Statehouse reporting is dead; long live statehouse reporting

A lot of pixels have already been spilled in the past week about the closing of the Lee Enterprises state bureau in Helena and the departure of longtime reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, but I’m going to chip in too, mostly because I feel that their apotheosis has gone far enough.

Were Johnson and Dennison veterans with lots of institutional knowledge? Absolutely. Were they good reporters? Likely they were; but, to be honest, any reporter who has spent long enough on a single beat will appear to be a goodish reporter simply by dint of getting to know sources and topics. I don’t know; maybe that’s enough to be “good.”

Subjectivity aside, bloggers across Montana are heralding their departures as the end of competent government watchdog reporting, whining that Montanans will be poorly informed by the cub reporters paid a pittance to cover the next Legislature. Journalism is dying, alack!

I call bullshit.

Lee Enterprises was not the only news company covering the Legislature. And though Lee was one of only a handful that still sent reporters physically to Helena for the session, they were not the only watchers, not by a long shot.

The Chronicle churned out legislative coverage relevant to our readers on a daily basis throughout the session, covering bill after bill and, I may say, beating Lee on a scoop more than once.

Television, though I am not exactly a huge fan, had reporters in Helena throughout the session too, as did public radio. The University of Montana sends a team of eager student journalists to cover each session as well, providing daily coverage that appeared in newspapers around the state — newspapers, I would note, that were not owned by Lee Enterprises and did not have access to the prose of Johnson and Dennison. And let’s not forget the Associated Press, which also does a fine job of covering the Legislature for readers, spreading news far wider than Lee, which, lest we forget, shares with Lee papers first (and then throws a few scraps to the AP later).

The notion that young reporters won’t be able to cover the Legislature as effectively as the vets would hold more water if the session hadn’t been so well covered by young reporters already. To say that the vets’ B.S. meters are worn in as well as a pair of old cowboy boots while these young cubs can’t yet find the bathrooms (“Ha! Young people are dumb!”) insults the young reporters and their ability to quickly adapt, learn and grow as professionals.

Look, Johnson and Dennison are gone. Instead of pining for the bygone past, we need to decide what we expect from statehouse journalism in 2017 and beyond.


UPDATED: Hackers transmit zombie alerts over EAS in Great Falls and Michigan

UPDATE: [The Great Falls Tribune has posted a story]( with more details and which also mentions the Michigan hacks. Reporter Michael Beall spoke with the manager of the Michigan ABC station I mentioned in my post, who said authorities there have identified a suspect in at least one of the hacking incidents there.

Beall’s story also contains a statement from an MTN executive in Bozeman who basically says that the Great Falls incident is still being investigated. Make sure to read Beall’s story for the interviews and follow-up, including how Great Falls police are currently treating this as a prank or joke and not something more serious.

It’s possible that if you’ve been living under a screen-free rock that you haven’t heard about this. Possible, but unlikely.

Yesterday, KRTV in Great Falls had its emergency alert system hacked, resulting in an EAS broadcast telling daytime television viewers that corpses were rising from their graves and attacking the living.

The Great Falls Tribune [reports]( that the broadcast, which aired during the Steve Wilkos show, prompted several concerned calls to police. It also prompted what I am declaring the best police quote of the year, from GFPD Lt. Shane Sorenson:

>“We can report in the city, there have been no sightings of dead bodies rising from the ground.”

KRTV has been mum about the incident, which has been reported widely online from Gawker to NPR. The station’s Facebook page contains no mention of the hack — apart from messages posted by users, and [the notice apologizing for the bogus broadcast]( is not listed in the stream of stories on the KRTV website (though it is still reachable by clicking on the most popular stories lists).

The station’s sole communique about the matter has been to say that its engineers are investigating. [KRTV referred a call from the Associated Press to a Montana Television Network executive]( in Bozeman named Jon Saunders, who did not return the AP’s call.

Interestingly, Great Falls viewers weren’t the only ones to see the zombie message (you know, apart from the thousands who have watched clips on YouTube).

Hackers also broke into ABC and PBS affiliates in Marquette, Mich. The hoax aired in the afternoon on WNMU and during prime time on WBUP.

