The state of Montana’s news media

An expansion here on Monday’s post noting that I’ve given up for the time being on the Montana headline listing I’d been putting together weekly since February. After putting a fairly focused effort into sorting a state’s worth of news media content into its most noteworthy chunks for a third of a year, I’m hoping I can squeeze at least another a couple more posts worth of readable analysis out of the experience.

(The following is also informed, of course, by my day job covering cops and courts for the Great Falls Tribune — note that I’m not, however, writing as a representative of the paper by any means.)

What I did, briefly, if you’re new:

I read most everything (or skimmed headlines, at least) put out by Montana’s major newspapers, as well as the smaller publications and blogs I could hook up to my RSS reader.

With the aid of a bit of jerry-rigged coding, I took the stories I thought were most important each week and organized them into a list by convenient topic. Nothing earth-shattering — but just enough editorial process to force me to think a bit about the coverage, the issue’s importance, and the quality of the reporting.

What I learned:

Most reporting in Montana is local — reporters working in their community covering education, criminal justice, local government, sports etc. news of primarily local interest. I’m pretty sure you could actually fit all of Montana’s state-level reporters together in a smallish bar (something that I’d guess has actually happened) — Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau (which produces content for the Missoulian, Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record and a couple others), the 2-3 reporters at the Helena Associated Press bureau, my Great Falls Tribune colleague John S. Adams and a few more journalists based outside of Helena whose regularly write about issues (like public universities) with significance to a statewide audience.

What that means, it seems to me, is that there’s a very real bandwidth limitation on coverage that matters to Montana at a state level. Much of those reporters’ time ends up being focused on the obligatory, reactive coverage — interpreting press releases for major announcements, reporting election results, duplicating stories broken by other outlets.

We have much less in the way of proactive reporting — stories that follow up on government failures to see whether things have improved after scandals have passed, dogged investigations into possible corruption, deep explanations that help citizens understand more than the talking points with debates over issues like health care, taxation and education. The sort of journalism that readers won’t necessarily miss consciously on a daily basis, but that provides one of democracy’s essential feedback mechanisms over time.

(Montana’s television stations seem to do very little reporting that fits my definition of “proactive” here, hence my neglect of their role in all this — but the logic behind that dismissal is probably fodder for a separate post.)

Two qualifications: That’s a broad generalization that doesn’t give credit in some places it’s due, and also a state of affairs that’s recognized (and widely lamented) inside the newspaper industry, which has taken an economic beating as Google et al. have appropriated a significant chunk of its advertising revenue in recent years.

One other note, too — proactive journalism is difficult, time-intensive work that typically requires years of experience in prying information out of bureaucracy to truly do well. You can take young, relatively inexperienced reporters (like yours truly) and pay them $25K a year to cover car crashes, court hearings and feel-good stories with decent results, but the odds that they’ll be able to go toe-to-toe with complex power structures before they’ve acquired some seasoning are slim at best (one reason the Billings Gazette’s wave of recent departures is so disheartening).

On the presentation side of things, most of Montana’s journalists are still writing for newspapers, even if their stories also happen to be published online. At a fundamental level, print and online publishing are different mediums in terms of optimal writing style and how you pair articles with supplemental content like links, images and video. It doesn’t necessarily seem like Montana’s reporters — and the editorial structures behind them, have figured out how to deal with that.

Most reporters at most Montana newspapers appear to still be thinking about their work with the print product in mind first and foremost, which means our digitally published reporting ends up being a significantly lower-quality product than what appears in dead-tree editions (the Bozeman Chronicle and Great Falls
 are partial exceptions, I think, having experimented with live event coverage and embedded video to an extent). And that’s without taking the poorly produced, intrusive ads that clutter many newspaper websites into account.

All that is a non-trivial concern for papers’ long-term outlooks, given that the younger audiences whose loyalty needs to be secured in the coming decades if newspapers are going to remain viable businesses. Us Millenials will inevitably compare local news sites to the design quality expectations set by national sites, as well as to the Apple devices many of us are reading digital content on, and we’ll flock to the sources that deliver.

What it means for those of us in the news business

I hate to pile on the bandwagon of voices lamenting the decline of the state’s newspaper, but there are real reasons to worry about the health of Montana’s media as the industry struggles to adapt to a digital world — and, by extension, the health of our democracy’s independent immune system.

There are reasons to be hopeful, too — and I’m looking forward to seeing things progress in the coming years.

