With the 2021 Legislature adjourned and the COVID-19 pandemic tapering off, the pace of Montana news has, for the first time in a long while, slowed enough for the MTFP newsroom to step back and take stock of the big-picture topics we want to tackle in the coming months and years. Here, we’ve asked reporter Eric Dietrich to talk about what’s next for Montana Free Press’ Long Streets economic reporting project.

Of all the Montana cliches that bounce around on social media, the sorts of phrases you see overlaid on landscape photos and posted with heart emojis, this one has been my favorite for years: Montana is one big small town with really long streets.

The state’s physical landscape truly is massive, about the size of Germany in terms of acreage. A corner-to-corner drive from Libby to Ekalaka will cost you 12 hours in good weather. If you live in Missoula, Seattle is closer than Sidney. If you live in Bozeman, you can drive to Salt Lake City faster than Plentywood.

Montana’s human landscape, though, is much smaller — and often intertwined. I haven’t lived here that long in the grand scheme of things, just 13 years if I count college in Bozeman. But when I strike up a conversation with a stranger in Montana, more often than not it takes us less than half an hour of chatting to realize we have at least one acquaintance in common.

That sense of long-distance neighborliness is perhaps the thing I love most about Montana. That’s true both personally, as a 30-something guy building a life here, and professionally, as a journalist who makes my living trying to understand and explain the state — often by relying on fellow Montanans being kind enough to sit me down and tell me what’s what.

Consistent MTFP readers may know me as our newsroom’s data reporter. A lot of the work I do revolves around numbers like census figures or employment counts. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sense of those numbers, and how to visualize them in a way that helps readers make sense of Montana’s big-picture economic geography.

The more of that data work I do, though, the more I realize just how important it is to balance that spreadsheet wrangling with talking to people. Effective data work can precisely outline the heart of complex issues. But even the most sophisticated analysis is worthless if it doesn’t use inputs that sensibly reflect reality. And it’s interviewing people about their lived experiences that tells you how far you can trust your numbers.

Which brings me to the Long Streets Project. With support from the Greater Montana Foundation, MTFP launched the Long Streets effort back in 2018, aiming to combine data journalism with shoe-leather reporting to explain Montana’s changing economy. Since then, I and other reporters have published Long Streets stories on topics ranging from airport access to rural grocery stores and meat processors, writing about people and businesses everywhere from Missoula to Livingston to Ekalaka.

However, like a lot of things in 2020, our Long Streets work was complicated by pandemic caution, which quashed most of MTFP’s reporting travel. Along with last year’s election and this year’s legislative session, the pandemic also kept me and my coworkers buried beneath a seemingly endless stream of must-cover news.

Some of that news, of course, has raised big, knotty questions about Montana’s economy, and the opportunities Montanans have to build decent lives here. Anti-COVID measures sent shockwaves through many industries, pushing tens of thousands of Montana workers onto unemployment rolls. Federal relief measures pumped billions of dollars into the state economy. The latest wave of federal money is set to fund a historic round of investment that could transform the state — or wind up as the biggest boondoggle in Montana history. 

Affordable childcare and housing, already scarce in many parts of Montana pre-pandemic, have become fraught challenges for working Montanans and, increasingly, the businesses that would like to employ them. The pandemic-induced shift toward remote work has created opportunities for some Montanans. It may also be one factor driving up the cost of housing in tight markets, as high-skill remote workers with national-scale salaries end up in a position to outbid local wage earners

One part of my work at MTFP is covering these issues where they intersect with state government — tracking, for example, what the governor is saying about housing policy and how the state is spending its coronavirus relief haul. That’s important journalism (and, honestly, a full-time job in its own right). But given how much of the state economy doesn’t actually revolve around Helena, it’s also incomplete if it isn’t paired with reporting that casts a broader net.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that, after a year of pandemic caution, I’m looking for excuses to get out of the office. And that, dear reader, is where I could use your help: pointing me to people I should talk to and places I should visit to get at the rest of Montana’s economic picture.

I’m looking for stories that can help me and MTFP’s readers make sense of the state economy — specifically how it’s changed as a result of our COVID experience, and how people are coping in places where the cost of living rubs up against inadequate wages. Where the economy puts Montanans in a bind, I want to understand what people are trying to do about it and whether it seems to be working.

I’m of course interested in the top-of-mind issues: housing, childcare, stimulus spending and workforce shortages. I’m even more interested in things I haven’t thought of, especially if they involve writing about the parts of Montana that don’t always get their fair share of thoughtful media attention.

I have tentative plans in the works for a trip out to northeast Montana the second week of June. I’d like to stretch that out for as long as possible, so I’d especially appreciate ideas specific to that neck of the plains.Have something worth sharing? Drop me a line using the form below, or email edietrich@montanafreepress.org, or give me a call at 406-465-3386 ext. 2.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.