By David Crisp/Last Best News
One hundred years ago this summer in Butte, labor organizer Frank Little was, as his tombstone reminds us, “slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men.” So it was fitting that the Enemy of the People gathered last weekend in Butte to organize and inspire each other.
The Butte Press Club, founded 26 years before Little’s fatal encounter with a railroad trestle, is noted primarily for a modest scholarship and an immodest consumption of alcohol. But this year’s meeting took a sober turn as speaker Courtney Lowery Cowgill delivered a clear message to Montana journalists struggling to hold on to readers in an era of technological change and government hostility to the press: Give readers a “news-tritional” diet that includes plenty of vegetables.
Cowgill teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism and runs a farm with her husband, Jacob. She also edits the university’s Community and Legislative News Service, which provides free coverage of legislative sessions for Last Best News and other news outlets. The service reports the news with a simple motto, she told Press Club members: “We’re not going to dumb it down, and we’re not going to tart it up.”
That can make the legislative reports sometimes seem dry, she acknowledged, but it also means that the service skirts overblown controversies like bans on yoga pants while drilling down, for example, on an attempt to defund environmental studies at UM. In the hurly-burly of legislative maneuvering, such critical stories might be missed if students could not call on Capitol veterans like Chuck Johnson, Cowgill said.
Johnson, a longtime Helena reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, Lee Enterprises and now the Bozeman Chronicle, was honored at last week’s meeting with a certificate and a trophy telephone, complete with coiled cord, recognizing his many years of coverage. A letter from Mike Dennison, who covered the Capitol with Johnson until both were laid off by Lee Enterprises in 2015, included a long but far from comprehensive list of the many reporters Johnson has mentored over the years.
If the key to media survival in the internet age is thorough and disinterested reporting, then Johnson is the poster boy. In the quarter century I’ve known Chuck, including a night drinking beer on his back deck, I’ve never detected a corpuscle of political bias.
But there aren’t enough Chuck Johnsons in the world to counter the political assault on reality that rages these days in today’s wildly partisan government. Cowgill may not have the right recipe for fixing that problem, but she has a tight perspective on the ingredients.
Cowgill, a graduate of Dutton High School, grew up with no intention to stay down on the farm.
“Journalism was for me more than a career choice,” she said. “Journalism was my ticket. What I didn’t realize was that journalism was a roundtrip ticket.”
She covered a legislative session, then landed a job with the Associated Press, but after working as a night supervisor in Omaha, Neb., with nobody to supervise and layoffs on the way, she was ready to move to Missoula to edit NewWest, an online news site that was the brainchild of Jonathan Weber.
“We had a very short but exciting life,” she said. She saw the website as a “beacon of hope for Journalism 2.0,” but the site made the error she now preaches against: too little investment in bread and butter journalism.
“We grew too big too fast,” she said. “We took on too much.” The site is now owned by August Publications, which runs it as what Cowgill calls a “content farm.”
Cowgill now also manages MediaShift, a media and technology publication, but she acknowledged that she hasn’t figured out a business model for media in the internet age. Given her experiences with NewWest, she said, she might be the wrong person to ask.
But she remains convinced that the answer is not more sizzle and less steak. Just as the farm she and her husband run concentrates on quality produce, journalists need to concentrate on solid news, she said.
“In this era of fake food and fake news,” she said, “people are asking for something they can trust.” People are looking for “holy shit” stories that will stick in their memories long after fancy designs and viral Tweets are forgotten.
“People like vegetables, and people like real news,” she said.
It was a welcome message to a room full of journalists, and it reverberated in my brain the next day as my wife and I toured Butte’s World Museum of Mining. We saw the memorial remembering the 3,000 miners killed working in Butte’s mines, not to mention the thousands more who succumbed to silicosis and other maladies of mining. We put on hard hats with lamps and went underground to the edge of where miners labored in 10,000 miles of tunnels and shafts in stifling heat and toxic dust.
The worst underground disaster, the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster of June 8, 1917, killed 168 people and brought Little, an Industrial Workers of the World organizer, to Butte. He was lynched by six masked men—never identified, never prosecuted—on Aug. 1, 1917.
By some accounts, Little’s death marked the beginning of the end for organized labor in the United States. But the mine operator, the Anaconda Co., flourished for another half a century, dominating not only Montana’s economy but also the state government and the newspaper business.
At no time in history did Montana have a greater need for solid, nutrient-rich journalism. No time, perhaps, except for now.
David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and journalism professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.