On being late on the Yellowstone quake story

Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone

This tweet met me when I opened up the Twitter this morning:

It seems there was an earthquake in Yellowstone over the weekend, the biggest in three decades, in fact. And as it came along with a swarm of other earthquakes, people (and the media) naturally assumed a connection to the supervolcano.

Scientists say there is no danger of an eruption, but as Blake Maxwell at the Magpie points out in his tweet, there was no way to know that from the Chronicle, until I got into the office this morning, that is.

I’m not sure whether Maxwell is right about the lack of this news from the Chronicle being a sign of the newspaper apocalypse. But still, other news organizations got it out over the weekend while we didn’t — even the Magpie managed to “cover” it by linking to an AP story in the Flathead Beacon in its aggregator.

(In fact, considering that the story has been on the Associated Press for some time, I was surprised to find that it hadn’t moved onto our site yesterday. I’m going to look into why that didn’t happen.)

In reality, it was a minor quake in a sparsely populated area that barely shook anything in West or Gardiner, and there were no reports of damage or injuries. Objectively, it really wasn’t all that newsworthy, my inner defense mechanism says.

And while that all may true, determining newsworthiness isn’t a 100-percent objective process. The quake was a story people would have read — had we carried it and shared it widely. It is, therefore, something we should have had sooner.

There’s no way around the lack of a Monday paper, not unless the company’s profits suddenly soar and stay up consistently. And with no Monday edition to put out, there is of course little justification to staff the newsroom fully on Sundays, which means that we’ll be weak on that day. It’s a fact of modern newspaper life — not necessarily a fact of the newspaper apocalypse.

Yet even a skeletal staff should have been paying close enough attention to hear about the Yellowstone quake. Even if they didn’t feel it shake, they should have felt it newsworthy.

Montana expands inmate notifications for victims

Montana Department of CorrectionsThe notification system used by the Montana Department of Corrections to let victims know about changes to an inmate’s status or location has received some upgrades, the department said Thursday.

The Victim Information and Notification Everyday system, or VINE, has added text messaging and an iOS and Android app to the telephone, email and TTY notifications that were already available.

Last year, VINE also added tracking for Montana offenders on probation and parole. Before, it had tracked only those in prisons and pre-release centers. It does not track juveniles or county or federal inmates.

In 2013, the VINE system sent some 30,000 messages to victims, law enforcement and court personnel, journalists and others.

VINE is provided by the Kentucky-based Appriss Company, and the upgrade was paid for by a federal Justice Department grant and funding from the 2012 Legislature.

A missed reporting opportunity

non-newsIt must be sweeps week or close to it because the news stations in town are kicking it into high gear with special assignments and more reporting than normal.*

My favorites:

  1. Who ends up paying for the county’s search and rescue operations? The answer, unsurprisingly: county taxpayers.)
  2. A local church speaks out about a handwritten letter it received over the holidays containing “a hateful message towards church establishments.” (The police even circulated a surveillance image of the person who… dropped off the letter. No breaking in, mind you. Just dropping off a letter.)
  3. A story by Judy Slate on KBZK talks about a van that has been parked outside the Law and Justice Center in Bozeman for some time. The van is covered in signs criticizing one of the judges over his handling of parenting plans and a man’s divorce. The man tells the TV station that no one has criticized him for the sign-festooned vehicle. The sheriff’s office told them he hasn’t broken the law. Nor has the sheriff received any complaints about the van.

So… if no one if complaining and no laws are being broken, is the story really about the van?

I’m picking on KBZK a little bit tonight because I don’t pick on them often. They usually don’t deserve the ribbing. And I understand: the TV station picked a visual topic, something that would be easy to film. That’s natural, but the reason for the van, the man’s court woes, are given short shrift in the article, and I think that’s a shame.

Journalists are supposed to speak for people who are struggling against unfairness. We might not always accomplish it, but it’s still a good goal to have. If this man really is fighting an unfair situation (and we only have his word to go on), his story should have been told, not just his van’s.

*Don’t forget, we’re due an undercover bus investigation soon too.

West Yellowstone police being investigated

West Yellowstone Police Department

Our friends at KBZK are reporting tonight that the West Yellowstone Police Department and its veteran chief, Gordon Berger, are the subject of a investigation by the state’s Department of Criminal Investigations.

