Mountain Journal Adds Managing Editor To Expand Its Impact

“We are thrilled to have Joe join our team,” said
Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson. “I’ve had the pleasure of being around
many talented reporters and editors in my career. He is what I’d call a natural
and it won’t be long before our readers come to fully appreciate his
considerable skillset as we expand our coverage.”

Until recently, O’Connor served as vice
president of media and editor-in-chief for Outlaw Partner publications, a multimedia
company located in Big Sky, Montana, whose portfolio includes newspapers,
magazines, video and online platforms.

“The opportunity to help MoJo grow its
readership and impact at a pivotal time in the history of the Greater
Yellowstone Ecosystem is an honor,” O’Connor said. “In a remarkably short
amount of time, I, along with a huge following of others, have witnessed the
rise of MoJo as the preeminent journalistic voice in Greater Yellowstone and watch it become touted as a model for how nonprofit, public interest journalism can ambitiously
get millions of people to appreciate the value of a globally important

When O’Connor begins in mid-October, he will
work alongside Wilkinson in ramping up MoJo’s focus on vital issues shaping
the most wildlife-rich ecoregion in the Lower 48 states. The move is also intended to allow Wilkinson more time to write, pay more visits to far-flung Greater Yellowstone communities and have to contend less with  day to day administrative responsibilities.

“The opportunity to help MoJo grow its readership and impact at a pivotal time in the history of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an honor.”  —Joseph T. OConnor

“As Co-Chair of Mountain Journal’s board I am
delighted to have Joe O’Connor join us in our cause, which is providing the
best journalism to discuss the future of our beloved Greater Yellowstone
Ecosystem,” said Hank Perry. “Joe has been overseeing some of the most in-depth conservation
journalism in the area and he is a perfect choice to work hand in hand with our
founder as both of them continue to bring to the public
attention issues regarding the preservation of this one-of-a-kind ecosystem,
which we need to always remember is a national treasure.” 

The announcement comes as Mountain Journal
reaches its fifth year of operational existence. “These early years were
momentous in that we’ve proved that millions of nature-loving people are hungry for the stories we deliver,
which offer a perspective about the Yellowstone region not found anywhere else,” Wilkinson said. 

O’Connor’s addition is part of a
larger strategy, Perry noted. “We will be making other announcements pertaining to that soon.”

O’Connor has earned widespread respect in Big
Sky, both among readers and professionals in the community. Wilkinson says.
“He’s been able to pull that off while leading his teams to write about
contentious issues that have made Big Sky a lightning rod for discussion of
hyper-development and growth issues occurring inside an ecosystem renowned for its wildlife. He
has been on the front lines he brings a valuable, informed
perspective that can be applied to every valley and town in the Rockies.”

Wilkinson noted that what separates Greater Yellowstone from the Colorado and southern Rockies, Wasatch, Sierra and Cascade ecosystems is they no longer are home to their full complement of native wildlife, most notably grizzly bears, wolves and vast migrations of terrestrial species.

Although headquartered in Bozeman, Montana—Greater
Yellowstone’s largest city—MoJo’s emphasis is on the vast region, which has
Yellowstone National Park as its geographic heart and sprawls across a tapestry
and mountains, valleys and watersheds found at the intersection of three states:
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

“Joe has incredible instincts, a drive to keep
pushing until he gets closer to the truth. He knows what is necessary for good
stories to come together and he’s shown the ability to be a good editor working
with seasoned writers and aspiring reporters just getting their start,”
Wilkinson said. 

O’Connor’s ability to land interviews with people ranging
American news legend Tom Brokaw (who considers Greater Yellowstone his home in
the West) to bison rancher Ted Turner and multi-Grammy award-winning musician Brandi Carlile is
evidence of his knack of winning the trust of people who might otherwise be
guarded.  Read the heartfelt farewell letter he wrote recently to readers at Explore Big Sky. And here’s a piece he wrote about public trust and the media.

O’Connor on assignment writing a magazine profile on network newsman, award-winning writer, conservationist and part-time Montana resident Tom Brokaw. Photo courtesy Sue Cedarholm.

“My path to journalism has been circuitous,” O’Connor, a pro baseball fanatic, angler and skier, says. “In my senior year in high school, Newsweek published an essay of mine, a coming-of-age piece about a mountaineering trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. That gave me a taste.” 

The piece also telegraphed O’Connor’s love for the West and an interest in not only conservation issues but how to be a responsible user of public lands—a growing question that pertains to the impact of rising outdoor recreation pressure on sensitive wild places.

