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We spend a significant portion of each workday thinking about how we can better serve the public’s news and information needs. One of the tools we use to ascertain those needs is website analytics. 

Last fall, the analytics on a story written by Billings Central Catholic High School sophomore Hank Jagodzinski made us take notice. Hank, whom I’d met the previous summer at a high school journalism camp at Montana State University, explored the causes behind the steep rise in housing prices in Billings and wrote about it for Montana Free Press

Hank’s story was one of our most-read stories that month, and when we looked more closely at the data, we weren’t surprised to see that a significant portion of the traffic on that article was from folks located in and around the Billings area. To us, that confirmed what we already believed to be true: People want to read in-depth news stories about what’s happening in their communities. 

Over the past six months, we’ve been working on a plan to do more of that kind of reporting more consistently. Our goal is to apply our brand of thoughtful, deeply reported journalism to stories that impact people close to home. 

We tapped former Bozeman Daily Chronicle editor — and Hank’s summer journalism camp instructor — Nick Ehli to head the project, which we’re calling MTFP Local. Here’s a letter from Nick about this new and exciting project. I hope you’ll share it with your friends and family and help us spread the word. 

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Montana Free Press will soon launch MTFP Local, aimed at enhancing news coverage in Montana communities, and we’re looking for journalists to join in.

Since its inception, MTFP reporters and editors have worked to deliver in-depth coverage of what’s happening in our state, and we’ve built a reputation for producing high-quality, trustworthy content. This new venture will expand on the kind of journalism you’ve come to expect from MTFP.

MTFP Local will — at least initially — focus on the communities of Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula, but we also understand that news happens throughout our state in towns big and small. So, if you’re a Montana journalist anywhere in the state and think you have an interesting story to share, we’d love to hear from you.

The intent of MTFP Local is not to replace the content you may already be reading from existing media sources in those cities. Our hope, rather, is to enhance that coverage, and we plan to publish at least a couple of these locally focused stories each week.

We’ve already lined up several writers whose bylines you’ve likely seen before, and we look forward to sharing their work soon. If you’re interested in joining our growing list of freelance contributors, we encourage you to submit some information about yourself, as well as a couple of writing samples, with the link included here.

Nick Ehli, MTFP Local Editor

Crunching the Numbers 💻

State officials unveiled an effort to map broadband internet access in Montana at an address-by-address level this week. The mapping project, which has cost the state $750,000, will be used to help steer state grants from a $266 million pool of American Rescue Plan Act money in an effort to encourage private internet providers to fill in gaps where Montanans don’t yet have access to modern connectivity.

Under criteria laid out by the state Legislature last year, Montanans are considered “served” under the state broadband program if they have access to low-latency connections that provide 100 megabit-per-second download speeds and 20 Mbps uploads. Since we published our story about the map Monday we’ve heard from several readers who live at addresses listed as “served,” but who are skeptical their connections truly meet that standard. (State officials acknowledge their map isn’t perfect, and note that internet speed tests can be skewed by factors like old computers or flaky home Wi-Fi connections.)

Even so, that feedback made us curious about the reliability of the data informing the state broadband map — which, again, is being used to help allocate more than a quarter-billion dollars.

If you share that curiosity, we’ve set up a page on our website where you can deploy a commonly used speed test and compare its results to what the state has mapped for your address. If you’re so inclined, we’ve also added a form at that link where you can deliver any comments on your results to our newsroom.

Depending on how much response we get (and how interesting the comments are) we’ll report back in this space next week.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Character Study 

The Montana Board of Regents officially bid farewell last month to seven-year member Bob Nystuen. The termed-out regent and retired bank president from Lakeside, who was appointed by former Gov. Steve Bullock in 2015, informed his colleagues during a virtual Jan. 6 meeting that while his tenure on the board was at an end, his willingness to continue serving as a resource for Montana campuses is hardly exhausted.

“My term is up,” Nystuen said, “but I’m not done.”

With the board slated to convene in Dillon next month, the eyes of Montana’s higher education advocates will now turn toward Nystuen’s successor. Gov. Greg Gianforte quietly announced his pick in a Jan. 25 roundup of recent board appointments, naming Lewistown native Jeff Southworth as the latest addition to the body charged with overseeing the Montana University System.

Southworth didn’t return a voicemail seeking comment, but past media coverage and his regent’s bio indicate he hails from the manufacturing side of Montana’s business landscape. After graduating Fergus High School and attending Montana State University, he joined his father’s Lewistown-based structural steel fabrication company, Allied Steel, and now serves as the company’s president. Within the past decade, Southworth has also dabbled in the craft beer and steakhouse scene, working with his sister, Julie Walsh, to convert a historic downtown building into Lewistown’s Big Spring Brewing and Central Feed Grilling Company. He’s also a co-owner of the Calvert Hotel and, on the education front, currently serves on the Lewistown Public Schools Board of Trustees.