[WBUP’s message about the hacking is here]( The station mentions that similar hacks happened at several other stations, but I’ve not been able to find any reference to other hacks yesterday apart from those in Michigan and Montana. Let me know if you know of any more.

For background, the Emergency Alert System was first put into service back in 1997, replacing the old Emergency Broadcast System. It is [designed to give the president, or whomever he designates, the ability to broadcast to the American public during a national emergency](, though local authorities can also activate the EAS to deliver smaller scale emergency information. Apart from a test in 2011, the national EAS system has never been used.

FCC regulations say that all broadcast stations must install EAS decoders, that monitor the signals from at least two other, nearby broadcast stations for EAS messages. Stations must also keep logs of all tests and messages, [according to the Wikipedia article on the subject]( Stations can buy their EAS equipment from [a number of certified vendors](

Messages are broadcast using a network called IPAWS-OPEN using what’s called the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP). CAP alerts from authorized public officials are distributed to the EAS systems via the EAS CAP feed, which travels over the Internet.

[Notes on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website]( say CAP-based systems are not meant to replace over-the-air methods of monitoring for EAS alerts. Rather, the Internet-based solution is meant to supplement and provide redundancy.

FEMA says that because CAP is a digital system, it does not suffer from signal degradation and that signals are available to decoders within seconds.

In 2004, computer security writer Kevin Poulsen wrote that [the U.S. Emergency Alert System was vulnerable to hacking](

Poulsen’s SecurityFocus blog reported that the EAS was built without “basic authentication mechanisms” and that it was “activated locally by unencrypted low-speed modem transmissions over public airwaves.”

Poulsen goes on:

>That places radio and television broadcasters and cable TV companies at risk of being fooled by spoofers with a little technical know-how and some off-the-shelf electronic components. Under FCC regulations, unattended stations must automatically interrupt their broadcasts to forward alerts, making it possible for even blatantly false information to be forwarded without first passing human inspection.

[The FCC confirmed this in a 2004 order](, in which it wrote that the EAS’s Internet-based systems could be subjected to denial of service attacks and “when a station is operating unattended, no one is available on-site to intervene should an unauthorized seizure occur.”

Further, the FCC wrote:

>There is also concern about physical security and unauthorized use of the system at state and local EAS activation sites. Although Commission-certified EAS encoders have the capability for password protection, it is up to each station and cable system to implement sufficient security and there is no way of knowing which stations use password security.

In 2011, an ABC station in San Francisco [reported that a convicted hacker called “Jake” had detailed plans to exploit gaps in the EAS](

“There’s no authentication, there’s no encryption, there’s no passwords, there’s nothing that is required to send what would appear to be a valid message,” he told investigative reporter Dan Noyes.

From the ABC story:

> Jake’s plan almost sounds too simple. He’s written a software program to generate those familiar squawks you hear that activate the Emergency Alert System. He has figured out the authorization codes and radio frequencies from documents published by the government online. All he has to do is drive to a location near an EAS receiver and take out his gear, without being spotted.

There is even [a YouTube video from the DEFCON hacker conference]( taking you deep into the innards of how the EAS works.

A former engineer Noyes spoke to said the tendency of smaller TV stations to be unmanned for at least some portion of the business day opens up even more vulnerability to hackers because there is simply no one there to stop an unofficial EAS broadcast.

Montana fire officials to use Twitter this summer

Montana fire coordinators will use Twitter this summer to give residents updates on wildfires, road closures and evacuation notices, [the Associated Press reports](

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spent 15 months looking into social media options before settling on Twitter, the AP said in its report. Seeing examples of how other states have used Twitter during wildfires helped seal the deal.

The udpates will flow from [@mtdnrcfire]( The tweets will supplement updates sent out by telephone alert systems and postings to the InciWeb website.

Also of note is the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which manages fires in Montana, North Dakota and parts of Idaho. Follow the center on Twitter at [@nrccnewsnotes](

Does it matter whether you read on paper or on screen?

