Dear readers, 

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 27-31. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP reporters’ look back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Eric Dietrich’s turn.

This year was a whirlwind, to put it mildly. I spent most of the winter as one of the primary MTFP reporters covering the Montana Capitol while lawmakers navigated the twin dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the first legislative session in nearly two decades with Republican control of both legislative houses and the governor’s office.

A few of my favorite projects of the past year inevitably sprang from that dynamic. In a data sense, I spent a few weeks producing the 2021 version of MTFP’s Montana Capitol tracker, which repackaged data from the Legislature’s official-but-creaky bill information system with additional context and a modern interface.

That project, in turn, gave us a database that we were able to use to produce two more of my favorite stories as the session came to a close: 1) A look at the hundreds of “quiet” bills that passed into law without significant attention from the public, and 2) A “batting average” piece where we tallied up which lawmakers were and weren’t successful at getting their bills through the legislative gauntlet.

Then, with the legislative session in the rearview mirror (except, that is, for lawsuits challenging some of its most controversial bills) and COVID in its summer ebb, I had the chance to turn to some on-the-road reporting on the state economy through MTFP’s Long Streets Project. I spent a few days hanging out in eastern Montana with the Sidney Young Professionals chapter, soaking up as much as I could about what makes Sidney’s oil-town economy tick and stumbling across an entrepreneurial effort to mine bitcoin with energy generated from oil extraction waste gas.

Spending time out east this summer also gave me a chance to write what was probably my most important story of the year. I’ve been making social visits to college friends in Ekalaka, a spunky small town in Montana’s southeastern corner, most summers for the better part of a decade. That put me in a somewhat unique position when the release of the 2020 census results in August indicated the town and its surroundings have done something rare for one of our rural plains communities: added significant numbers of new residents.

I spent several weeks talking to area residents trying to pin down just what it is about Ekalaka that’s producing that rural renewal, and then a few more running my editor’s patience short trying to explain what I learned in writing.  

Growing home in Ekalaka

Eastern Montana’s Carter County is bucking longtime trends toward population declines in rural plains communities, adding 255 residents according to the 2020 census. How? Oil money, dinosaurs and family.

Then, circumstances pulled my attention back to political coverage this fall. The release of the census results also kicked off Montana’s once-a-decade redistricting process, an effort that included dividing the state into two U.S. House districts for the first time since the 1980s. Stay tuned through this spring to see how the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission handles its next task: redrawing the state’s legislative districts.

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.