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I read with interest this week Lee Fang’s piece in The Intercept revealing how major news outlets — organizations that often champion transparency — are lobbying behind closed doors to block regulations that would limit the mass collection of online user data. 

Having recently discussed “Trust and Media” with fellow journalists on a panel at the Big Sky Ideas Festival, this report felt especially timely. 

As Fang reported, the Interactive Advertising Bureau is an industry trade group that represents “data brokers and online media outlets that depend on digital advertising.”  According to Fang, the IAB is quietly lobbying against a push at the Federal Trade Commission to restrict the collection and sale of personal data for the purpose of delivering advertisements to online users. The Biden Administration, along with members of Congress, wants to define and restrict what data is collected and how companies can monetize it. 

Remember that time you googled “what’s the best snowblower?” and then for the next two weeks, nearly every website you visited online displayed ads for the snowblower models you researched? That happens because some online companies track your behavior (i.e., you googled snowblowers) and then sell it to other companies who use that information in an effort to sell you stuff (i.e., showing you snowblower ads on almost every website you visit). 

In a nutshell, that’s how online advertising works — and it’s actually the same system that put many traditional print newspapers out of business. It’s a little ironic, then, that many media companies — including some newspapers — are pushing back on efforts to restrict how they harvest, store, use and sell your data. 

Nearly every day, we’re approached with unsolicited offers to place “paid posts” on Montana Free Press. Online advertisers are constantly asking us for our advertising rate cards. Spoiler alert: we don’t have rate cards. 

That’s because, as a nonprofit news organization we prioritize your desire to stay focused on the deeply reported, nuanced journalism we produce without being distracted by intrusive online advertising. We prioritize your ability to understand the complexities of the stories we’re telling without you having to worry about whether we’re harvesting your data and selling it. 

Do we collect some user data? Yes. To provide you with the highest-quality user experience we can offer, we utilize a handful of systems that collect and store anonymized data about users’ behavior, which we use to help inform us about what matters to you. 

We use Google Analytics and to help us understand how our users interact with our website and to optimize content delivery. Which stories got the most reads? Why did that story go viral? How long did users stay on a particular page? What website features are most useful to readers? Which ones aren’t? 

Our website, currently uses a total of four ad trackers and one cookie. We use them to make your reading experience the best it can be. For instance, if you already subscribe to this weekly email newsletter, then we try not to show you messages that ask you to subscribe to it. If you clear that cookie from your browser, then you may begin seeing those messages. You get the picture. 

Don’t take my word for it. Check out this helpful tool created by the investigative data team at The Markup. It allows you to enter the URL for any website and then see how that website tracks you when you visit it.

MTFP vs. Local Montana Daily Paper

Some news sites have as many as 36 ad trackers watching your activity while placing as many as 60 cookies on your browser. Some sites track your behavior after you leave their website. Some websites even capture your keystroke data and use tools to evade third-party cookie-blocking apps.

While we collect and analyze data to understand our readers, we NEVER sell, trade, or otherwise distribute user data, and we never collect personal information without your knowledge and express permission. (As some of you no doubt have noticed, we do purchase advertising to promote MTFP on platforms such as Facebook and Google.) 

Montana Free Press is committed to building trust with our audience. Part of building trust is being transparent about what we do and how we do it. We’d love to hear from you about what you think of what we’re discussing here. In the coming weeks and months, expect we’ll have more to say about our efforts to be a news organization that deserves your trust.

As always, thanks for reading. 

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

By the Numbers 🔢

The number of Montana’s reported COVID-19 deaths as of Thursday, Feb. 3. Montana reported 3,000 deaths on Jan. 31, four months after hitting the milestone of 2,000 Montana lives lost. For context, 453 Montanans died in highway crashes in 2020 and 2021 combined. A November report by state health officials found that COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in 2020, behind heart disease and cancer. (Numbers for Friday, Feb. 4, were not available by publication time.)

The Viz 📈

Passenger boarding figures compiled by the Montana Department of Transportation indicate the number of air travelers bounced back in Bozeman and Kalispell last year after dipping drastically at airports across the state in 2020.

At 973,699 “enplanements” in 2021, the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport saw more than twice the passenger volume of other airport in the state — and more than twice as many as it saw during 2020’s pandemic-disrupted travel year.

