"We became the Main Street media, because our office is on Main Street"

Today I hand the newsletter over to my pal Molly Priddy, who’s writing Part Three in our series on what to wear when you don’t want people to hate you. (Lyz Lenz wrote the first; I wrote the second). Reading recs are hanging out at the end, but if you want more wry joy in your life, you should follow Molly on Twitter.

The other day on Twitter, I made a list of things I’ve worn in order to perform my journalistic duties out here in Northwest Montana, 45 minutes from Glacier National Park and 90 minutes from the Canadian border.

The list was basically made up of safety equipment I’ve had to put on so whoever I was following around felt better about me following them around: hard hats (construction sites), safety goggles (any kind of manufacturing facility), avalanche beacons (checking out an avalanche in Glacier National Park), welding helmets (watching welders throw sparks), over-ear protection (manufacturing), snow pants (covering dog sledders), nomex (wildfire coverage), nitrile gloves (watching a photographer take newborn pics), and a beekeeper suit (field of BEES).

Being a reporter in Montana means you’re going to cover something outside at some point. You’re going to have to go to the source of a story, which might be a house that exploded due to a gas leak and the guy who owned it liked to make his own ammunition so the firefighters tell you to wait behind a tree so as to not get shot by the fire.

Eventually, you figure out that you need an outfit that would work both in a governmental meeting and if you have to go outside for a tour of logging operations. Most Montana journalists have a story about how they wore the wrong shoes the day nature decided it was time to start flooding.

If you’re a small-town reporter (high five!) like I’ve been for the last decade, you’re still expected to wear through some shoe leather. It’s also a unique way to get to know a community, warts and all. When I first took this job, I presented much more femininely in my looks even though I always wore pants. I had long hair, looked young, and am white, so I could get basically anywhere without suspicion or much scrutiny.

One of my classes at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism was about how to be a reporter, and the professor suggested mimicking the clothing and general look of where you are about to report so as to make the people there more comfortable with your presence. This is a nice thought, but I’ve learned from growing up where I report that people can spot that a country mile away. The new Patagonia coat (called Patagucci up here), the creased khakis, the squeaky new hiking or cowboy boots — it all says, “Hello, I’m from a city and believe you won’t be able to tell!” when it’s trying to say, “Look at my empathy! I’m even dressing like you!”

I write for a small weekly newspaper, with a circulation of about 35,000. We’re independently owned and only about 12 years old, and I’ve watched the community be wary of us at first and then grow to accept us, years later. It was interesting, then, to watch the rise of distrust in the “mainstream media,” while those same people praised our local coverage. We became the Main Street media, because our office is on Main Street. People trusted us more because if they really get mad, they can come down and talk to us about it. And they do.

You’ve got to prove your rural chops before people really trust you, and luckily for me, I grew up in Missoula with a dad who was a) in the military, and b) took me hunting and fishing. I cannot tell you how many doors both of those subjects have opened for me just because I can speak that language, but I do know it has made interview subjects — not always men! — more comfortable with my presence. I also grew up shooting guns, and having some fluency on that subject has also helped sources trust me.

But even though I can speak to these traditionally masculine subjects, I found a new wariness in some interview subjects when I started presenting more masculinely with short hair. I always wear pants, usually have some plaid or flannel going, and if I’m not wearing leather boots, I’m wearing dark-colored sneakers. I blend into the scenery of white people wearing outdoor-activity clothing until they clock that I’m not actually a guy (I’m also pretty tall, at 5’10”).

This is when the Smile of Placation comes into play. I can speak the languages of masculinity here, but I’m not actually part of the club. I learned this a long time ago, when I took hunter’s education and was the only girl in the class. My masculinity can’t threaten theirs, or the whole interview is blown. I’ve been in many one-on-one situations with men who could easily harm me, and if it ever gets tense, I flash a big smile, tilting my head in a feminine manner.

This isn’t to say every man I’ve encountered or been alone with has threatened me. But I did find it easier to ask tougher questions when I presented more femininely, as if it balanced out in people’s minds.

But even though I present masculine of center, I’m still white. The county in which I live is more than 95 percent white, and our readership is largely white. I’m invisible in a way a reporter of color would not be, which AHP and Lyz also touched on. To understand how big of a deal this is in Montana, consider a story from February of this year in which a Border Patrol agent detained two women just because he heard them speaking Spanish.

White people around here love to tout how far back their roots go. You can go to any public meeting and feel the expectation of more gravitas if you say, “My family has been here for four generations” or “I’m a fifth generation Montanan.” So readily do they forget that English isn’t even close to the first language to be spoken in a land with seven remaining reservations for the Indigenous population. I covered a politician from the Blackfeet Reservation who chuckled about to folks crowing about five generations of history when her family here went back hundreds of generations.

Newsrooms in Montana, including mine, are still glaringly white, and so is the coverage. That has to change. There was a burst of coverage on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women last year, from the Associated Press to my own newsroom. And while I’m proud of the work, it should have come years ago.

As I spent time thinking about how I present myself as a reporter to get the job done, the common thread I kept coming back to was sincerity. People around here, and I suspect most everywhere, can tell when you’re being disingenuous. They can tell if you’re there to use them or if you actually care about their story and perspective. You can’t fake that in local reporting for very long, no matter what accessories you’ve put on.

What I Read and Loved This Week:

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