O’Connor’s appetite for journalism grew at the same time his yearn for adventure drew him West. After college at James Madison University in Virginia and interning at Skiing magazine in Boulder, Colorado, he moved to the ski resort mecca of Vail for two years, writing a weekly column for the Vail Daily. He worked as a bartender and fit people for ski boots to pay the rent—and, he says, earn a ski pass.

Following that tenure and willing to pay his dues, he took a lead writing position at a weekly newspaper in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He left a year into the job after the paper refused to publish a breaking longform story he wrote about the FBI mistreating Kurdish refugees in the area and threatening to deport them for sending money back to their families in Iraq.

“Before we are reporters, we are humans first—not dispassionate about the things we cover but being able to empathize with people and, in the case of Greater Yellowstone, trying to ponder the essence of wildness by relating to the animals that live there,” Wilkinson said. “Joe’s diverse background enables him to get his mind wrapped around the complicated human and ecological aspects here that have implications for the West and other regions of the world.”

No slouch when it comes to recreation, O’Connor spent six years ski patrolling at Kirkwood Resort in Lake Tahoe and fighting wildland fire. “Making those jobs into a career wasn’t the right fit so I attended Harvard Journalism School,” he shared.  While in Cambridge, O’Connor grew restless, particularly as news outlets solicited him to write freelance pieces.

In 2012, Outlaw Partners in Big Sky hired him as senior editor and he moved up rapidly through the ranks of that company. The last decade has brought explosive development to Big Sky, the Gallatin Valley and, with it, all kinds of spillover effects.

“I grew personally in those positions and learned much about reporting on southwest Montana and Greater Yellowstone,” he noted. “I am grateful for the time. I look forward now to applying these skills at Mountain Journal, which fills a special niche in trying to inform the public of what’s really happening to the lands in and around our oldest national park.”

Wilkinson said it is important for someone like O’Connor to not only have skill as a writer and editor but possess a familiarity with Greater Yellowstone, which is unlike any other region in the country. 

“Look, we all are here, whether to live or visit because we love this place. Harnessing that love, especially when it’s armed with facts, can be a powerful force in saving Greater Yellowstone from following the same destructive path that other regions have taken,” Wilkinson said. “Covering conservation issues here requires special savvy. Joe has that and he’s a rising star. He’s a vital part of our commitment to give our readers engaging stories they won’t find anywhere else.”

Wilkinson had a recent conversation with O’Connor and the text of that chat is below:

Joe O'Connor

Joe O’Connor

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: You’re joining Mountain
in October. Let’s start with this: why are you making this move?

JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR: I’ve long been interested in
the Mountain West but in living in Big Sky and producing journalism here for
the past decade, I’ve become more familiar with the issues prevalent in
the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Todd, you and I have worked closely together over this time and I’m thrilled to join forces with you and produce more hard-hitting journalism in Greater Yellowstone, the kind that has distinguished MoJo in its first five years.

MOJO: We’ve watched both your thinking and grasp of
the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem expand. You understand why it stands as a
global bellwether for pondering whether humans can indeed co-exist harmoniously
with nature, seeing it not only as us immersing ourselves in nature but that we
are an extension of it. And we walk with a heavy footprint. How would you explain what motivated you to reach out to us and want to join our

O’CONNOR: The evolution has been gradual
but has increased quickly over the past few years as Big Sky and southwest
Montana have witnessed a startling change and a growing influx of visitors and
transplants, especially since the pandemic hit in 2020. The ecosystem is
interconnected on multiple levels and I’ve watched and reported as increased traffic has impacted
wildlife migration routes in the region, rivers have seen greater pressure, and
persistent development has affected water supply. This place is changing fast and I
want to help increase awareness about the critical intersection of humanity and
wild places.

“The ecosystem is interconnected on multiple levels and I’ve watched and reported as increased traffic has impacted wildlife migration routes in the region, rivers have seen greater pressure, and persistent development has affected water supply. This place is changing fast and I want to help increase awareness about the critical intersection of humanity and wild places.” — O’Connor

MOJO: We’ve discussed the fact that both
journalism reporting, empirical science and private land conservation efforts are unable to keep up with the pace
of profound transformation occurring in the landscape. How do you see the challenge?

O’CONNOR: I don’t believe traditional journalism
is failing, per se, but I do believe that more persistent and pointed coverage
can accelerate the dissemination of science and the urgent issues facing Greater Yellowstone. Look at the de-wilding of wildlife habitat for example. Or consider my own
special area of interest—thinking about wildfires that stretches back to when I was a
member of a wildfire crew. As it relates to climate change, drought, fire
management and a growing wildland-urban interface, wildfire coverage in the
media needs to be more consistent and has to convey to the public what can be
done and that our window for dealing with change is diminishing.

