Yellowstone at large: Veteran reporter Todd Wilkinson launches Mountain Journal 

In May 2016, two years' worth of work by photographers, illustrators and acclaimed Bozeman-based writer David Quammen culminated in an issue of National Geographic dedicated solely to Yellowstone National Park. The magazine featured stories about supervolcanoes, tourism, ranching, wildlife migration and hot springs-dwelling microbes. Yellowstone, America's first national park, was an obvious candidate for such a thorough treatment. In one of his own contributions to that issue, journalist and author Todd Wilkinson posed perhaps the most tantalizing question: Are we loving Yellowstone to death?

The project gave Wilkinson more than a platform to delve into the social and environmental costs of Yellowstone's ever-growing popularity. It underscored for him just how much the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem deserves dedicated and cohesive media coverage. Answering that need prompted him to launch the nonprofit website Mountain Journal in August. Wilkinson is the site's managing editor.

"Every major issue affecting the West is in play here," Wilkinson told the Indy by email. "For an online publication, it makes for endless, engaging fodder." Mountain Journal is barely a month old, and already its writers are tackling complex issues. One early story billed itself as the first part in an ongoing series about the political threats currently facing federally designated wilderness areas, eight of which border Yellowstone park. That initial piece serves as a wilderness history primer for the uninitiated. It's signaling that, as Wilkinson says, Mountain Journal's goal is not to cater to an audience limited by the cultural and political boundaries of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

"Yellowstone suffers not from lack of public exposure but under-reporting," Wilkinson writes. "Yellowstone and the wild region surrounding it deserves a strong, thoughtful voice that tries to make sense of the growing threats to its character, and one that celebrates the reasons why it is magical in the eyes of so many."

click to enlarge Last month, veteran journalist Todd Wilkinson launched the nonprofit online news site Mountain Journal, aimed at filling what Wilkinson says is a void in comprehensive coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
  • Last month, veteran journalist Todd Wilkinson launched the nonprofit online news site Mountain Journal, aimed at filling what Wilkinson says is a void in comprehensive coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The choice to pursue that mission under a nonprofit banner was made in direct response to the challenges facing for-profit journalism, which Wilkinson describes as "withering." Going the nonprofit route, he says, will allow Mountain Journal's supporters to feel invested in "advancing the public good and the betterment of a region that has no parallel on earth." The approach has worked for other online publications in the West. Wyoming-based Wyofile has done significant work and survived as a journalistic nonprofit for nearly 10 years, offering free, in-depth coverage of political, environmental, cultural and tribal issues. Even so, Wilkinson says Mountain Journal is a pioneer.

"Media has entered a new frontier," he says. "Old media is in free-fall. We're not trying to emulate anyone else, because quite frankly there is no other online media platform out there covering a region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem."

The recent launch of Mountain Journal was made possible by an inaugural sponsorship from outdoor retail heavyweight Patagonia. Over the past year, the company has increasingly followed the lead of other recreation-centric retailers in lobbying to keep public lands public. In May, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario vowed to lead the industry's resistance to Trump-led rollbacks in public-land protections.

"We have to fight like hell to keep every inch of public land," Marcario told Huffington Post in May. "I don't have a lot of faith in politics and politicians right now."

Patagonia launched a $700,000 digital ad buy in late August calling on Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke to maintain his stated support for public lands. Though Patagonia is a foundational sponsor of Mountain Journal, Wilkinson says the company's political activity won't influence the site's approach to issues involving Zinke or public lands.

"Patagonia supports us, I think, because it believes in independent, watchdog-oriented, public-interest journalism," Wilkinson says. "And it believes in the novelty of our fresh approach."

In covering a region that spans three states, a national park and scores of cities and towns, Mountain Journal will compete with numerous established media outlets, and Wilkinson doesn't duck that challenge. If Mountain Journal's readers recognize the same need for public-interest journalism he sees, Wilkinson says he's confident they'll support the cause.

"We do not have the resources of a giant media empire," he says. "Mountain Journal is a David entering an arena filled with Goliaths. It is headquartered in a state where a Congressional candidate once portrayed the media as an enemy and then body-slammed a reporter because he didn't like being asked tough, important questions. We aren't going to cower in the face of that kind of behavior."

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