be re-routed away from danger. He made it sound as if changing the path of an entire creek was a relatively quick-and-easy fix, and to a reclamations specialist, perhaps it is.
But long after we arrived back in town, a little late and very hungry, I kept thinking about progress. I wondered how someone like Tom Malloy defines progress in his work on a daily basis when he is surrounded by problems created decades ago and solutions that will take a century. And how we are willing to define “solutions” themselves – when it’s so much easier to wish some of these harms had never been caused in the first place.
I hope the questions that bubbled to the surface that day will stay present as we willingly and bravely enter the fray as journalists, listeners, storytellers and witnesses.
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.