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.