Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Big Money

Executive pay makes an interesting story, especially when a company is in trouble. But as you discovered on your Internet hunt, coming up with a figure isn't so easy. That's because bottom line depends on what you decide to include as compensation.

Travis Poling, a business reporter for San Antonio’s Express-News, offers this formula for assessing executive compensation:

Salary + Bonuses + LTIP (long-term investment payouts) + Other Annual compensation + All Other Compensation + Value Realized from Stock Options (profits from company stock CEO's have actuall sold ove the past year.)

You’ll find this information on a report public companies file annually called a “Proxy Statement.” The SEC calls it DEF-14A. The report is usually filed before a company’s annual shareholder’s meeting, and it includes tables with information you can plug into Poling’s formula.

Using Poling's forumla, here’s what I learned about Mary Junck compensation for the latest available year (2004):

Salary -- $ 750,000
Bonus -- $1,080,000
Other-- $ 242,800
Stock Options Sold -- $ 863,900
Total -- $2,261,700

That’s a fair number, though it doesn’t include the value of all Lee stock she’s holds but has yet to sell.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Fifteen Questions

Congratulations. You've just been hired as second banana on the Missoulian's business desk. It's your first day on the job, and your boss has just told you that Lee Enterprises, the Missoulian's owner, has announced that it is moving its corporate headquarters from Davenport, Iowa, to Missoula. (Not really. It's just an exercise in backgrounding a business.)

Your boss will contact Lee officials in Iowa to do the main story on the reasons for the move and the consequences for Missoula.

Your job is gather information for a sidebar, perhaps a big graphic. You've got the rest of this class period to provide that information in the form of a comment to the blog. You may use any sources short of calling Lee or its employees. Cite your sources. Be sure they're authoritative.

The questions:
  • How many newspapers does Lee Enterprises own? What's Lee's total daily circulation?
  • What's its biggest paper? What's its circulation? How has the paper itself been in the news lately?
  • Who are Lee's top corporate officials?
  • How much was its top official paid in 2004?
  • What's Lee's stock selling for today?
  • How much revenue did the company report on its most recent annual report?
  • Lee is not forecasting normal earnings over the next few years. Why?
  • How old is the company? Who is its founder? How did its connection to Montana come about?
  • Are there any independent business analyst who follow Lee? Name a couple.
  • What's the most unusual fact you've found to spice up the profile?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

(Psst! Wanna Cover Business?)

OK, you might not want to admit it in front of the class, but if you’ve got a secret jones to be a business reporter, you could go places. Really. I’m serious. Punch “business reporter” into and see what I mean.

There’s even a support group for odd ducks like you who don't twitch at the sight of numerals, who fairly tingle at the thought of poking though a corporate exec's compensation package or thumbing through a charity's tax return.

And there's no end to the help you can find on this beat.

Here’s a great interview with a national business reporter who's made a career of asking the stupidest questions he can think of about the economy. “What’s a stock?”

Face it, most of us are fairly clueless about the economy, so if you've got a yen to explain stuff that people really don't understand, think business journalism.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Make Readers See

It's not easy getting busy people to read long news stories.

So make it worth their time.

Make readers join you in solving a mystery, in sharing a vicitim's pain, in exposing an outrage, in puzzling over what makes the powerful tick. Make them wonder if there isn't a better way to solve problems that threaten their safety, lighten their wallets or disturb their peace.

You show rather than tell. Make readers sense the mystery, feel the outrage, smell the danger, hear the disturbance, sting from loss.

It's not easy to write pictures into readers heads. It take just the right words, and less is usually more. It takes pacing (short sentences, like short breaths, shows tension) and a deft hand on the zoom lens (zoom in to focus closely on an individual example; zoom out to show a problem's widespread effect). It takes an ear for the sounds of words that click together to make an emotional effect.

You'll probably never do it well unless you read journalists who do it well, journalists like Jim Sheeler, Julia Keller, Kim Murphy, Walt Bogdanich, Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland.

They'll make it worth your time.

Got a great news writer you'd like others to read?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Profiles: Portraits in Words

Profiles can round out good beat coverage. But doing them well takes time and an artist's eye for detail.

You also need a good reason -- a news peg -- to do them. Good profile subjects are often people wielding great power or those about to wield it. Sometimes they're about quiet people doing remarkable things behind-the-scenes. Other times, they're about ordinary people whose stories illuminate great public problems.

