IN THIS ISSUE:
This is the place where decisions are made that affect you, a citizen of Montana.
This is the place where decisions are made about what you will pay in taxes and how the taxes you pay will be divided among areas like education, roads and welfare.
This is the place where decisions are made about things close to your heart, like abortion and clean water and hunting.
This is the Montana State Capitol, the building that houses the governors office, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Every two years, legislators from every nook and cranny of the state gather here in ornate, high-ceilinged rooms to propose, amend and vote on bills.
Journalists from around the state also converge on the Capitol during the legislative session. Their task is a difficult one: They must become intimately familiar with the legislative process so that they can accurately and intelligibly convey to their readers what is happening in Helena.
Filling the gap
The Community News Service, a project of UMs School of Journalism, aims to fill that gap.
For the past three sessions, the news service has sent a graduate journalism student to Helena to cover the Legislature. Articles written by the student reporter are distributed to the Montana Newspaper Associations member newspapers.
Its a way to give students experience they wouldnt get otherwise and to give papers coverage they wouldnt get otherwise, says Dennis Swibold, UM journalism associate professor and director of the Community News Service. My only regret is that we dont have more students up there doing it, he says.
Students who sign up for the fall CNS course profile statewide congressional races and ballot issues.
One student is selected from that class to cover the spring assembly of the Legislature. In non-election years, students may cover special issues like agriculture and welfare reform.
CNS articles run in weekly papers from Eureka to Glendive and from Bigfork to Billings. In the past, such papers typically would have had to rely on local legislators for news about House and Senate proceedings.
Learning the ropes
I felt like a scared puppy, Britton says. That first week it was overwhelming because I knew no one. I didnt know the rules.
CNS reporters face unique challenges. Britton had to learn how the Legislature functions. She had to familiarize herself with tough issues. She had to write about them in a fair, accurate and engaging manner. And because of weekly newspapers schedules, she had to write for an audience that wouldnt see her stories for another week.
Britton handled the latter challenge by focusing more on overall issues and themes than on individual decisions.
Covering the Legislature requires a talent for making often-dull subjects interesting, Swibold says.
Writing about politics and the process can put people to sleep if youre not careful, he says. The trick for the reporter is to make sure the connection is made for the reader (between the issues and their lives). The reporting has to focus on the people on the ground.
Britton turned out an average of two stories per week for the weekly papers plus articles written exclusively for UMs student newspaper, the Kaimin and for individual weeklies that requested special coverage.
For nearly four months, she arrived at the Capitol at 7:30 a.m. each weekday and many Saturdays. Hauling notebooks and a laptop computer with her everywhere she went, she spent the day watching the action on the House and Senate floors, sitting in on committee meetings, interviewing individual lawmakers and listening to the buzz in the hallways.
When it came time to file her stories, Britton headed over to the Montana Newspaper Association office on Last Chance Gulch. MNA provides Community News Service reporters with office space and use of a computer, as well as a $2,000 fellowship to cover an apartment and telephone costs. In exchange, MNAs members get strong statehouse coverage.
It is a really valuable service to those newspapers that take advantage of it, says Jim Fall, MNA executive director. It enables a broader base of citizenry to have a firsthand report on whats going on at the Legislature.
Another benefit to the state is getting an entry-level journalist who is well-versed in covering politics.
Erin Billings, now a reporter for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena, was the CNS reporter in the 1995 legislative session.
It certainly helped me get where I am now, Billings says. I dont think I would be working (here) if I hadnt had that experience.
-- Patia Stephens