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Introducing Mountain Journal: A New Voice for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

A Conversation Between MoJo's Board of Directors and Founder Todd Wilkinson

Mountain Journal board members Mike Clark, Lisa Diekmann, Paula Beswick and Rick Reese
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has never had a journalistic platform devoted entirely to knitting together its regional identity which sprawls across the borders of three western states. Now it does.

On behalf of the board of Mountain Journal, we want to welcome you. Mountain Journal will explore a confluence as expressed through the converging influences of Greater Yellowstone’s landscape and natural environment, politics, lifeways and art. Wildlife diversity and the abundance of large, free-roaming native species are what sets Greater Yellowstone apart, making it a bellwether not merely for the rest of the West but the world.

Let us repeat this point again: Greater Yellowstone is unique in that it still has its full complement of species (large and small) that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent. This fact should stop you in your tracks. It is what makes the region an international marvel. The presence of wildlife here, from grizzly bears and wolves to a suite of other large charismatic megafauna, are what makes Greater Yellowstone a miracle in our modern increasingly-crowded human world. There are plenty of spectacular places to live, do business, recreate and enjoy sunsets, but none in America that has the caliber of Greater Yellowstone's wildlife as a backdrop.  And, since most of it is comprised of federal public land, most of it belongs to you.

Mountain Journal is an experiment. It tests the willingness of people who care about Greater Yellowstone to support journalism that offers a concentrated, thoughtful examination of the region.

Journalist Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal, has usually been the person conducting interviews but the board wanted to share his philosophy with you, so what follows is our conversation that will provide insight into our focus.

Many of you already are familiar with Wilkinson’s award-winning work. Making his home in the region for more than 30 years yet working on environmental assignments that have taken him around the world, he is probably the best-known of Greater Yellowstone’s environmental journalists. We believe his answers articulate the importance of public-interest journalist and why we hope you will support it.

MIKE CLARK: Let’s start with why—why Mountain Journal now?

TODD WILKINSON: There is a great deal of collective angst in our country today.  We all feel it, and it doesn’t matter what one’s personal ideology is. The media is under attack, environmental laws are under attack, science is under attack, political institutions are under attack, the civil essence of America holding us together seems as if it is under assault. In my travels around Greater Yellowstone, I’ve encountered not hatred toward each other but an overwhelming yearning people have for coming together around shared values.  They want a center of gravity.

Greater Yellowstone has a special kind of magnetic pull if you love nature and wildness. There is a strong regional identity comprised of rural and cityfolk and millions of people from around the world are drawn to its wild heart, Yellowstone National Park. The public is ready for Mountain Journal and having a publication like it is long overdue. Our content will be a combination of serious and fun. We hope it will give readers the center of gravity they are seeking.

LISA DIEKMANN: What do you see as being the main predominant issues that are not being addressed in the regional media?

WILKINSON:  The problem is not only the threats and the way the media isn’t reporting on them with any depth or sophistication. The problem is the blind spots that affect all people in this region, from citizens up to the highest public land managers and elected officials. I get at this with an essay titled Greater Yellowstone’s "Elephants In The Room".

PAULA BESWICK: Could you elaborate on what these blind spots are?

WILKINSON: Frequently, Greater Yellowstone’s superlatives are mentioned like PR points made in a chamber of commerce brochure, such as the region having grizzlies and wolves, living, breathing geysers or being home to the longest wildlife migrations in the world for pronghorn, mule deer, and elk. But the fact is few people actually grasp what that means or what it takes to sustain them.

RICK REESE:  From your journalist’s perspective, what are the dangers?

: David Hallac, the former science chief in Yellowstone, said we may be living in Greater Yellowstone’s golden age yet he felt as if so many aspects of what's holding it together are slipping away, incrementally, almost imperceptibly. He said the region is being rapidly fragmented not only by degradation of 1,000 cuts but death by 10,000 scratches. Towering above them all are the twin tsunamis breaking like waves. They are climate change and unprecedented inward population growth. Right now, we have institutions—federal, state, county and local—that arguably seem ill-equipped to deal with the threats. If one wants an excellent primer for all of this, they should read the May 2016 issue of National Geographic written by the renowned Bozeman-based science writer and my good friend who lives across the street from me, David Quammen.