Good profiles put their subjects in the context of the news and reveal their passions or motives. The best ones look at their subjects from lots of perspectives and aren't shy about focusing on flaws as well as strengths.

Poor profiles are superficial, vague and distant. The worst are hero-worshipping puff pieces that seem as if the subject paid the reporter to write them. Nobody's perfect, as they say. And in public affairs, it's a rare leader who climbs to prominence without making enemies as well as friends. Complexity is what makes people truly interesting, anyway. Capturing it requires intelligence and flair -- and lots of sources.

Who in Missoula would make a timely subject for a profile? Why?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ray Ring and the Meaning of Journalism

Ray Ring struck the right notes on many things Wednesday, but I hope you caught his smart explanation of the different levels of reporting. Most of what we've done so far qualifies as what he called "template" journalism -- you know, deadline reporting about incidents or events in which we scramble to get perspective on what the news means and whom it might affect. Write enough of these and it's easy to see the formula.

Breaking that mold means digging for truth among competing versions, finding the reality behind the rhetoric, exposing problems that aren't apprarent. That's analysis or interpretation, and if you're going to do it credibly -- with confidence and authority -- you have do a ton of reporting. The writing has to be better too, because in most cases you'll be telling stories, not merely summarizing the news and listing facts to support your lead. Now's the time to use what you've soaked up in all those lit classes about storytelling, about developing characters, setting the mood, and building tension. Such stories live and die on the telling details you find.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Missoula City Election Results

For Mayor
X John Engen, 7,458, 60%*
Lou Ann Crowley, 4775, 39%

Ward 1
X Dave Strohmaier, 1,385, 61%
Cass Chinske, 879, 39%

Ward 2
X John Hendrickson, 834, 51%
John Couch, 798, 48.5%

Ward 3
X Bob Jaffe
, 1,228, 50.5%
Lee Clemmensen, 1,194, 49%

Ward 4
X Jon Wilkins, 1,126, 52%
Tim Lovely, 1,014, 47%

Ward 5
X Dick Haines
, 1,266, 65%
Mark Fitzgerald, 678, 35%

Ward 6
X Marilyn Marler
, 790, 60%
Write-in, 354, 27%
Jeffrey-James Halvorson, 181, 14%

Fire Dept. Bond Issue
X For, 8,132, 70%
Against, 3,443, 30%

Voter Turnout
12,881 votes cast, 33%

*All results are unofficial. Percentages may not equal 100 percent due to rounding.

Floyd's Write-in Campaign Falls Short


Marilyn Marler, a noxious weed specialist who knocked off Councilman Clayton Floyd Jr. in the Ward 6 City Council election Tuesday, said she hopes her victory will help restore civility to council politics.

“It’s appalling how much fighting and bullying has gone on in the council the past few years,” Marler said. “I’m known for being a people person and diplomat. My opponent has been neither for the past four years and that was the difference.”

Marler, who works for both the University of Montana and the City of Missoula as noxious weed specialist, received 790 votes, almost 60 percent of the total. Write-in candidates, led by Floyd, received 354 votes.

Floyd filed as a write-in candidate for re-election after an unsuccessful mayoral campaign that ended with his fourth place finish in the Sept. 13 primary.

Also on Tuesday's ballot in Ward 6 was Jeffrey-James Halvorson, who stopped campaigning after Floyd’s announcement and urged his supporters to vote for Floyd. However, Halvorson's name remained on the ballot and he received 181 votes Tuesday.

Floyd could not be reached for comment late Tuesday but said earlier in the day that the race would come down to whether residents thought Missoula had been on the right track for the past four years.

Marler said her appointment was indicative of voters' discontent and Ward 6's desire for change and better communication.

Ex-legislator Wins Ward 5 Council Race


Former Republican lawmaker Dick Haines soundly defeated Missoula newcomer Mark Fitzgerald to capture the Ward 5 seat in Tuesday's Missoula City Council election.

A former state representative and retired U.S. Forest Service engineer, Haines finished the night with 1,266 votes, about 65 percent of those cast. Fitzgerald, manager of the Starbucks on North Reserve, had 678.

Haines, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, campaigned on his frustration with city government, explified by the cost overruns on the citywide project to build new swimming pools and splash decks around Missoula. He said the city needs to halt and re-examine the project.

Fitzgerald said Tuesday he expected a difficult campaign. He signed up to run at the last minute because there was only one candidate in Ward 5. He said he couldn’t believe more people weren't interested.

