News doesn’t just happen at the national or state level — it happens in your town and in your community. Montana Free Press recognizes that it’s just as important to have in-depth, independent reporting on the news from down the street as it is to cover news from the statehouse, which is why MTFP is excited to announce its expansion into community news coverage in 2022.

Read the interview of MTFP Editor-in-Chief John S. Adams and new community news editor Nick Ehli by reader and supporter Sarah Vowell below to learn more about the project.

Such an undertaking is only made possible by the support of you, our readers. Thanks to a generous group of donors, all new and increased gifts will be matched until December 31, 2021, allowing you to double the impact of your donation. Will you help MTFP expand community news coverage in 2022 by making a gift before the end of the year?

Sarah: Hi, I’m Sarah Vowell in Bozeman, and I’m a member and supporter of Montana Free Press. I’m here with John Adams, the editor-in-chief of Montana Free Press, and Nick Ehli. Nick is also here in Bozeman, and we’re here to announce and celebrate Nick joining Montana Free Press. Early in the new year, Nick will be the new editor of Montana Free Press’ community news project. John, why don’t you talk about what that is, why you thought it was time for Montana Free Press to expand local coverage and why Nick was the person to lead that effort. 

John: Thanks, Sarah. One of the reasons we decided to launch a community news project was because we were hearing from our readers and folks around the state that it was something they wanted. Montana Free Press was formed to fill a gap that existed at the time in statehouse news coverage, but the gaps in news coverage go far beyond just what happens here at the capital.

There’s an opportunity for us to write about things that are happening at the community level, or valley level, as we’re conceiving of it. We often define our regions in the state by the landscape, and so in some regards, we’re thinking about this at the valley level: Yellowstone Valley, Gallatin Valley, Helena Valley, etc.

Nick is somebody we’ve known for a long time and he’s an outstanding editor in his own right, having been the longtime editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. And fun fact, Nick was one of the first editors in the state to publish a Montana Free Press story back in 2016 or so. So, Nick was the perfect person for the job.

And on the community reporting front, we actually have some experience with Nick editing a community news piece that did really well for us. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Nick to kind of explain how that happened and what we learned.

Nick: This last summer I was asked to teach a journalism camp for Montana high school students at MSU, where I’m on the faculty there as an adjunct. I thought it would be a fun thing to do for a week. We brought in a dozen or so high school journalists from around the state, one of them being Hank [Jagodzinski] from Billings Central, a sophomore. 

I invited John to come down and speak to this class, and he was gracious enough to make an offer to these students that, if you want to go back to your home communities and write something, we’ll consider publishing in Montana Free Press. Be a journalist in your town and see if you can make this work.

Lots of students were interested. Hank was the only one of those students that actually did it. He turned in a really good piece that got a great response on Montana Free Press. 

Sarah: And the piece, if someone wants to look it up, was called Billings joins the Montana home rush and it was about the housing explosion in Billings, his hometown. 

Nick: That story got a lot of traction, not because Hank’s a 15-year-old journalist, but because it was a good story that interested a lot of people. 

Sarah: It was about housing, which people who live in Montana’s cities are obviously really concerned about. I know one reason I was excited about this is just that I’m self-absorbed and I love my hometown, which is Bozeman, and I know Bozeman is one of the cities you want to target. Can you talk about which other cities here you want to cover? 

Nick: We’re going to start the pilot in Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Helena, and Bozeman. Those five.

Sarah: Nick, I know that you grew up in Billings, right? And then you went to the University of Montana in Missoula for journalism school and now you’ve lived in Bozeman for how long? 20-something years?

Nick: 21 years. Almost 22. 

Sarah: So you seem like the perfect person to cover some of these towns. You were also the Editor-in-Chief of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. How is Montana Free Press’ community news going to relate to existing local newspapers? Do you see that relationship as you supplementing what they do or are you competing? Both? 

Everything the Free Press does is available to local newspapers to run free of charge, right? So theoretically, the pieces you cover about Great Falls could end up in the Great Falls Tribune or could end up in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, right?

