Reporters and editors representing the Billings Gazette, Sidney Herald, Northern Plains Independent, and Missoulian share ideas at a convention of news partners in Helena Nov. 1, 2019. Credit: John S. Adams/MTFP

HELENA — Growing old may not be for the faint of heart but, as anyone over 40 will tell you, it sure beats the alternative. 

Montana is in the process of putting that truism to the test. The state’s median age, according to U.S. Census data, is 39.8 years, making Montana the 10th oldest state in the nation, and the oldest in the western U.S. The state’s population of residents in their 50s, 60s, and 70s outpaces the national average, and its population of 20- and 30-somethings lags behind. 

The economic, cultural, and personal impacts presented by these demographic facts are the subject of a new statewide reporting initiative in which 19 Montana newsrooms will jointly tackle one of the state’s most pressing, and under-covered, stories.

“Graying Pains: Challenges and Opportunities in the West’s Oldest State” is a project of the Montana Newspaper Association, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that promotes rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. Montana Free Press, a Helena-based statewide nonprofit news organization, is coordinating the collaboration. Funding has been provided by the LOR Foundation and the Kendeda Fund. 

“The welfare of Montana’s aging population is an important and complex issue that affects and involves nearly everyone at some level,” said SJN president and Boulder Monitor owner-publisher Keith Hammonds. “We’re excited to support quality journalism examining responses that could help shape individual actions, community-based strategies, and state policy.” 

A previous Solutions Journalism Network initiative in western Montana produced two collaborative projects on rural economic development and mental health care under the project name The Montana Gap in 2018. 

In early November, editors and reporters representing the collaboration’s partner newsrooms gathered for two days in the state capital to begin planning the project. Participants heard from Solutions Journalism Network’s Mountain West Regional Manager Sarah Gustavus, Missoula Aging Services CEO Susan Kohler, Yellowstone Public Radio News Director Nicky Ouellet, and Montana Free Press data reporter Eric Dietrich. Participating newsrooms named the collaborative The Montana Fourth Estate Project.

“The Montana Fourth Estate Project represents a new approach to cooperation among Montana’s newspapers, one that will directly impact readers with deep coverage of significant issues,” said MNA Executive Director Matt Gibson. “Ideally, the collaboration will create a repeatable approach to delivering high-impact statewide reporting that makes a difference.”

The project comprises the Big Horn County News, Billings Gazette, Boulder Monitor, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Choteau Acantha, Flathead Beacon, Glendive Ranger-Review, Independent Record (Helena), Livingston Enterprise, Lone Peak Lookout (Big Sky), Madisonian (Madison Valley), Miles City Star, Missoulian, Montana Standard (Butte), Northern Plains Independent (Wolf Point), Seeley Swan Pathfinder, Sidney Herald, Valley Journal (Ronan), Yellowstone Public Radio, and the University of Montana School of Journalism. 

Each newsroom will contribute at least one story from its local community to the project. Yellowstone Public Radio will partner with the collaborating newsrooms to produce broadcast stories and a podcast. Each participating newspaper will have the opportunity to publish the series in whole or in part. After a brief embargo, the series will be available for publication in all of the Montana Newspaper Association’s 85 member publications. The stories will begin rolling out later this year, and continue through spring 2020. 

“Montana Free Press is excited to help facilitate what is shaping up to be a groundbreaking application of the state’s journalistic resources to a topic that touches every Montanan,” said editor Brad Tyer. “The collaboration’s emphasis on sharing resources and stories to maximize benefit to Montana readers is a perfect fit with MTFP’s mission, and it’s a thrill to work with so many talented editors and reporters toward a common goal.”