“I wish I could have won, but I knew it was an uphill battle to begin with,” Fitzgerald said.

Despite his loss Tuesday, Fitzgerald may still have a shot at a seat on the council. Last month's death of Ward 5 Councilman Bob Lovegrove created a vacacy on the council that will have to be filled by appointment.

Fitzgerald said he hasn’t decided whether to pursue the job.

“I’ve considered applying for the position and seeing what I get back,” he said. “But there’s no final decision.”

'Infill' Critic Wilkins Wins in Ward 4


Retired construction work Jon D. Wilkins, a critic of efforts to build more housing in existing Missoula neighborhoods, edged two-time candidate Tim Lovely to take the Missoula City Council seat in Ward 4.

Wilkins garnerd 1,125 votes to 1,014 for Lovely, who lost a race for the same ward two years ago.

“Well, I was surprised it was that close to tell you the truth,” Wilkins said after the results were announced. “I just thought I would beat him by more.”

Lovely, who also lost a legislative race in 2004, was philosophical in defeat.

“I wish the results were different, but you got to accept them for what they are,” Lovely said.

Wilkins cited his involvement in neighborhood issues as the main reason he won.

“I have been fighting for Ward 4 for at least three years,” he said.

Lovely disagreed with Wilkins’ assessment.

“There probably was a lack of information in the hands of voters,” Lovely said. “I think a lot of folks were voting without knowing about the candidates.”

He said he did as much as he could to get his message out but "[t]here’s only so much time in the day.”

Wilkins said his passion for representing his area was an advantage.

“Tim’s an all right guy but I never thought his heart was really in it,” he said. “He didn’t get involved in neighborhood issues until he announced his candidacy.”

One of those issues was how to handle Missoula’s growth. The candidates offered different opinions.

“As for the infill issue in established neighborhoods, he was all for alley houses and I’m all against alley houses,” Wilkins said.

Tuesday's win marked a successful end to the 57-year-old Wilkins’ first campaign for public office. The Great Falls native moved to Missoula in 1978 to work construction but was forced into retirement in 1991 after losing a leg in a work-related accident. He has been the president of the Lewis and Clark Neighborhood Council for three years.

The 53-year-old Lovely, a self-employed contractor, has worked for the local Democratic Party, but he has yet to hold public office.

Lovely said he couldn’t rule out running again.

Jaffe Takes Close Ward 3 Race


Computer consultant Bob Jaffe won a narrow victory Tuesday over retired teacher Lee Clemmensen to claim a Ward 3 seat on Missoula’s City Council.

When all the votes were counted, Jaffe won by 34 of the 2,431 votes cast.

Jaffe attributed his win to a late get-out-the-vote effort that included visits to UM fraternities and sororities and a phone campaign.

He said his moderate stance on neighborhood growth issues resounded with voters, but added that the close vote showed him that the city is still closely divided on the subject.

“I wanted to show that I accept growth and change,” Jaffe said. “But it’s not like I have any huge mandates.”

During the campaign, Jaffe said City Council efforts to prevent new housing in existing neighborhoods, or "infill," were against the “evolution” of neighborhoods. He also endorsed design standards as a better way to preserve Missoula’s neighborhoods.

Jaffe said Tuesday night that he had no immediate plans to push specific legislation when he takes his council seat. His first action as a city councilman, he said, will be to “assess the situation.”

“I’m definitely in a learning stage,” he said. “There’s a huge learning curve and I want to make that learning curve as short as possible.”

Clemmensen could not be reached for comment at press time.

Hendrickson Collects a Victory in Ward 2


Self-employed collectibles dealer John Hendrickson slid past forest products worker John Couch by a slim 36 votes last night to secure the Ward 2 seat on Missoula's City Council.

The 53-year-old Hendrickson, originally from New York, collected 834 votes to Couch's 798. Some 21 percent of the ward's 7, 895 registered voters cast votes.

“It’s been a long road, but I feel good,” Hendrickson said upon hearing the results. “I got my message out. People are dissatisfied … they want to feel part of the process, and I told them I could help.”

Due to the unexpected October resignation of Ward 2 Councilwoman Anne Kazmierczak, Hendrickson will join Don Nicholson in representing the ward starting next Monday. Tuesday's other victorious council candidates will take office in January.

Hendrickson said he has been keeping up on the issues and is ready to jump in.

“I’m not going to be a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I want the city to start planning for infrastructure and growth.”