Montana has no small number of talented reporters, editors and publishers, and our major newspapers are making progress (e.g. the Tribune’s new website introduced this last month).

At least one veteran Montana reporter has struck out on his own with a digital-only publication, as well (Ed Kemmick, founded the Last Best News in January after leaving the Gazette), and the state has several younger publications that have been somewhat more nimble in adjusting to online publishing (the Missoula Independent and Flathead Beacon, for instance).

One place, I’d add, where there’s hardly any made-in-Montana coverage is the health of the Montana newspaper industry (apart from periodic hand-wringing over bonuses paid to Lee Newspaper executives), and the various ways it’s struggling to respond to the sorts of concerns I’ve outlined here.

And that’s enough for now — I was also hoping to sketch out some ideas for state-level news aggregation, but will save it for a future post.

One last note: If you think any or all of the thoughts here are worth spreading, please take a moment to give this post some love on your social media platform of choice. With a reputation-less independent blog like this, digitally enhanced word-of-mouth is essentially the only way people who might be interested in reading find their way here.

Also — please do question and comment, too. If one of my half-baked ideas doesn’t make sense (or does, and sparks a lightbulb) I’d like to hear about it — and will talk back.

Taking a headline roundup hiatus

No Montana headline roundup post this week — but, in its place, a somewhat geeky explanation why:

In a single chart, interest in the feature (as measured by page view numbers) has declined over time:

Page view count

Which is somewhat contradictory to anecdotal feedback I’ve gotten from several people who’ve said they really enjoy the feature (not sure whether I have  a small band of loyal readers, or a slightly broader audience who finds their way to the piece once or twice a month), but still discouraging. (Also, as an aside, the clickthrough rate on linked articles is fairly low, as well — on the order of 1-2 per reader.)

It could be that I’m struggling with marketing the feature, given that my promotional efforts have more-or-less been limited to a single weekly Facebook post (often timed poorly toward the end of Monday evening, when it’s convenient for me to finish writing but a low-traffic time for digital media). This makes sense given that Facebook “engagement” (which I’ve tallied as the sum of “likes,” “comments” and “shares” on my promotional posts) seems to be correlated fairly well with view count (R=0.68 — don’t judge my math indulgence):

Social media impact

As for less empirically justified reasons for taking a break of at least this week — to be perfectly honest, the more times I’ve gone through the process of compiling the link roundup the more it feels like, well, a chore. There’s a bit of mildly challenging editorial judgment involved in deciding which stories to (work that’s partially done for me by the state Associated Press bureau, which does a decent job of spreading stories with state-level news value between major newspapers) and a bit of cleverness involved in my better writing tying the links together, but it’s still a fairly mechanical task for work I’m not getting paid to do.

Additionally, I’m not entirely convinced that reading this sort of content isn’t something of a chore. That, at least, has been my experience with the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, which offers (last time I checked) a daily “Wonkbook” compilation of national policy news. It’s great reading from a civic virtue standpoint — but still feels like eating your spinach, especially if you’re diligent about clicking through to the stories about issues you really should be familiar with.

One of the truisms of news media in the era of social media where the majority of us Millennials obtain much of our news diet through whatever pops up in our Facebook feed is that serious news products have to ‘waft’ well if they’re going to be read well — a state of affairs that tends to reward ‘bite-sized nuggets (and the fast food of the media industry, Buzzfeed lists and their kin). My link roundup doesn’t quite meet that demand typically, I don’t think (especially as its format starts to get stale).

It could be, I guess, that more people would be interested in reading the roundup if they knew it was out there, which gets me back to the marketing problem. Maybe it’s time for me to read up on social media engagement strategies.

(For what it’s worth, as an aside, that second chart is a rather tangible affirmation that your “likes” and “comments” and “shares” really do matter with local media, in terms of determining what gets read — that’s power worth using conscientiously.)