MOJO: For the last decade you’ve worked at
Outlaw Partners. This summer, Mountain Outlaw magazine and MoJo worked together
on a printed edition called “The Action Issue.” I give your former
boss, Eric Ladd, a lot of credit for bringing important issues to the
forefront. It was courageous, especially for a businessperson like him. Strangely, many in the business community profit from the benefits of conservation and healthy landscapes yet they challenge laws and regulations designed to protect the irreplaceable ecological things that are essential to our region. Share a
bit about the importance of your tenure at Outlaw Partners and what you

O’CONNOR: I owe a great deal of gratitude to
Eric and my colleagues with the Outlaw Partners team. In 2012, they took a bet on a kid coming out
of j-school in Boston and gave me the chance to help build on the success of Explore
Big Sky
and Mountain Outlaw. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to conduct
some important interviews and cover critical stories for Outlaw’s publications
over the years. Eric is a big-ideas guy and has helped me understand the
connection of issues in southwest Montana and the multitude of ways journalism
and events can increase awareness of those issues. I look forward to working at
MoJo and building on the skills and knowledge I acquired from my time at

Above: O'Connor in the powder. Below: O'Connor and his wife, Emily, conservation director at the Gallatin River Task Force

Above: O’Connor in the powder. Below: O’Connor and his wife, Emily, conservation director at the Gallatin River Task Force

MOJO: As wonks of journalism, believing in its
mission of keeping people informed, presenting facts that have a basis in
truth and can be corroborated, especially with issues they would rather avoid, we’ve had many chats
with colleagues across the country about the problems of “he said, she
said” journalism, also known as “both sides-ism.” It’s the
presumption that with any subject there are two equal sides holding equal
merit. We at MoJo do not believe that equal rationalization exists when it
comes to protecting or plundering wild nature, of the high caliber that exists
in Greater Yellowstone. Share with readers some of your thoughts?

O’CONNOR: I believe in fairness in journalism,
but not that it’s necessarily a 50-50 split. Take climate change: data supports
the science that we are living in a world that is changing based on the impacts
that humanity is having on climate. If I interview 10 scientists and nine say
human impacts are warming the Earth, causing bigger and hotter wildfires,
heating oceans leading to increased storms, and disrupting weather patterns, I
believe in giving these fact-based assessments the merit they deserve. That’s
not to say we as journalists shouldn’t give a voice to dissenting studies or
opinions, but again it’s not a 50-50 split in a story. Credit where credit is



MOJO: It’s poignant that you and your wife
presently live in Big Sky and have witnessed astonishing change. How has that
shaped your desire to do meaningful journalism without fear that advertisers in
the real estate, construction and tourism trades might retaliate if you write a
story that angers them? 

O’CONNOR: Journalism has always seen pressure
from outside interests to toe the line or pull punches, whether it’s from
developers, advertisers, politicians or other interest groups. I
believe in holding power to account and that there are ways to do that the
right way. Transparency to sources about what a story is actually about and
offering folks an opportunity to respond is, in my mind, responsible
journalism. It’s just as important as transparency to readers. Basing articles
in data and facts is critical.

MOJO: There is a somewhat prevailing perception
from outside Big Sky that residents and visitors there don’t know enough or care about the
environment—that all of the focus is on making money, having fun without reflection on cost, and promoting
an industrial strength tourism infrastructure. I have encountered many people
who buck that perception, who are in love with Greater Yellowstone because of
its wildness, because it stands apart as a region from Colorado and Utah. Hailing from across the political spectrum, they identify unflinchingly as conservationists wanting to protect this place. What’s your

O’CONNOR:  I don’t believe most people in Big Sky dismiss
the environment. I believe there are influences that can cloud judgement and
that priorities can be skewed, but there’s also a component of not understanding,
or perhaps not having a complete set of facts. People need accurate information
and it’s our job to provide that and help educate them so they can make
informed decisions. We live in a special place and the time is now to make sure
we can protect it.

MOJO: We have a lot of impactful reporting in
store for MoJo readers and driving it forward is the urgency that is now
irrefutable. Conservation biologists and other leading thinkers tell us that unless we make a course correction in dealing with growth issues,
particularly in protecting the base of public lands and engage in better
planning, we’re going to lose the essence of this place. What excites you and
leaves you daunted about the challenge before us?

O’CONNOR: I’ve always been motivated by
informing an audience through bold, thoughtful and accurate reporting.
Storytelling is the oldest form of education and the passing along of
information. I’m thrilled to focus my work with MoJo on the issues in the GYE
and to bring to life stories that inform and educate. The challenge is for an
audience to listen but also to hear. Change can be difficult to grasp and
confront, and it’s incumbent on all of us to listen, hear and take action to
preserve this special region. We won’t have a second chance.

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