Hendrickson said his first priority will be to try to stop the so-called "Broadway diet" – the city's effort to narrow West Broadway from four lanes to two – which he opposed during his campaign, saying it was hurting businesses on the street.

“Store owners are losing money, and I’m going to try to go to bat for them,” Hendrickson said.

During his campaign, Hendrickson said that Couch’s plan to make the street more bicycle and pedestrian friendly was not a viable solution for an unsafe road.

Hendrickson also supported plans by Safeway and St. Patrick Hospital to swap property on West Broadway to allow both businesses room for expansion. He said that Safeway is an asset to Missoula, and may relocate if the deal falls through, taking with it a pharmacy that the area’s elderly need.

Couch opposed the swap and is currently part of a group that is suing the city to stop the zoning change.

Couch was with his friends and supporters in the Union Club when the results came in. Although disappointed, Couch said he had a life to fall back on.

“I don’t have to have a contingency plan, I have a good job,” he said. “This was not about employment, this was about representation.”

Couch predicted Hendrickson will take similar stances to those of Ward 2's other representative, Don Nicholson, in supporting private businesses.

During the campaign, Hendrickson described himself as an “independent conservative,” explaining that although he has Republican leanings, he does not vote strictly along party lines.

Missoula Voters Back New Fire Station


Missoula voters gave their fire department a green light Tuesday to expand and update its services to a growing city.

“We’re very excited,” said Missoula Fire Chief Tom Steenberg. “I think the voters realized it’s an important issue.”

The fire station bond issue passed with overwhelming support, garnering over 70 percent of the nearly 11,600 ballots cast. Steenberg praised Missoula voters who recognized the importance of the bond issue and credited the department's strong advertising campaign.

“I think there were a lot of active members of the community who helped us get our message out,” Steenberg said.

The bond issue gives the fire department $5.74 million to construct a new station in the South Hills, demolish and rebuild Fire Station 2 on Mount Avenue, and buy new equipment, including a new fire engine.

A key concern in the campaign was the fire department’s aim to reduce its average response time from 11 to six minutes in the city's rapidly growing southwest corner.

“We’re very pleased that the community realized the importance of response time and the need to grow with the community,” said Jason Diehl, the department’s planning administrator.

The new station, Fire Station 5, will be built in the Linda Vista and Miller Creek area on the south side of town.

Steenberg said that the next step is to draw up plans and advertise for bids.

“We hope to have them go up to bid early next year,” he said. “We’re kind of at the mercy of an architect.”

Strohmaier Thumps Chinske in Ward 1


Dave Strohmaier, a contract historian and political newcomer, won the Ward 1 City Council seat in Tuesday's election, taking more than 60 percent of the vote in his race with real estate agent and former City Councilman Cass Chinske.

The 40-year-old Strohmaier, who also does freelance nature writing, colleced 1,383 votes to Chinske's 879. Chinske, who touted his experience throughout the campaign, also ran unsuccessfully for the same seat in 2001. He represented Ward 1 on the council from 1977 to 1984.

During the campaign, both candidates stressed the importance of securing open space around Missoula to prevent urban sprawl. Both favored building new homes in existing neighborhoods -- or "infill" -- as a way to solve Missoula’s growth problems, though Chinske was more cautious.

They also clashed over the city's efforts to extend sewers into the Rattlesnake. Strohmaier said sewers are necessary to protect Missoula's underground water supply, but Chinske worred that they will allow developers to build too many homes in the area.

Strohmaier attributed his win to his focus on sustaining the community of Missoula as a whole.

“Other candidates, including Chinske, focused on separate, though important, issues." he said. "I unified those issues under one common theme.”

Chinske said he didn’t know why he lost or how Strohmaier’s election will affect council politics. He refused to comment on anything else.

During the campaign, Strohmaier endorsed the proposal by Missoula and five other Montana cities to buy NorthWestern Energy and provide public power to thousands of Montanans as a nonprofit, publicly owned utility.

Chinske said he couldn’t support the plan without more concrete information about how the utility would be run.

Engen Wins Hard-Fought Mayoral Race


City Councilman John Engen, who defeated fellow council member Lou Ann Crowley Tuesday to become Missoula's next mayor, said he hopes to create more affordable housing and pass a new open-space bond issue in 2006.

"My hope is that (my campaign) made sense to people, and that people find me to be reasonable and practical," the 41-year-old businessman said.