Also, my workflow for the roundup, for what it’s worth, looks like this:
  1. Reading RSS feeds produced by most of the state’s significant newspapers (and a couple TV stations) over the course of the week using Feedly.
  2. Using an IFTTT script to place the headlines and article URLs for stories I flag in Feedly in a Google Docs spreadsheet
  3. Copying the Google Docs spreadsheet into an Microsoft Excel worksheet for a bit of formatting
  4. Copying the Excel output into a text document
  5. Using a partially jerry-rigged PHP script (run on a local server hosted on my Macbook using MAMP) to output the list of articles as a link-enabled HTML webpage (with article titles linking to the original pieces on newspaper websites)
  6. Copying the list of articles into Evernote, where I do the bulk of the writing, organizing issues by topic and trying to write at least moderately interesting transitions to tie everything together into some sort of coherent package — this is far and away the most time-consuming part of the process
  7. Emailing the product to myself, which accomplishes some sort of formatting change that lets me copy the resulting product into the WordPress editor that powers the blog you’re reading now.
  8. Final editing, publishing, and inadequate attempts at trying to get people to read the resulting product on social media.
(My apologies to any readers with the programming knowledge to cringe at the places that could be streamlined).

Because I’m on duty Sundays and Mondays at the Great Falls Tribune (which, for the shameless plug, just launched a brand spankin’ new website), most of this typically happens before or after a traditional reporting shift (unless I’m staying on top of my Montana news consumption during the week, which helps with Step 1).

My first couple attempts at putting the link roundup together took my on the order of 6-8 hours, but I’ve become faster over time (and with automating parts of the process with code), to the point where I can bang things out in 2-3 hours after work. Which is still an evening a week that I could be applying to less mechanical posts, like this one.

And, I’m back to where I started quite nicely.

Check back soon for another post with a bit more musing about state-level news aggregation. I’ve got some ideas about ways it could be done a bit better (most of which, unfortunately, involve web development well beyond my skill-set), as well as some still-simmering perspective about the places where it seems like Montana’s media coverage is plenty thick — and where it seems rather thin.

Montana in Review – May 19-25, 2014

In capital-N News this week:
Montana has its same-sex marriage ban challenged in court
…bird-loyalty appears to be equally newsworthy, per the national media…
…and a Montana vet helps customers drink to remember.
In news about prescription drugs:
A western Montana doctor is busted for “reckless” prescriptions…
…and the IR takes a multi-part look at painkiller addiction.
In other crime news:
The Missoula PD can now interview rape victims someplace that’s not the interrogation room used for suspects…
…a Lake County man allegedly tries to put out a hit on his ex so she can’t testify against him in a rape case…
…and a former professor involved with a Blackfeet youth program is convicted of fraud in a re-trial.
In politics:
Hardline and moderate Republicans duke it out in primary races…
…the Bozeman Chronicle’s political reporter seems to take conspiracy theorists more seriously than the county commission…
…and U.S. Senate candidate Daines picks a fight over the future of Montana’s nukes…
In issues of environment, energy and health:
Shortly after its regional director resigns in tears, Indian Health Service comes under fire for its healthcare quality…
…Bozeman-area water managers look at domestic well impact…
…and potential oil drilling in southern Montana spurs some nervousness.
In Education
Montana’s college system will ask legislators to invest in research…
…the Chronicle takes a look at higher ed leaders’ pay…
…and the state’s executive officers want more high school classes to count for college credit.
We’ve recovered from the recession, apparently!

Montana in Review – May 12-18, 2014

In news this week:
Logistical challenges delay a massive settlement owned to Indian landowners
…and participation in many girls sports falls in north-central Montana.
In crime and justice:
A Box Elder woman charged with murder pleads to a lesser child abuse charge…
…a mentally disabled man accused in an Eastern Montana killing will be tried…
… and more details emerge in the Missoula death of an exchange student.
Also, a Lake County jury awards $248 million in damages stemming from a 2011 crash…
…(corporate attorneys promise an immediate appeal)…
…and candidates spar in the final weeks of Missoula’s County Attorney race, to be decided with a primary face-off.
In politics:
Republican U.S. Senate and House candidates dig into issues…
…and another House candidate takes his own approach to campaigning…
….while embattled state senate majority leader Art Wittich remains on the ballot for the time being.
Also, the state election cop wrangles political spenders…
…moderate and far-right conservatives tussel over campaign mailers…
…and a Blackfeet tribal council member is arrested over a politically charged traffic ticket.
In Energy, Environment & Health
Washington state environmental regs could impact the Colstrip coal-fired power plant…
…the public will have more time to comment on air quality impacts of a Great Falls refinery…
…and the Great Falls public comes out in favor of a plan for NorthWestern Energy to buy 11 hydroelectric dams.
In the wonderful world of higher education:
MSU and UM tuition is up 55 percent over the last decade…
…U-system regents prepare a legislative wish list…
…and UM lands a $45 million research grant.
And, in other business:
Kalispell is losing a rifle factory…
…a $25 million building in Butte could inject some hope into the heart of uptown Butte…
…and short-term vacation rentals take a bite out of the state’s tax base, the Chronicle reveals.