CLARK:  You have a wide, well-established resume, writing for everyone from publications like High Country News earlier in your career to The Christian Science Monitor and more recently contributing to National Geographic's unprecedented coverage of the Greater Yellowstone region.  I’ve heard you describe yourself in passing as “old-school”. What does that mean with how you approach stories?

WILKINSON:  When I started my career as a violent crime reporter with the City News Bureau of Chicago during the mid 1980s, I was trained, as were all of my colleagues, to follow the organization’s cub reporter motto: “if your mother says she loves you, check it out (and provide at least three independent verifiable sources to prove whether it’s true).”  It speaks to the importance of fact-checking, asking sometimes uncomfortable questions, and having sources—the bedrock of old-school journalism.

As great as it is as an ethic, the City News mantra doesn’t get at another aspect of reporting that I’ve come to appreciate even more over the years. And that is scrutinizing the quality of the sources a reporter chooses to use.  Many younger journalists writing about environmental issues take a “he said, she-said” approach, meaning they just seek out two different people with differing opinions to interview, packaging them up in a story and calling it “balanced”. 

DIEKMANN: What’s wrong with that?

WILKINSON: It doesn’t address the veracity or quality of the sources or the validity of what they are saying. Everyone can sling an opinion.  Not all opinions are equal or factual. Our stories will be informed by verifiable facts, not hearsay, and we will highlight what science is telling us. Peer-reviewed science is far from perfect but it is far more informed than those ranting on AM radio. That isn't journalism.

BESWICK:  Why does public-interest journalism matter in a region like Greater Yellowstone and the larger West?

WILKINSON: Politicians in our part of the West have been given a free pass by the media to say or almost do anything they want. One recently bodyslammed a reporter asking a perfectly legitimate question about an issue that has implications for the quality of health care everyone in America receives.

Journalism exists to hold them to account, or point out mistruths. Accusations that there is bias in that just aren’t true. The poor level of discernment in Western media, especially the smaller newspapers, is there for all to see in the quality of the stories being written.

REESE: Who are some of your journalist heroes?

WILKINSON: My list is long but one who comes to mind is an alumni of the City News Bureau of Chicago. The late great syndicated columnist Mike Royko, whom some accused of being “liberal”, was a tenacious critic of the Democratic Machine in Chicago and constantly called out corruption within its system of political patronage. I should add that David Brooks, the current conservative columnist for The New York Times, is also a prominent City News Bureau alum.

CLARK: So what is the media’s role?

WILKINSON: It’s pretty simple: to ask questions, sometimes tough questions that make people feel uncomfortable. Often, these same questions are on the minds of citizens. The media’s job is also to filter out fiction from fact, to provide sources for what it prints. In the case of Mountain Journal’s coverage of Greater Yellowstone, it is to spell out what science actually says, what environmental laws mean and what the impacts of human decisions are on the ground.

CLARK: A quick follow-up: Where does Free Speech fit into the world of alternative facts?

WILKINSON: In the Constitution, the founders of this country, by choice, prioritized the First Amendment over the Second Amendment. Free speech in the First Amendment protects the right of people to speak their minds, even advancing alternative facts, no matter how wacky they are, so long as they aren’t libelous or slanderous. But the First Amendment simultaneously recognizes freedom of the press as being an important check on power. Without a discerning media, power will be abused and the truth distorted by those who have a self-serving motivation to do so. This is a fact of history.

DIEKMANN: So how will you handle commentary?

WILKINSON: We are going to invite thought leaders and responsible people to submit guest essays. Of course, we welcome letters to the editor from readers, including letters that take us to task, so long as they are accurate, civil and related to an issue.

BESWICK: Will you publish any letter to the editor that's submitted?

WILKINSON: Commenters must earn their place on Mountain Journal’s pages by bringing thoughtfulness to the discussion. It's no different from the longstanding policy of major print publications in choosing which letters to the editor appear. The first thing writers must do is use their real names and provide information allowing us to verify their actual identities. If those penning letters to the editor can’t stand behind their words and have their names associated with them, they’ll have no place here. Free speech means nothing if there is no accountability attached to the person expressing an opinion. 