Engen won with 60 percent of the vote to Crowley's 39 percent.
He received 7,458 votes to Crowley’s 4,775. Turnout for the election was 33 percent, compared with 27 percent in 2001.

Engen has represented Ward 1 on the Missoula City Council since 2001 and is chairman of its Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee.

He said Tuesday he was optimistic about Missoula's future and his future as mayor.

“It’s good that Missoula is growing, we just need to make sense of it,” said Engen. “We need to make sure we have open space, clean air, clean water and rules people can understand.”

Engen also told Election Night well-wishers of his plan to pass an open space bond in 2006 and build more homes so people can have more comfortable lives.

By contrast, his opponent, a veteran representative from Ward 3, was clearly disappointed in the night's outcome.

“I’m really disappointed for my supporters, because my supporters were really excited to have me be mayor,” Crowley said.

Crowley also said Engen won because he collected large campaign contributions from builders and Realtors.

“He had a lot more money to spend,” she said.

Engen and Crowley differed on several issues during the campaign.

Engen has supported Missoula's leadership in a five-city bid to buy NorthWestern Energy and make it a a nonprofit, publicly owned utility, saying ownership of power distribution would give Montana more control over energy costs. Crowley has been skeptical of the plan, saying there are too many risks and unanswered questions.

Engen is also a proponent of building more housing close to the city center, making transportation less of an issue for Missoula residents. Crowley was generally more skeptical of "infill" development.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Hey, It's Only Money

Now that you've crunched the numbers on Ourtown's budget, you must have a couple of burning questions for Ourtown's budget director. Go ahead, post your best shots, but support those incisive inquiries with facts you've found. Be nice but firm.

Oh, and remember that for class Wednesday, I want you to bring a written proposal for an in-depth project.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Taxing questions

According to a recent Lee State Bureau story, Missoula's property taxes are the highest among the state's seven major cities. When you add up all the mills levied by the city, county, school districts, the university system, the state, etc., Missoula's total comes to about 720.20 mills, about 9 mills more than last year.

Answer the following:
1. If the taxable value on a typical Missoula home is $2,756.89, how much will its owners pay in property taxes this year?

2. In 1992, Swibold paid $1,156.92 in property taxes. For 2005, he will pay $2,083.56. How much have his taxes increased in real percentage terms?

Send your answers as a comment to this blog entry. As always, any pertinent observations on this stuff would be welcome as well.

The answer to Question 2 requires two steps.

1. You know that a dollar buys less each year. That’s called inflation. It happens. So if you hope to be accurate comparing dollar amounts from different years, you have to adjust for inflation. There’s a formula for that, but I prefer using an online inflation calculator provided by America’s official inflation watcher, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It will tell you what a dollar amount from a bygone year would be worth today. Once you find that, you can do a simple calculation to determine the percentage increase.

2. Here’s that formula for that: (New number – Old number) divided by Old number.

Example: A Missoulian will pay about 720 mills this year compared to 711 mills last year. Here’s how you would calculate the percentage increase using the “NOO!” formula:

(720-711) = 9
9 divided by 711 = .0126 or 1.26 percent

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Election Night Extravaganza

Your stories from Tuesday's city election should include the results from your race (Who won and what it might mean), reaction from the winners and losers (Why do they think they won or lost? What issues seemed to resonate with voters?), and some background on the candidates and the issues they ran on. As you talk to your candidates this week, make sure to get a number where you can reach them for responses Tuesday night.

Where can you get results?
The Missoula County Courthouse.

When will results be available?
Polls close at 8 p.m. Counting could be done by 9:30 or 10.

When is your story due?
Midnight. Not a minute later.

How can you prepare?
You can prepare background grafs on your the candidates and their stands on major issues. Top it with the results and reaction.

What surprises should I anticipate?
Laughter, tears, close votes, demands for recounts, breakdowns in vote counting, tight-lipped losers, inebriated winners, low turnout, upsets, etc.

Got any sample election stories, Swidog?
Sure. Try this one. Here's another.

How about a sample ballot?
Demanding, aren't we? Here you go. Enjoy.

Monday, October 24, 2005

City Stories

Need a story from the city beat? There's a forum for the mayoral candidates tonight (Tuesday) at the Crystal Theater. Otherwise, check out the City Council committee meetings this week. Looks to me like the Public Works Committee has the juiciest agenda: a discussion on the city's space needs (think council chambers) and a plan to rebuild sidewalks in some areas of town (controversial if homeowners have to kick in).