9 ways an obscure report thinks we can improve justice in tribal communities

In effort to develop an actual blogging habit this week, I’m somewhat whimsically taking a look at a somewhat obscure report developed by the U.S. Federal Government.

Some background on my approach — May 3, the Washington Post reported  hat the vast numbers of reports generated by the U.S. Government, mandated by Congress for often-forgotten reasons, are left to gather more dust than readers. To be fair, the World Bank has a similar problem — one apparently severe enough to be make fodder for one of the more intriguing headlines I’ve seen recently: “The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads”).

One such PDF is this one, produced by a group entitled the Indian Law & Order Commission:

Roadmap for making Native America Safer

The essential logic of the document, ordered by Congress as part of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, is this:
American Indian and Alaska Native communities and lands are frequently less safe—and sometimes dramatically more dangerous—than most other places in our country.
In most U.S. communities, the Federal government plays an important but limited role in criminal justice through the enforcement of laws of general application—that is, those laws that apply to all U.S. citizens—creating drug-control task forces, anti-terrorism and homeland security partnerships, and so forth. Under this system of federalism, State and local leaders have the authority and responsibility to address virtually all other public safety concerns.
To illustrate from my own experience as a crime reporter in Great Falls, Montana — serious crimes occurring in the city are tried through the state of Montana’s court system — trials held in the Cascade County courthouse and appeals made to the Montana Supreme Court.
Precisely the opposite is true in much of Indian country. The Federal government exercises substantial criminal jurisdiction on reservations. As a result, Native people—including juveniles—frequently are caught up in a wholly nonlocal justice system. This system was imposed on Indian nations without their consent in the late 19th century and is remarkably unchanged since that time. The system is complex, expensive, and simply cannot provide the criminal justice services that Native communities expect and deserve.
For crimes committed on north-central Montana’s reservations involving Indian perpetrators and victims, crimes are also tried in Great Falls (typically several hours drive from the community where they occurred), at city’s federal courthouse, are prosecuted by lawyers from the state U.S. Attorney’s office and appealed through the federal appeals process.

The self-described purpose of the Roadmap is to recommend structural changes that address these challenges. Nine highlights:

1. Provide reservations with federal funding to hire as many police officers as off-reservation communities have
Indian Tribes and nations throughout our country would benefit enormously if locally based and accountable law enforcement officers were staffed at force levels comparable to similarly situated communities off-reservation.
2. Place more emphasis on collecting accurate crime data in Indian country
Congress also should ensure the production of data and data reports required by the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010… by allowing Tribal governments to sue the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Interior should they fail to produce and submit the required reports.
3. Increasing federal support of tribal court proceedings
Routine refusal by many Federal law enforcement officials to testify as witnesses in Tribal court proceedings stymies the successful prosecution of Indian country crime.
4. Holding more federal judicial proceedings near Native communities
5. Stop funding tribal justice systems on a short-term grant basis
Tribal governments legitimately ask why—unlike their State and local counterparts—should they rely on such inconsistent sources to pay for governmental functions. Grant funding also requires Tribal governments to compete for and “win” grant funds, which means other Tribes did not. Further, small Tribes and Tribes with thinly stretched human capital lack the capacity to write a “winning” application, yet these Tribes often have disproportionate criminal justice needs.
6. Make sure federal prosecutors let tribal court systems know when they decline to prosecute a case 
United States Attorney’s Offices sometimes do not communicate effectively, or at all, with Tribal jurisdictions when declining cases for Federal prosecution. Without notification, local Tribal courts often do not take up the case in Tribal court by exercising their concurrent jurisdiction.
7. Get better about sharing criminal justice information (like criminal history records) between tribal and non-tribal agencies
8. Provide more support for incarcerated Native offenders to make it easier for them to pull their lives together post-punishment
While there are hardships associated with any incarceration, American Indians and Alaska Natives serving time in State and Federal detention systems experience a particular set of problems. One is systemic disproportionality in sentencing. The other is distance from their homes. Further, such detention systems fail to provide culturally relevant support to offenders and community reentry becomes more difficult and may be ill coordinated.
9. Find ways to deal with Native juvenile offenders that avoid throwing them in prison
Experts in juvenile justice believe detention should be a rare and last resort for all troubled youth, limited to those who pose a safety risk or cannot receive effective treatment in the community. … Federal and State juvenile justice systems take Indian children, who are the least well, and make them the most incarcerated. Furthermore, conditions of detention often contribute to the very trauma that Native children experience.

