"Long Streets Project" Looks At Montana Jobs, Nativity Through Data Journalism

Sep 4, 2019


A recent news article found that parts of Montana with more people who were not born in the state have higher job growth. Eric Dietrich wrote the story for Montana Free Press as one of the state’s only data reporters. He spoke with YPR News' Jess Sheldahl about how he takes data and turns it into stories for the Long Streets Project.

Jess Sheldahl: What is the Long Streets Project and when and why did Montana Free Press decide to start covering this?

Eric Dietrich: It's an effort to cover the long streets economy of the state, where we have a bunch of small towns with really long streets in between them, and we're trying to get at the economic issues that come up and in a long streets economy like that. Understanding how people make a living but where the opportunity is and why. The national trend is towards wealth and talent being pulled into big cities right now.

JS: So where do most of the jobs in Montana generally come from?

ED: The jobs, like the people actually, tend to be clustered in cities. If you look at not only like where the jobs are but also where the job growth has happened since the turn of the century. If you're a business leader or a chamber of commerce leader and in a rural community it's easy to look around and say, 'Oh my gosh, is my town getting left behind?' And so one of the questions we're trying to address with the Long Streets Project is for the people that are in that situation. What are they? What ideas are out there for them to tackle that?

JS: And so how do you use that data and transform it into these narrative pieces about Montana jobs and the economy of this state?

ED: In a technical sense I code. This nativity piece that we're talking about, I wrote some Python script that pulled in the data from the Census Bureau and reshaped it into the form that answers the precise question I wanted it to answer. And then I type that into some other code that then produced the maps that are there in the piece.

The storytelling is really more qualitative. I've been to like rural Ravalli County, where we were, that this story indicates that a significant amount of people are not born in the state and talked to people there and got a sense of what their culture is like. That didn't necessarily come directly through in this piece but it definitely informs what questions you then turn around and ask the data.

As the map in the piece indicates, the county in the state that has the most residents born outside Montana is actually Ravalli County and the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, where 29 percent of residents were born in the state and 71 percent not. And then there's kind of that pattern across western Montana. But then you look at which portions of the state have the most Montana-born residents and it's oftentimes north-central Montana, the northeast corner of the state, and also the counties that happen to overlap with reservations like Glacier County, for example, which includes both Cut Bank and also most of the Blackfeet Reservation. More than three quarters of the people there were born in Montana. We also found that there's been a strong correlation between how many people are from elsewhere and job growth.

JS: I really love the graphics that are included in these stories. I did not realize that you had done that by sitting at a computer and writing code to make that.

ED: Thank you. Yeah, it's an important tool kit. I think it's one we should wish to have more in media. Data increasingly drives the way people, how we do what we do and make decisions and in media we need to be able to understand that. We also need to understand that without losing context of what we're actually talking about, real people, and understand that the data ain't always perfect, too.

JS: What would you say is the most challenging issue that Montanans are facing when it comes to our job growth and our economy?

ED: I don't know that I have a good answer for that, in part because it's complicated stuff and my job is to listen and try to understand the complexity.

I do worry a lot about what the future looks like for rural communities in the state. When I say rural, I mean not like Three Forks, which is a half-hour outside Bozeman within the commuting radius of the fastest growing economy in the state. I worry about the communities in the state that are more isolated, like 45 minutes to an hour or more outside the commuting radius of one of our cities. If you're a community leader in Choteau or Ekalaka or Glasgow, what can you do to help ensure that your community thrives in the long run?

You have this divide and what do you do about it? I've been thinking about this and trying to report on this as much as I can for two years now. I'm starting to find some answers. I think that there's definitely a lot of work left to be done.

Eric Dietrich is a reporter for The Montana Free Press. He's currently working on the "Long Streets Project" series, which covers the economic trends and issues that shape the opportunity Montanans have -- or don't have -- to make a decent living.