Credit: Illustration by Melissa McFarlin

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 26-30. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP editors’ and reporters’ looks back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Nick Ehli’s turn.

An impetus for Montana Free Press’ MTFP Local project came in the summer of 2021 while I was guiding a week-long journalism camp for high school students at Montana State University.

MTFP founder John Adams agreed to travel to Bozeman to meet with the students one morning, and, following that discussion, one of the students posed a question: If we write something, will MTFP publish it? Sure, John offered, as long as it’s well done. Go home and write something interesting about your communities.

The students were excited about the prospect of landing their first published article, but only one took up John’s challenge. Hank Jagodzinski, a student at Billings Central Catholic High, wrote about rising housing prices in his hometown, and his story was one of the most read on the MTFP website that month. 

It was certainly wonderful to see a budding journalist get a chance to write for a statewide audience, but Hank’s readers didn’t know the backstory. It wasn’t a gimmick driving all that web traffic. Rather, those readers confirmed what John and MTFP had been hypothesizing: People want to read in-depth stories about where they live, the more the better.

Dylan Moore and Kevin Wheeler
Dylan Moore and Kevin Wheeler pose outside of the mill home they purchased in Bonner last year. Credit: Ashley Nerbovig / MTFP

Flash forward to this past spring, and the MTFP Local project got its start, focusing coverage on Billings, Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls and Missoula with a cohort of freelance journalists that has grown markedly in the months since. We’ve published dozens of stories under the MTFP Local banner during 2022, and, for the most part, those stories were written by journalists who live and work in the communities they report on.

More than a dozen tents and several campers make up what First United Methodist Church in downtown Great Falls treats as an “emergency shelter.” Credit: Zachary Schermele / MTFP

Not surprisingly, articles about housing-related issues were prominent, from Ashley Nerbovig’s story in March about historic mill homes in Bonner to a story by Nathan Boddy in November about residents in Hamilton rallying against a new development in that town. In between, veteran Montana journalist Erin Everett wrote about newcomers flocking to Anaconda, and college student Zach Schermele wrote about a homeless encampment at a church in Great Falls. There were many others.

Peggy Lehman, left, and Kris Kruid pose near the Gallatin River recently. The two are members of the group, Protect the Gallatin River, that opposes the planned resort. Credit: Frank Eltman

One of our goals for MTFP Local is to highlight coverage that focuses on solutions rather than just problems. That commitment brought about stories like a project to expand housing for veterans in Missoula by Carly Graf and another about how Montana ski areas are adapting to the climate crisis by Gabe Barnard. It’s an important brand of journalism we hope you’ve appreciated.

Of note during the local project’s first year was work by two of our more frequent contributors. From Missoula, Cameron Evans wrote often about the environment, including articles about efforts to limit fire danger in the Bitterroot and how rehabbing dams in the Rattlesnake may protect native trout. From Bozeman, retired Associated Press editor Frank Eltman could be counted on for any variety of stories, from glamping on the Gallatin to the restoration of a historic downtown bank. We’ve been fortunate to feature their work.

One of our newest freelancers, Victoria Eavis, wrote one of the local project’s most-read stories of 2022 about a Bozeman couple’s squabble with the city over water rights

Lone Peak and Big Sky Resort as seen from Beehive Basin in southwest Montana. Credit: Jackson Rohleder / MTFP

It’s also been a pleasure to publish several arts-related stories that might not otherwise have found a home, including some wonderful articles by Erika Fredrickson in Missoula and Anna Paige in Billings. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage these first months of the local project. It’s been a pleasure to bring you these stories about the places we call home.