Image representing Barnes & Noble as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

Barnes & Noble has announced a new version of its Nook e-reader device today, featuring a black and white touch screen and a price tag of only $139, the Associated Press reports.

The new Nook’s battery can last up to two months, the company’s CEO William Lynch said during the announcement. It has a 6-inch screen, similar to the current model Kindle.

The new Nook, called the Nook Simple Touch Reader, adds a layer of social media functionality, allowing readers to trade recommendations with their online friends, including their Facebook connections.

The Nook is available for pre-order and will ship in time for Father’s Day, Lynch said.

All those details aside, Barnes & Noble is making it pretty clear that it wants to compete in the world of electronic books, especially since Lynch told his audience at the announcement that his company has captured a quarter of the e-book market.

I find this new corporate focus on e-books somewhat odd, considering that e-books, in one format or another and on one device or another, have been around since the 1990s. (I had a friend back then who would read them on his Palm Pilot — after downloading the entire Project Gutenberg collection from Bit Torrent.)

Most of the excuses for disliking reading e-books are gone now, and the rise in popularity of smartphones and tablet-format computers have put screens in our pockets and purses. Resolution has nearly caught up with paper too — at the very least, author Annie Proulx’s excuse about not wanting to read on “twitchy little screens” is no longer valid.

Still, people ache for the printed page. I can understand. I worked in a library all throughout college. I had professors who professed their love for the smell of the (amazingly acidic) dust (and mold) in the stacks. They found it intoxicating — which I believe might be literally true.

Which side are you on? Are you a lover of the printed page, or are you a strict electronic reader? Does it matter to you which media you use to read?

Websites and state abbreviations: Notes on AP Style

This may be a bit “inside baseball,” but it affects to a small degree the text you see in the Chronicle, both in print and online.

Like most newsrooms, the Chronicle follows Associated Press style. That means that we have little books on our desks that contain rules about how we punctuate and spell.

For example, the stylebook tells us that it is AP Style to omit the “Oxford” comma in lists (the comma directly before and or or in a list.

  • Not-AP Style — “gray, green, yellow, and blue”
  • AP Style — “gray, green, yellow and blue”

The stylebook also tells us when to spell out numbers and how to handle things like percentages, capitalization, business names and sports terms. The book, importantly, also tells us how reporters are to spell certain words and refer to certain events. A few weeks back, for example, AP decreed that the economic downturn was to be referred to as the “Great Recession.”

great recession.png

I mention all of this as background for a couple of new developments in the world of AP Style. This spring, the AP will publish a new version of its stylebook. Already, a couple of publicized changes have made waves.

aptweet.pngFirst, a big one, AP has decided to change from “Web site” to “website.” It’s a change that has been a long time coming and one that has earned cheers and jeers from journalists around the world.

It’s a welcome change, I guess. I always felt somehow exceptional when I wrote Web page, like I was somehow elevated above the common Web-writing folk. No more. At least we get to keep “Web page,” and “e-mail” is still hyphenated, by gum!

The other change has rankled plenty of copyeditors around the country. AP decided to do away with abbreviations for state names in its copy. (Our state AP bureau in Helena confirmed the truth of it, if you don’t believe the blogger.)

For years, the AP has held on to tradition and used archaic abbreviations similar to those suggested by the U.S. Government Printing Office, such as Mich., Fla., Penn., Calif. and Mont. But as the blog linked above pointed out, that could be hurting AP content’s standing in search results since the AP is about the only organization still using those arcane abbreviations.

However, many editors, including some in the Chronicle newsroom, expressed concern over the proposed change. The lack of abbreviations would help make copy easier to understand, but would probably hurt the readability of text in print. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are long words, and column widths these days are pretty short.

Reacting, I suppose, to criticism of the abbreviation change, the AP decided late last week to postpone its plans. We’ll have to see where things go from here.

This sort of hubbub happens every time the AP announces a new edition of its stylebook is near. I’m sure there will be scandal over proposed changes in next year’s stylebook too.

Here at the Chronicle, we manage to stay above many of these debates. That’s probably because we can only afford to buy new stylebooks about once every five years! 😉