MoJo founder Todd Wilkinson scouting a Greater Yellowstone bison herd as a storm brews above.  Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen
MoJo founder Todd Wilkinson scouting a Greater Yellowstone bison herd as a storm brews above. Photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen
: Mountain Journal is strictly an online publication. Why?

WILKINSON: Look, I’m a tactile person like all of you are. I love real books, magazines and newspapers. I love the old way of holding words in my hands on pages made of paper. But that’s not where or how people 35 and younger get their information. Ask someone who is 35 or younger if they still read a daily newspaper delivered to their doorstep and the response might shock you. At the same time, most older mature readers, whom we want to reach at Mountain Journal, know how to use a computer. If they don’t, then they need to enter the modern age.

CLARK: But will you lose readers by being online only?

WILKINSON: Whether I like it or not, the world is changing. Against my will, I’ve come to recognize the limitations of traditional print media and embrace the opportunity that comes with an online format. Mountain Journal is accessible to anyone in the world and that’s a powerful thing to ponder.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem matters as a touchstone for those who care about wild Earth. We hope our stories will help foster more conversations about Greater Yellowstone across generations and between those who live in the region and those intent on coming here but who really have no idea what its essence is.

DIEKMANN: You also insist that Mountain Journal be free?

WILKINSON: You don’t need a costly subscription to access our stories. All you need is a device. Even if you loathe reading stories on a screen, you can print them off. But nothing is really “free”. While we won’t be subjecting readers to annoying pop-up ads asking them to subscribe or putting our stories behind a paywall, we are taking a gamble.

We are betting that readers and foundations who value public-interest journalism will support us in the same way they support public radio and television. In exchange for giving readers high-value content that matters to their lives and gives them entertainment and inspiration, we are hopeful people will respond. Without reader support, we will not be able to persist.

BESWICK: How can people support Mountain Journal?

WILKINSON: We’re set up as a 501(c)3, a non-profit public-interest journalism entity, which allows readers to make gifts of support as a tax-deduction. Our fiscal agent for the time being is the Craighead Institute. Reader contributions will help us persist, tackle stories in depth, and hopefully enable us to grow. Foundations and individual readers can vote with the wallets for the kind of journalism they expect and want to see.

The second thing readers can do is tell as many friends about us as possible, circulating and “liking” our stories on their Facebook pages and encouraging others to do the same. It only takes 10 seconds of their time. The power of MoJo resides in the fingertips of our readers.

REESE: What kind of content will MoJo be featuring?

: It will be a mix of traditional long-form and investigative stories which have become so rare in traditional media outlets. And we’ll have shorter news pieces and lighter features highlighting great artists, food and drink of the region, books, music and events. My column, The New West, which I’ve written for 30 years, will appear weekly. What excites me most is our stable of regular and guest columnists who are all smart, respected and thoughtful. I would encourage all readers to read the Q & As that MoJo did with its columnists. Of course, need I mention that we have a stellar board of directors?

CLARK: How will MoJo cover politics?

WILKINSON: Mountain Journal, like any traditional media enterprise, certainly won’t be promoting political parties, candidates, or political agendas. If anything, we’ll be subjecting both parties to greater scrutiny than they are currently receiving from most media outlets in the region. For readers who aren't familiar, Republicans control the legislatures in all three of the states comprising Greater Yellowstone, they have two of the three governorships and the vast majority of the senators and representatives in Congress. That's not a biased observation; it's a fact.

DIEKMANN: You’ve spoken about the sadness you feel in watching the decline of local and national journalism.

WILKINSON: It is sad and disconcerting. The writing is on the wall for a lot of traditional newspapers and magazines. The print advertising model that kept them in business is no longer sustainable. Page counts are going down, content getting thinner and thinner. I don’t like it at all but it’s the reality. The size of reporting staffs at large newspapers and magazines has been shrinking along with news holes. The age of reporters is getting younger and younger. While having youth in the ranks is important, those in their 20s just don’t possess the institutional knowledge about how agencies operate nor do they always have a full understanding of the on-the-ground history that came before them. What they lack is perspective.

BESWICK: What’s the consequence of that?