You're also free to follow up on some issue that struck your fancy Monday night. (When and how will the council consider replacing Lovegrove?) Other prime prospects include various scheduled forums for City Council candidates this week at several neighborhood councils. If your candidate is debating his foe, cover the debate and make contact. You'll be glad you did. (Check with organizers before you go to make sure the forum is still on.)

Other ideas? Share them with the class.

This just in ...

I hope you've all had a chance to read Saturday's post about tonight's council meeting, but you should know that there's another story on the horizon. Ward 5 Councilman Bob Lovegrove, a former mayor, died Sunday of complications from brain cancer. The mood at tonight's meeting is likely to be somber, and the council's reaction to Lovegrove's death will be news. Among other things, the council will have to decide how to replace Lovegrove.

This week's assignments:

1. Monday's council meeting.
2. A story from the city beat. (Latest deadline is 5 p.m. Friday.)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Power Politics

I know you're finishing your candidate background reports, but spend some time this weekend backgrounding yourself for Monday night's City Council meeting. Check out the agenda online, and read Ginny Merriam's preview in Sunday's Missoulian. Me, I think Monday's meeting will be a test of the council's commitment to Montana Public Power Inc.

It's hard to know which side is right in that debate, but that isn't your worry. Your job is to help readers understand what each side is saying. To do that, get familiar with the most recent news about this. Ginny wrote a story Wednesday about a committee's debate on the very same issue the council will consider Monday. The Lee State Bureau also reported Saturday on Northwestern's latest reaction to the MPPI's latest buyout offer.

Me, I'd read that stuff and write three grafs of background on the MPPI issue before I went to cover Monday night's meeting. Graf 1 would explan in broad terms what MPPI is and what it wants to do. Graf 2 would explain why MPPI thinks it can better serve customers than NorthWestern can. Graf 3 would explain why NorthWestern thinks that is like so totally wack. (<-- Incredibly hip slang for cattle manure.)

If you'll do that, you'll be in a much better position to look for news Monday night instead of trying to figure out what everyone's talking about. By the way, everybody will be tossing around the phrase due diligence as if you should already know what that means. Maybe you should.

Questions? Comments? Humorous observations? World Series tickets for sale?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Happy Hour at the Heron?

C'mon, it wasn't that bad. In fact, most of you nailed the news on council's about-face on what to do with its moldy, old night club. Some brave souls even ventured to write about the surprise fuss over the aquatics project, though you had little, if any, background. Good instincts! That story has a far greater personal and financial implications for your average Missoulian.

Ginny Merriam did a solid job of reporting both angles. In simple, clear prose, she told her readers what happened and what it might mean, and she put the news in context with just enough background. She also gave readers a sense of the debate (the pros and cons) and the captured the frustration some speakers felt. Her story would have made perfect sense to readers familiar with the issues and those seeing them for the first time. The only thing I might have added to her reporting on the swimming pools would have been a response from the mayor to his critics. (Did you catch a whiff of election politics in both issues? The city's critics included two City Council candidates.)

I was especially proud of those you who sat through some of the energy expert's criticism of the cities' bid to buy NorthWestern Energy. As dense as that subject must have seemed, I'll bet you understood the thrust of his main argument: the cheap hydroelectric power the cities' hope to offer customers may not be there.

If anything, I hope Monday night drove home the need to be as prepared as you can be before the meeting and to listen hard, even when it the jargon gets thick. And don't be afraid to grab people to answer your questions.

Questions? Comments? Observations? Bad jokes?

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Blue Heron Blues

It's showtime on the City Beat. We'll cover tonight's City Council meeting for a midnight deadline. Meet at the first-floor conference conference of St. Patrick Hospital (500 W. Broadway) a few minutes before 7 p.m. Get a good seat. Take good notes.

Why are we meeting at a hospital instead of City Hall? Funny you should ask because that oddity looks like the Big News on tonight's agenda.

Here's the deal. Missoula's City Council is essentially homeless, having surrendered its comfortable chambers to Municipal Judge Don Louden, who's court was bursting at the seams. Initially, the council had considered moving the court to a former night club on West Pine Street called the Blue Heron. The council bought the building for $550,000, but when estimates came in for remodeling and cleaning up some asbestos and funky mold, the council balked. Eventually, and with some embarrassment, it decided to sell the Heron and build a new City Hall annex to house a new council chambers. Case closed?