John: Yes. Our primary mission is to strengthen the news ecosystem here in Montana, not to compete. I think what we’re looking to do is provide additional coverage to newspapers focusing on these regional areas. We might be writing a story with a reporter or a freelancer based out of Billings, but there might be interest in that story far beyond Billings. It could be Miles City. It could be Laurel. It could be Red Lodge. There are other communities that are very interested in some of the issues that we’ll be covering at the regional scale.

It’s not just one or two newspapers that might benefit from having that reporting available. It could be five or 10 newspapers that want to run those stories. The idea is to give them content that’s useful for their news readers and to hopefully continue to build on the strong existing relationships we have with these newspapers. There could be opportunities for collaboration as part of this project.

In fact, and this is breaking news, we got a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to make a portion of this project specifically focused on solutions journalism. One of the things that Nick is going to be working on, in addition to identifying under-covered stories in these various communities, is also looking for under-covered solutions to some of the problems that communities face. Whether it’s housing, infrastructure, health care, you name it. There’s a lot of issues out there where people are finding innovative ways to tackle problems that communities are facing. So, can we apply rigorous reporting to solutions to problems, not just the problems themselves? 

Sarah: How do you plan on staffing this section?

John: That’s part of what Nick is tasked with in the coming year. Can we identify some reliable correspondents who can cover, you know, city council meetings, who can cover a county commission meeting and report back, who can read an agenda and tell readers what might be coming up?

That’s of particular interest. Not just ‘what did the government just do?’ but also ‘what is the government thinking about doing?’ Those kinds of stories are ones that are often missed these days, and they used to be kind of part and parcel of local news.

I think we’re going to be relying heavily, at least in the initial stages, on freelance correspondents. With any luck, if this program is as successful as we think and hope it will be, then we can see a scenario in which these reporters end up becoming full or part-time employees. This first phase is very much going to be an experimental pilot project to see whether or not this kind of news reporting is of value to readers and whether or not they will support it with their donations and help fund this work. If we see that there’s a strong desire for this kind of reporting and a desire to support this kind of reporting, we hope to grow this into a more permanent fixture of Montana Free Press going forward. 

Sarah: Well, it sounds wonderful. And expensive. Am I wrong? 

John: You are not wrong. Journalism, believe it or not, is expensive to produce. Quality journalism is even more expensive to produce, for a variety of reasons. It takes a lot of time, a lot of resources. It takes people with a lot of expertise and experience — people like Nick who’ve been reporting and editing for a long time and can help train and coach younger or earlier career reporters on how to do this kind of journalism.

It is going to be expensive, and it’s not something that we can rely on out-of-staters to help fund. We’ve been fortunate at the Montana Free Press that we have had foundation support. We have had support from some major donors who are eager to support our nonprofit model of journalism to see how, if it can be done here [in Montana], could it be done in other places? But going forward, as we get more and more into community reporting, I think that journalism needs to be supported by members of those communities. If they value that kind of news, that kind of information,  then we’re going to need them to help us fund it if we’re going to be able to keep doing it.

Sarah: Besides funding, which is obviously incredibly important, what are the other ways that readers can communicate their support for this project? 

John: Well, there are lots of ways that they’re going to be able to do that. 

One, sign up for the newsletter to make sure you’re aware as this project unfolds. 

Two, if this excites you, make a donation. From now until December 31, all donations will be matched, up to $1,000. And any amount truly makes a difference. 

Three, spread the word. Sharing it with friends, families, social networks, and neighbors. Let them know that Montana Free Press gets your stamp of approval. That’s how we build a bigger audience. That’s how we build trust with more readers. And that’s really an important and valuable way to support Montana Free Press. 

Sarah: Well, I’m one of those readers, and I really value what you guys do, and I’m really excited about this expansion. The more the merrier. I can’t wait to learn way more about Great Falls than I ever thought I wanted to know. And Billings and Helena and Missoula. I just think this is a wonderful addition to what you’re already doing at the state level. And I think anyone who cares about Montana should be really excited about this development, and I wish you both the best of luck with pulling it off. I didn’t mean to end a sentence with a preposition, but the sentiment stands. 

John: Well, thanks. I think we’re really bullish on the idea and we’re excited to have Nick on the team. 

Nick: As I am to be part of it!