WILKINSON: Having fewer discerning veteran journalists asking tough questions has resulted in a withering of the watchdog role media is supposed to play. Filling the vacuum,  a proliferation of blogger sites which lack professional journalism standards—for example fact-checking— and it has created an opening for fake news, hidden agendas going unchallenged and a new age of propaganda to thrive.

REESE: Is it a coincidence that Mountain Journal is debuting during the Trump Administration?

WILKINSON: Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Everyone has their own assessment of him but so, too, were there varying assessments of Barack Obama. I wish Mountain Journal had existed during the Obama Administration.  When a person makes the decision to run for public office, and especially if you win, you ought to expect public scrutiny by the media whether you are a Democrat or Republican. It comes with the territory. Where Mountain Journal is concerned, the Trump Administration and other entities, including Congress, governors, state legislatures, and local government will receive greatest scrutiny in areas of science, policies pertaining to public lands, climate change, growth and environmental laws, and the wide swath of other issues affecting society.

CLARK: From the experience you’ve accrued, you know a lot of people in the region.

WILKINSON: What I’ve savored most about being a journalist are the conversations I’ve had with a wide range of people from all walks of life who each have different perspectives of the world. This is a profession where you are always learning.  Maybe what excites me most is getting people I know on all sides of the ecosystem to better know and understand one another.  I have very good friends in Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Cody and the Centennial Valley, for example, who have never met but share much in common. It's remarkable they don't know each other. Yet.  I hope Mountain Journal serves as a conduit.

I want our stories to serve as handholds for more meaningful discussions about Greater Yellowstone’s place in the world. Sometimes, though, people standing on a public stage or doing things that affect society say things that aren’t true and need to be called out on them because if they are not the public comes to believe they are true.

DIEKMANN: You mentioned earlier that some politicians have been given a free pass by the media. What do you mean?

WILKINSON: I have a long, long list of examples and many of these will become fodder for MoJo stories. Here’s one: Before she left office, former Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming signed onto a letter which claimed wolves were devastating “the western way of life”. Some newspapers published the assertion without asking her to show how. In fact, that characterization is a false and gross distortion of reality, unsupported by evidence. Yet, by and large, Lummis was given a free pass to reinforce a myth that wolves are destroying agriculture and wildlife in the West. It’s simply not true. Look, I am personally sympathetic to the struggles that mom and pop ranchers face but it’s just not true that wolves and grizzly bears are major threats to their survival. Let’s look at the real issues and have a discussion about what it takes to keep them on the land.

BESWICK: Any other examples?

WILKINSON: I don't mean to pick on Republicans because there is just as much hypocrisy among Democrats. But another example of people in power creating false narratives is how Lummis’s successor, Liz Cheney, claims the significant body of evidence linking coal and climate change is based on “junk science.” Wyoming is the largest coal-producing state by a wide margin in America. Few media outlets in the region called Cheney out for her absence of credible sources in making the claim. Nor did reporters use it as an opportunity to remind readers what the real body of scientific evidence is, as outlined by the National Academy of Sciences, the most respected, independent scientific body in the world. Even the U.S. military has identified climate change as a serious risk to our long-term national security. By not holding Congresswoman Cheney to account for her false statements, the media is complicit in perpetuating a myth.

REESE: Why do you think they do that?

WILKINSON: I am as interested in finding answers to that question as you are. Why Congresswomen Lummis and Cheney couldn’t just state the facts about wolves and climate change and instead choose to use them as wedge issues is worthy of exploration.

CLARK: What is the role of money in politics?

WILKINSON: No one party obviously has a monopoly on virtue or vice. Great minds far smarter than me have noted how the issue of “dark money” in American politics has become a more serious problem, and potentially corrupting force, in the wake of the Citizens United decision. It’s extremely difficult to trace the origin of monies from lobbyists and others flowing into campaigns. It’s a little like the phenomenon of anonymous commentary being fraught with hidden agendas. Mountain Journal will try to bring greater transparency to important issues and decisions shaping the future of the Greater Yellowstone region and the larger West.
About Mike Clark, Lisa Diekmann, Paula Beswick and Rick Reese

Mike Clark, Lisa Diekmann, Paula Beswick and Rick Reese sit on the board of directors for Mountain Journal.
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