Starting a week from today and continuing every Monday for 32 weeks, Last Best News will be running a series of video presentations by state leaders in business, politics and academics.
The Montana Ethic Project was created by a group of students at Montana State University and the University of Montana. They wanted some of the brightest, most inspiring people in Montana to speak directly to other residents of this state about subjects important to themselves and to the larger society.
“We think we made something with staying power,” Zachary Rogala said. “We really do.”
Rogala, who plans to graduate this spring from the University of Montana School of Law, was the leader on the Montana Ethic Project. The interviews were all taped in 2011, Rogala said, but even though they are dated, the pieces are still relevant today.
“They have a lot of intrinsic merit,” he said.
In a series of presentations ranging from about eight to 20 minutes, 32 Montanans talk about education reform, religion and politics, native leadership, the value of athletics, hunting ethics, climate change, the Montana character, “mythic Montana” and much more. The series includes presentations from the current and former governors, many Regents professors and leaders from some of the state’s largest businesses.
The roots of the project go back to 2010, when Rogala and some other students worked on a 30-minute video for the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy at MSU. That video focused on sustainability issues in Montana, and Rogala and his associates thought Montanans would be interested in a larger, more general, more in-depth project.
Bookstores in the state were already full of volumes extolling Montana’s landscape and natural wonders, Rogala said.
“That’s kind of off-putting because I think the Montana brand has been overworked,” he said. “We wanted to show that our places are great, but our people are better.” And while Montanans had ample access to national media and national role models, he said, there were too few Montana role models, and too little discussion of subjects important to people in Montana.
Rogala and his colleagues wanted to gather Montana leaders from various political, ideological and geographical backgrounds and allow them to talk about one topic they thought other Montanans wanted to know about, one topic they wanted to share their perspective on, or a topic about which they wanted to dispel misconceptions.
It took them five or six months to find the people they wanted. Rogala said there was no particular reason for limiting the number of presentations to 32; mostly it seemed like a manageable number. With financial support from the Wheeler Center and the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Rogala and 15 colleagues went to work on the project.
Their plan was to produce all 32 videos and then use transcripts of the presentations, paired with still photographs of the presenters, to publish a coffee table book.
Most of the recording sessions took place in the summer of 2011, with the rest done in Missoula in the fall of that year. From the fall of 2012 through the spring of 2013 they released the videos one at a time on their own website, then created a 240-page manuscript of the coffee table book.
Unfortunately, Rogala said, the group’s youthful ambition was matched only by its naivete. They used almost their entire budget on production and had virtually nothing left to promote the series or the projected book, and very few people ended up seeing the videos.
Most of his colleagues graduated from college and went their own ways, and the project lay dormant for a couple of years. Last year, Rogala started exploring new ways to get the video series before the public, and he thought Last Best News might be a good vehicle for doing so.
He needed a sponsor, however, both to cover some remaining costs and to restart efforts to have the book published. Late last year, he found a sponsor in PERC—the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, a think tank established 35 years ago to improve environmental quality through property rights and markets.
Rogala said he approached PERC because it is an organization that doesn’t take sides, but rather seeks to share its perspectives on important matters.
“Their broad mission of improving welfare in our state has many similar goals with our project,” he said.
With PERC’s sponsorship in hand, Rogala is working to get the Montana Ethic Project book published. If everything were to fall into place just right, he said, the book could be out this summer, but more likely it will be available sometime before the end of the year.
Here is a trailer introducing the series. Then come back for the next 32 Mondays to watch the rest of the videos.