Southworth’s connections to Gianforte are as multifaceted as his business interests. Allied Steel is a member of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the creation of high-paying jobs throughout the state. Gianforte co-founded the alliance in 2014, but stepped down from its board in 2017 after his election to the U.S. House. According to state campaign finance records, Southworth donated $1,300 to the 2016 campaign that landed Gianforte in that seat, and later contributed $1,400 to Gianforte’s 2020 gubernatorial campaign. The same records show that four family members sharing Southworth’s Lewistown address also donated at least $1,000 apiece toward Gianforte’s run for the governor’s office.

Montanans will get a clearer picture of what Southworth intends to do with his appointment when he’s formally introduced to the Board of Regents at next month’s meeting in Dillon. But his roots in the Lewistown area and background in the manufacturing industry appear reflective of the governor’s emphasis on workforce development and trade-based education. And Southworth won’t be the only Gianforte-appointed business leader with Bozeman-area ties on the board. He’ll be joining two other Gianforte appointees confirmed by the Legislature last spring: Todd Buchanan, an MSU grad, former one-term regent and Billings investment adviser, and Highwood native Loren Bough, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who currently serves as chair of the Big Sky School District Board of Trustees and vice president of the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️

A group of Montana news outlets, including Montana Free Press, lost a public access fight at the Montana Supreme Court this week. The media organizations filed suit last year after MTFP reporter Mara Silvers was barred from a gathering of Republican lawmakers who were caucusing while their House Judiciary Committee took a break before voting on contentious bills dealing with athletic and medical regulations for transgender Montanans.

House Judiciary Chair Barry Usher told Silvers at the time that he was deliberately limiting how many members of the committee’s Republican majority were in the room at any one time to keep the gathering below a majority quorum and allow for a private discussion.

The Montana Constitution and state law give the public, reporters included, a specific right to observe nearly all deliberations of public bodies in Montana. But a district court judge ruled last summer that those laws didn’t apply to Usher’s meeting because a committee quorum wasn’t present at the gathering.

This week’s 6-1 ruling from the state Supreme Court upheld that decision, saying the gathering was akin to two or three lawmakers huddling to plot strategy before making formal decisions in public. “This is simply how the legislative process works, with members’ individual and collective private forethought informing their conduct during official public deliberations and debate,” Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote for the majority.

The court’s lone dissenter, Justice Laurie McKinnon, criticized the ruling as a blow to the public’s right to observe the workings of its government. 

“History reveals secret legislative deliberations are exactly what our constitutional right to know and the constitutional requirement of open legislative proceedings was designed to prevent,” she wrote. 

“Accusations against me by the media were proven wrong and common sense prevailed in court,” Usher said in a brief statement applauding the ruling.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“I urge each of you to review the news reports and bear security issues closely in mind “The ethical educator: Demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion, and respects human diversity.”

A new line added this week to the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics, replacing previous language positing that an ethical educator “understands and respects diversity.” The change prompted fierce backlash at a Wednesday meeting of the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council, which has authority over the document, as critics debated varying definitions of the word “equity” during the public discussion. Despite pointed opposition from Gov. Greg Gianforte and state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, the council approved the new language, prompting Gianforte to call on the Montana Board of Public Education to “right this politically motivated wrong.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — This story about the National Resource Conservation Service’s snowpack data is fascinating for a couple of reasons. In a practical sense, it helps explain why current percentage-of-normal snow data “feels” optimistic for the amount of snow we’ve received so far this winter in Montana. And in a larger sense, it touches on one of the tricky realities of climate change perception: how we tend to rely on immediate reference points to determine what’s “normal,” rather than the longer timescales that better illustrate the degree to which the climate has changed. 

Mara Silvers — For all its general awfulness, the pandemic has hit every workforce in subtle and unique ways. This piece from WyoFile takes a broad and personal view of how public school teachers are working through the pandemic. Spoiler: Some of them are stepping away from their careers altogether.

Alex Sakariassen — There’s been a lot of media buzz recently about a Tennessee county board of education’s decision to remove the Holocaust memoir Maus from its middle school curriculum. But the most illuminating story I’ve read so far was a lengthy Guardian interview with Maus author Art Spiegelman, who reflected on past dust-ups over his work and his broader views on free speech.

Eric Dietrich — Construction industry supply chain shortages have gotten so severe that even the This Old House people, more typically seen explaining how to paint trim and swap out toilets, are doing panel discussions on the topic.  

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.