Hardly. Uncomfortable in its awkward settings (where it could remain for two years or more) the council's Public Works Committee voted 6-1 last week to recommend the Blue Heron sale be delayed and the building be remodeled as a temporary home for council meetings and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. The issue is contentious. In fact, the council was soundly criticized for buying the night club in the first place.

What will the city do? You tell me. By midnight, and not a minute later.

Reminder: No class Wednesday. Be working on your candidate background reports, which are due in class -- in writing -- Monday, Oct. 24.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Welcome to City Hall

Contrary to earlier reports, there will be no City Council meeting Monday. Why? It's Columbus Day, a holiday celebrated by city employees but not state workers like me. Hence the confusion.

The upshot? Obviously, you won't be asked to write a preview of Monday's nonexistent meeting, much less cover it. Instead, I'll ask you to dig through the city's Web site and Ginny Merriam's recent beat coverage in the Missoulian and submit a written report proposing three stories from the city beat. For each idea, provide the necessary background and suggest specific sources.

Deadline: Friday, Oct. 7, at 5 p.m.

Don't forget you also owe me a story from your beat this week.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Let's Make a Deal

It was likely to happen. According to today's Missoulian, Laura Hackney's attorney and prosecutors negotiated a plea bargain as the clock wound down toward her scheduled trial for deliberate homicide. My guess is that neither side was absolutely certain of its case. To win a conviction, prosecutors would have had to prove that Hackney "purposely or knowingly" caused her husband's death. Without witnesses or a confession, their proof would have been circumstantial, meaning they would have to depend on indirect evidence to lead a jury to believe that Hackney intended to kill. Hackney argued that the killing wound was an accident, that she pulled the knife only to fend off her drunken, violent husband. In the end, she agreed to plead guilty to negilgent homicide, meaning she caused her husband's death by "failing to act with reasonable care."

The recommended sentence: 15 years in the Montana State Prison women's facility, with 10 years suspended. Prosecutors said they won't quibble if the judge decides that Hackney should spend that time in a community prerelease center rather than prison.

So what do you think? Was justice done? Are plea bargains good things? As you ponder that, remember that you're responsible for producing a story from your beat this week.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Murder, They Wrote

You have a choice of assignments this week:

1. A story from your beat. (Make it a dandy.)


2. A deadline story from the Laura Lynn Hackney murder trial scheduled to begin Wednesday in Missoula District Court, the honorable Judge John Henson presiding. The action begins at 10 a.m. in the Missoula County Courthouse. Follow the crow to one of the big courtrooms.

As an added incentive -- for this week only -- those of you who cover the murder trial will receive a two-for-one grade, which would allow you to wipe out an earlier grade that you'd rather forget.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Your Assignment: A Civil Action

I strolled down to the Clerk of District Court's office today and got a copy of former UM cheerleader Richard Wiesmann personal injury suit against the University of Montana and Mismo Gymnastics. I also snatched copies of UM's and Mismo's initial response to the complaint. I'll make the documents available to you in class, but here's your mission:

Write a story based on the responses from UM and the gym. You can pretend that you wrote a story weeks ago when the lawsuit itself was filed, but remember to include adequate background in the new piece so readers unfamiliar with the story can see what the fuss is about. We'll talk more about this in class tomorrow. Let set the deadline for 5 p.m. Friday.

Monday, September 19, 2005

This week in Public Affairs

The murder trial scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, so I'll come up with another Justice Beat assignment by Tuesday afternoon. Check this space Tuesday afternoon for details. (Don't fret. You'll get a chance to cover parts of an actual murder later.)

Meanwhile, be sure to follow the news about Missoula's mayoral race and the City Council election. We'll be moving to the City Beat at the end of next week, and you'll be doing some reporting on the run-up to the November election. For starters, you should read Ginny Merriam's great profiles on mayoral candidates John Engen, Lou Ann Crowley and Geoff Badenouch.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

'So mom wakes up, goes downstairs ...'

The stories we've written so far have been fairly straightforward, but you can use storytelling devices like scene-setting leads and anecdotal leads with crime stories. The key is digging for telling details. Here are links to examples in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Baltimore Sun.

A couple of potential crime features surfaced during our trip to Justice Court Wednesday. How about a story on the guy with the multiple DUIs, who has somehow avoided Montana's new law that makes the third DUI a felony punishable by prison time? You might even save a life on the highways. It would take some digging through his history (see his case file), interviews with prosecutors (for details of earlier convictions and explanations of the law), and perhaps even a chat with Orzech. In the end you'd explain HOW in the world this could have happened, and HOW stories always lend themselves to narrative storytelling.

