by Brad Tyer, Montana Free Press
On March 12, a collaboration of 16 Montana newsrooms launched the first story of a series titled Graying Pains, months in the making, exploring Montana’s status as the demographically oldest state west of the Mississippi.
The next day, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced the state’s first four documented cases of COVID-19. If you read, watch, or listen to Montana media, you know what happened next.
The collaborating newsrooms responded by doing what newsrooms do best, immediately dispatching reporters, editors and photographers to cover the multifaceted and rapidly unfolding public health story. Small-town weeklies, urban dailies and broadcasters alike realigned their priorities to deliver critical coverage of the pandemic’s sweeping influence on seemingly every aspect of readers’ lives, at work, at home and at play.
They did so even as stay-at-home restrictions and safety precautions replaced face-to-face interviews and direct observation with phone calls and teleconferencing, even as the crisis expanded beyond the bounds of public health to become an ongoing story about profound economic disruption, and even as that economic disruption landed squarely in their own newsrooms.
As Montana media adapted to face the flood of can’t-wait coronavirus news, certain pre-COVID priorities had to be shelved. One of those was Graying Pains. The collaborative published the second article of the series on March 19 and made the decision to put the project on hold.
We’re ready now to bring it back. Starting next week, there will be a new Graying Pains story weekly through the end of summer.
The story of COVID-19 in Montana is far from over. Even if Montana were to never record another case of the disease, its influence on health care and state revenues and tourism and agriculture and housing and recreation — pretty much everything — is likely to reverberate in policies and planning for years.
Just as the pandemic has had an indelible impact on Montanans’ lives, it’s had a heavy hand on the Graying Pains project as well. Several newsrooms had to withdraw from the project as reporters or editors changed jobs or had their hours reduced by furloughs. And the entire premise of the project — subtitled “Challenges and Opportunities in the West’s Oldest State” — underwent a forced readjustment. The coronavirus is opportunistic, but it is not an equal-opportunity threat. It poses the greatest risk to elderly populations, as shown by the deadliest of Montana’s local outbreaks, in rural Toole County, where 29 positive cases and 6 of the state’s 16 recorded COVID-19 deaths — all people over the age of 70 — centered on an assisted living facility and affiliated hospital in Shelby.
For the state’s elderly population especially, the virus is an acute threat. Several Graying Pains stories that made sense when they were planned in February had to be reimagined for relevance in a changed world.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that Montana is getting grayer. That fact continues to present compelling opportunities and challenges for the state and its citizens. As we return to Graying Pains, we look forward to sharing those stories in the coming weeks.