Montana in Review – May 5-11, 2014

In news this week
A community finds itself  ‘short of breath’ amidst the Bakken boom…
…some Bozeman folks want to market Montana-made sugar-beet rum globally…
…and a large feline intrudes on a Montana family’s Thursday
In energy, health & environment:
Montana’s largest mine needs to bring down labor costs, exec tells the AP…
…climate change to bring water challenges and ecological challenges to Montana, scientists say…
…while Bozeman expects to “need every drop of water to meet demand over the next 50 years”…
…and the federal transportation department issues emergency regulations for oil trains.
Also, a federal judge sides with environmentalists on lynx support…
…Northwestern Energy’s planned $900 million dam purchase passes a hurdle…
…and a Missoula-resident Purple Heart recipient claims the VA mishandled his traumatic brain injury.
In politics:
Lee Newspapers chronicles Republican primary candidates for the U.S. Senate…
…while general-election likelies Daines and Walsh battle for the veteran vote…
…three prominent Republicans question a house candidate’s conservatism…
…and Lee Newspapers kicks off a political ad fact-checking feature.
In justice news:
More details emerge in the shooting of a German foreign exchange student…
…while the Flathead Beacon debates ‘castle doctrine’ in dueling op-eds…
…and the state’s top lawyer weighs in on Jesus.
Also, a Great Falls program helps vets who’ve run afoul of the law…
…and a tribal judge issues an arrest warrant for a ticket Sen. Shannon Augare may or may not have already paid.
In education:
UM considers pushing back on football-related penalties…
…and hopes for a larger freshman class this fall…
…while MSU gets a post-finals week false alarm.
Briefly, on the media front:
Print journalism defector Ed Kemmick covers a Billings panel on the future of old-style news…
…and a new media blogger criticizes the Missoulian for an op-ed/newsroom disconnect.

Montana in Review – April 28 – May 4, 2014

1. In news about questionable shootings:
An apparently trespassing exchange student is killed by a Missoula man…
…triggering international debate over Montana’s ‘Castle doctrine’ laws…
…while a Billings man wounds a house guest…
…and the Montana Supreme Court takes up a case involving another self-defense-claimed shooting.
2. In crime news that doesn’t necessarily involve firearms:
An ex-teacher’s 30-day prison sentence for statutory rape should be re-examined, the Supreme Court says…
…the man who killed himself after a standoff with Havre police April 7 was involved in a juvenile detention center rape case…
…and the Montana University System looks to respond to new federal guidelines addressing campus sexual assaults…
…while a Bozeman event pitches attacking sex violence with open dialogue.
Also, a small-town police chief could face charges related to unspecified official misconduct…
…a man who prosecutors say got away with murder in a cold case killing is charged again…
…and guess where Montana Highway Patrol made a pot bust?
3. In health, energy & environment:
Initial Obamacare enrollment numbers are out…
…the Bakken fracks out a milestone…
…a federal judge declines to order federal funding on behalf of an endangered tree species…
…farmers want water rights clarified as the Gallatin Valley’s population swells…
…and Tester and Walsh get on a railroad’s case about shipping delays they say hurt the state’s economy.
4. In politics:
The Governor interview potential state Supreme Court justices…
…and Lee Newspapers publishes its profiles on Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate…
…who have an opponent-in-waiting already defined.
Also, Bozeman gets fired up over pro-LGBT government regulation…
…a Bozeman businessman attacked for his stance on LGBT issues speaks to grads “a whiff of controversy”…
…and the state’s election cop appears to be earning his salary.
5. And in things that aren’t politics:
One of Montana’s premiere news startups reflects on being three months in…
(And I should admit I was suckered by its April Fools’ joke)
…and the Gazette explains whats up with MT’s funky license plates.
This link roundup is published weekly on Sunday or Monday as life permits. Please do point to sources or stories I’ve missed in the comments — and please let me know if you have suggestions for other ways to improve this modest endeavor in hobby journalism, too. Also, if you think this is worth reading, consider giving it a share on your social media platform of choice.