The second story idea comes from the guy who pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining a nonresident hunting and fishing license. By itself the story might rate a brief, but interviews with Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials (The chief of FWP's license bureau is Henry Worsech, 444-2663) and nonresident students (you know who they are) might indicate how common practice the practice is. The irony of our guy getting caught only because his ma applied for Washington hunting license in his name not only give this story a twist but seems to imply that it's not hard to get a Montana resident license, otherwise. The ex-football player's story would make a perfect anecdotal lead.

And speaking of crime stories, I urge you to read Kaimin contributor Caitlin Copple's great job of reporting on the UM student accused of participating in the beating of ex-UM basketball player Sam Riddle ("UM student pleads not guilty in attack on Riddle"). What made her work so remarkable is that she went beyond the formal charges and police details. She actually talked to an eyewitness who raised doubts about the "official" version of the crime.

Monday, September 12, 2005

This week on the Justice Beat

We'll be reporting in Judge Karen Orzech's Justice Court Wednesday. You'll need to be in the hallway outside the court (third floor, courthouse annex) no later than 2:15. Your mission? Take notes on the day's criminal cases, and pick a felony to cover. (If there are no felonies, pick the newsiest misdemeanor.) I'll get the paperwork (complaints and affadavits) from the clerk and share them with you. Your stories will be due at midnight Wednesday.

Your other assignment for the week is a story from your beat. The deadline for those is no later than 9 a.m. Friday (earlier if you have breaking news or chose to cover a timely event).

Because we'll be covering police and courts for the next couple of weeks, you might want to check out some of the following Web sites for ideas. The Missoula Police Department is putting its daily public reports on the Web these days, and you'll find some basic info on Missoula County's District Courts at the county site. Missoula's U.S. District Court (federal court) has a decent online offering, too.

In other news, I highly recommend Missoulian reporter Ginny Merriam's series last week on Missoula's mayoral candidates. We'll spend October covering the Missoula City Council and the city election, so make that a part of your daily news reading.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Death and deadlines in New Orleans

Fascinating stories are emerging about what it's like to cover the unprecedented disaster in New Orleans. Reporters, some of them veteran war and disaster correspondents, are struggling to control their emotions as they try to capture the devastation and despair and put it into perspective. The frustrations and the dangers involved in getting the story are taking their toll, as well. You'll find the best of these stories on Romenesko, a must-visit site for minute-by-minute twists in the ongoing debate over journalistic standards and behavior.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Full speed to the Justice Beat

By now each of you should have a working idea for your first beat story. After I give you the green light, hit the streets. The story is due no later than 9 a.m. Friday, Sept. 9 -- earlier if your news is especially perishable. Don't get scooped by the competition.

As a class, we'll dive into the Justice Beat next week. Tristan Scott, the Missoulian's brand new justice reporter, will be in class Wednesday with advice for newbie police reporters. Our own Peter Bulger will also chip in about his early experiences covering Campus Security for the Kaimin. We'll spend most of next four weeks on the Justice Beat, and plans include a Sept. 14 field trip to cover a Justice Court session and opportunies to cover one of three impending murder trials. Meanwhile, check out this tip sheet on Covering the Cops.

By the way, the Times-Picayune is doing some amazing reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Also, check out IRE's list of online resources for covering the disaster.

Monday, August 29, 2005

And we're off!

Welcome to Newzhound and Public Affairs Reporting. Your first assignment, due by 9 a.m. Tuesday, is to write a 100-word intro for the Krepinevich speech and give me your first and second choices for beats you'd like to cover this semester. If you're feeling a bit rusty on the speech story, remember that the lead should reflect the most newsworthy aspect of the speech, not the fact that someone your readers don't know spoke on a this or that topic. We call those "topic leads," and they're deadly dull. Look for something the speaker said that was controversial, startling, different from what you've heard before on the subject.

When you've finished, don't forget to edit your copy and make sure it conforms to AP style.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Newzhound makes its debut

Here goes for a newsblog for Journalism 331, Public Affairs Reporting. We'll use this as a vehicle to post news about the course, discuss issues and post the best student stories from the class. Once things get up and running, look to this log daily for announcements, deadlines and online resources of interest to beat reporters. Of course, your comments will keep the stew bubbling, so fire away. Who knows? This might even be fun.