Kalispell’s Glacier Park International Airport broke ahead of Billings Logan International and Missoula International. Both the Billings and Missoula airports, serving the state’s largest and second-largest city, respectively, have historically posted more travelers.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

Big news shook loose this week in one of the two active legal challenges against Montana’s new vaccine non-discrimination law, as Richland County District Court Judge Olivia Rieger rejected a request by the Sidney-based Netzer Law Office to temporarily block the law while the firm’s lawsuit plays out.

Netzer argued that the state had caused it economic harm by preventing it from ensuring that its employees were vaccinated against COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases. The judge ruled that wasn’t enough reason to block House Bill 702

However, tucked into the judge’s opinion was a one-sentence note touching on one of the Montana Constitution’s most famous lines. Netzer claimed the right of Montanans to a “clean and healthful environment” extended to indoor settings, such as the firm’s office, and Judge Rieger agreed.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy went the other direction. On Jan. 15, Molloy issued an order in Montana’s other outstanding HB 702 challenge, one brought in Federal court by the Montana Medical Association, the Montana Nurses Association and a coalition of in-state health care providers. Molloy largely sided with plaintiffs against an effort by Attorney General Austin Knudsen to dismiss the case, but he did reject the plaintiffs’ assertions about the rights of employees and patients to a “clean and healthful environment” in doctors’ offices. As far as that article of the Montana Constitution goes, Molloy wrote, “the legislative history and text of the provision indicates that it applies exclusively to the natural environment.”

Both lawsuits are focused on the legality of making vaccine status a protected class like race or gender under the Montana Human Rights Act. But taken together, the orders issued by Regier and Molloy open a peripheral debate about the “clean and healthful environment” right, one of the hallmark lines to emerge from Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention. 

In the 1990s, environmentalists successfully argued the constitutional right to a “clean and healthful” environment outweighed mining interests that could have threatened the headwaters of the Blackfoot River. Now, Netzer and the healthcare associations have picked it up, arguing that the same right holds for their employees, clients and patients in a world beset by a pandemic that has claimed more than 3,000 lives in Montana.

The argument is unlikely to be aired further in either case. Molloy found it dead on arrival, and, while Regier agreed that attorney Donald Netzer is entitled to a “clean and healthful environment” inside his firm’s office, she added that it’s “an impossibility for that right to depend solely on a person’s vaccination status.” 

It’s also unlikely that the debate over whether the Montana Constitution’s environmental protections end at a line of weather-stripping will slip by without prompting someone to take another look.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“I urge each of you to review the news reports and bear security issues closely in mind during times when you and your clients have business in the courthouse. It is critical that you take a personal interest in your own safety and the safety of your clients, your colleagues, court personnel and judges.”

Cascade County District  Judge John Parker, in a Feb. 1 memo to the Cascade County Bar Association. The comments reference “recent documented threats of violence” made by Jordan “J.D.” Hall, publisher of the far-right website Montana Daily Gazette, and a defendant in a libel case filed by Adrian Jawort, a transgender woman who lobbied during the last legislative session.

Last week, Jawort’s attorneys filed a motion for sanctions against Hall for “frequently and intentionally” using “violent imagery in public attacks on Plaintiff, her attorneys, and the Court.” Judge Elizabeth Best has not ruled on the motion. Meanwhile, Hall and his attorney have asked the state Supreme Court to intervene in the case.

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — This episode of New York Times’ The Daily podcast features a family from Shepherd to help illustrate financial pinch points for agricultural producers that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including consolidation in the meat-packing industry. 

Mara Silvers — I’ve said this before, but The Atlantic’s Ed Yong has a singular way of distilling pandemic news into gripping, memorable stories. Take this new profile of Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago, for example. Despite the geographic difference, it helped me better understand exactly why COVID-19 is unsustainable for Montana’s hospital system. 

Alex Sakariassen — High Country News tends to be a solid source for wide-angle looks at issues impacting the entire West. Recently, the publication hit on the seemingly insurmountable financial hurdle federal agencies are facing in cleaning up abandoned mines — and why it’s a particularly serious problem for tribal communities throughout the region.

Eric Dietrich — The Flathead Beacon used public records requests to produce a comprehensive story on the library board politics behind the saga that has spurred mass staff resignations at Flathead County’s ImagineIF public library system. The situation involves pay cuts, a book banning fight, and the board hiring a director who doesn’t hold the master’s degree required by state accreditation standards — and the Beacon’s coverage has been essential throughout.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.