We don’t have the story, but rest assured we will tomorrow. In the meantime, the quote from a West Yellowstone town councilman says a lot to me about how things work in the more remote portions of this very large county (all quotation errors are sic):

“We kind of run our own we are a remote community and a lot of the things that are done down here aren’t subject to some of the things that go on in a bigger metropolitan area, we kinda run our own thing down here and sometimes it’s not always right and sometimes we’ve not always reached out for the proper instructions or the guidance that we need.” Said Town Councilman Greg Foresyth

We reported on issues with the department in early 2011, shortly after a majority of officers in the department signed a letter expressing “no confidence” in Berger.

The letter offered few details and interviews mostly questioned the chief’s leadership skills. The article also noted that Berger has been reprimanded several times, first in 1990 over a missing handgun and again in 1998 for an undisclosed reason.

Berger became chief in 2006. A year later, the city attorney wrote to him about parking tickets being given out, allegedly, unfairly. In 2008, a former animal control officer and parking official resigned, citing “the favoritism that is being shown to certain town residents.”

The town manager in 2011 told the Chronicle that Berger was a “good community officer” who understands “you can only police a community in the way it wants to be policed.”


CodeMontana enrolls more than 900 Montana high school students


An educational initiative that aims to teach more Montana high school students computer programming said today that it has enrolled more than 900 participants since its launch in September.

CodeMontana said students from 140 towns around the state have completed more than 26,000 programming lessons so far.

Organized by RightNow Technologies founder Greg Gianforte and Startup Bozeman’s Rob Irizarry, CodeMontana seeks to train students for the hundreds of high-paying, high-tech jobs created in Montana each year.

There are currently not enough Montana students with computer science training to fill those jobs, Gianforte and Irizarry said.

CodeMontana courses are free for high schoolers and were developed by Stanford University computer science graduates. Participants compete for prizes while they learn.

Tester ranked high for transparency

The website GovTrack.us has named Montana Sen. Jon Tester as the Senate’s strongest supporter of government transparency issues.

According to Tester’s report card on the site, the Democrat supports all eight Senate transparency-related bills GovTrack has identified in the current congressional session.

Tester either introduced or supported the following bills:

“Government works best when we hold it accountable, and I will keep fighting to make sure government is open and honest with Montanans and all Americans,” Tester said in a written statement.

In that statement, Tester boasted that he was the first senator to post his daily schedule online* and that he is a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and leads the panel’s subcommittee on government oversight.

Also on Tester’s GovTrack report card:

  • He is ranked in the lowest 30 percent among all senators for missed votes. Tester missed 1 out of 291 votes in the 2013 session.
  • Tester introduced 37 bills and resolutions in 2013.
  • Tester co-sponsored 182 bills and resolutions introduced by other members of Congress in 2013.

Meanwhile, the GovTrack report card for Sen. Max Baucus included:

  • He ranked first among long-serving senators for getting powerful co-sponsors for his bills and resolutions.
  • Baucus missed 2 out o 291 votes in 2013.
  • He was ranked in the top 20 percent of all senators for leadership.
  • On transparency, Baucus was ranked 15th out of all senators.

And Daines:

  • He was ranked first among House freshman for getting bills out of committee.
  • He ranked second among HOR freshmen for getting powerful co-sponsors on his bills and resolutions.
  • He was ranked sixth lowest among HOR freshman for joining bipartisan bills; 37 lowest of all representatives.
  • Daines tied with 352 other reps at the bottom of the ranking for government transparency.

*Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York claims that she was “the first member of Congress ever to post their official daily meetings online every day.” Her postings began in 2006, when she was elected to the House of Representatives. Gillibrand was appointed to fill in for Sen. Hillary Clinton when she was nominated for Secretary of State.

New state ski reports site, new avalanche info app

Screenshot from skimt.com, the state tourism office's new aggregator of Montana ski reports.
Screenshot from skimt.com, the state tourism office’s new aggregator of Montana ski reports.

The state’s tourism office has launched a website that aggregates snow reports at all the major ski resorts in the state.

The website, which is also optimized for smartphones, provides snowfall numbers, summit depth and the number of lifts in operation, according to a press release from the Montana Office of Tourism. There are also email and RSS subscription options.

Of course, individual resorts post this information to their own websites, and local radio stations provide this information each morning – several of them play on the stations in Bozeman each morning.

While locals may already have their own methods for finding conditions at the spots they love, non-regular skiers or tourist from out of state will probably find a lot of value in the site, rather than having to look up all the resorts by name on Google.

Avalanche app screenshot
Screenshot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center’s new Android app.

In other snow-tech news, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center recently launched a Android app to let people get their daily advisories and warnings more conveniently.

The app is currently available on the Google Play store. The developer says an iOS version will be available after it gets some more testing.

Doug Chabot, director of the avalanche center, told the Chronicle’s Jason Bacaj that his organization has been trying hard for years to provide information to people on whatever platform they want it, starting with online updates in the mid–1990s.

Read Bacaj’s full story here.

Montana courts switching to electronic filing systems next year

Montana’s courts will switch to electronic filing systems next year, the Associated Press reported today.

Montana Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith told the AP that a pilot program in early 2014 will launch with the state’s high court. Missoula and Mineral counties will follow.

This does not mean, however, a wave of open access to court records. The AP reports that the system will be used only by judges and attorneys; citizens will still need to go to the courthouse for records.

Senators ask FCC to reform rural broadband investment rules

A group of 26 U.S. Senators, including both from Montana, have signed on to a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission asking him to reform the way that Universal Service Fund support is distributed.

The USF provides support to telecommunications companies to build broadband and other networks in hard-to-reach areas, such as rural America. This helps keep consumer rates affordable in areas where the network service would otherwise be very expensive.

However, reforms in 2011 to the way the USF distributes the money have made the amount of support telecoms can expect unpredictable. This, the senators say, has discouraged telecoms from taking out the necessary loans to make long-term capital investments on broadband networks for the rural parts of the country.

“We remain concerned the reform order is limiting the ability of small carriers to provide rural consumers with the broadband service they need to compete in today’s global economy,” the senators wrote in their letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The economics behind it all are over my head, but Cassandra Heyne of the Monitor, a communication industry blog, summarized the problem in a 2012 post.

The 2011 reforms changed the system so that the USF relies on a method called quantile regression analysis to determine which companies are eligible to receive USF support.

This established 11 caps that companies could trigger, which would limit their USF support. However, critics say the FCC is using the QR analysis incorrectly, relying on bad data, making assumptions about the quality of the data it is using, and keeping companies in the dark about which other companies they’re being compared with.

Also it seems some of these caps can be applied retroactively, meaning that investments a company has begun to take out loans for could have their USF support yanked later on if they hit any of the 11 caps when the math gets done.

In other words, if a company invests too much in an areas, and other companies have already spent in that area too, then a cap could be triggered – “and there is a high probability that today’s reasonable investments will suddenly become excessive,” Heyne wrote.

Companies “live in constant fear that they are spending too much on broadband infrastructure for rural Americans – an infrastructure that this very government has demanded and insisted is necessary to ‘win the future’ – and will be penalized for doing so,” Heyne wrote.

She goes on:

Basically, QR punishes (companies) financially by limiting incentives to make any investments; by making capital more difficult to obtain; and by pitting (companies) against other, unknown (companies) in a reverse-incentive ‘race to the middle.’

The senators’ bipartisan letter was signed by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

Montana felon database now updated in real-time

The Montana Department of Corrections has updated its database of felons with an emphasis on real-time data.

According to a press release, the Correctional Offender Network website used to be updated only once a week. Now it will be updated throughout the day, corrections department director Mike Batista said in a written statement Monday.

The site is also dumping the records of felons who have completed their sentences and who have not returned to the state corrections system for three years.

This change comes from the department’s efforts to help those who have served their time successfully reintegrate with their communities. Sexual or violent offenders are exempt from this change; their records will remain on the site indefinitely.

The free website lets users search out information on any adults convicted of felonies in Montana. Offender records include things like photos, aliases and descriptions of scars and tattoos.

Formerly, users could pay a fee to download a copy of the entire database as a file. Users can now subscribe and, for a monthly fee, download an updated copy of the database any time they wish.

Batista also noted that the site has adopted a mobile-friendly design to accommodate users on smartphones and tablets.