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Bitterroot founders

Jake Bullinger and Maggie Mertens co-founded online magazine Bitterroot focused on politics, the economy, culture and the environment in the West. The magazine launches Friday after a successful Kickstarter campaign. 

Jake Bullinger grew up in a sports family playing basketball and football in the small southwestern Wyoming town of Mountain View. He gravitated toward sports journalism in college but discovered his passion for covering the West.

“I was doing an internship at Sports Illustrated in 2012, and all I could focus on that summer was the wildfires and mudslides that were going on along the Front Range that year,” he said.

Now he’s editor in chief of a new online magazine he co-founded, billed as “the magazine written by and for Westerners,” with an aim to provide a comprehensive look at life in the West. Bitterroot launches Friday after a month Kickstarter campaign that ended April 12 and exceeded its $15,000 goal with just over $24,500.

Bullinger’s work about the West has appeared in the Atlantic, Fast Company, Outside and High Country News, according to the Kickstarter website. Co-founder and managing editor Maggie Mertens has written for The Atlantic, Glamour, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, The Cut, Deadspin and ESPNw, according to the website.

Bitterroot focuses on stories of regional importance in politics, the economy, culture and the environment — categories that often blend in the region, Bullinger said.

The West is a complex region of fast-growing cities, urban-rural divide, outdoor recreation and public lands, he said, and the editors intend for Bitterroot to distill the most complex issues of the region.

“We want to be a destination publication for a really engaged group with mobile Westerners who care about the region as a whole,” he said.

Bitterroot begins

When Bullinger returned from his internship to the University of Utah, he started the outdoor recreation and environmental Wasatch magazine. At his current home in Tacoma, Washington, he’s worked as a copy editor at The News Tribune, helped launch a business magazine and has spent the last two years freelancing, he said. Always focused on the region where he’s spent his life, he’d long known he wanted to start something like Bitterroot.

“Each morning, even to this day, I wake up and I read 11 or 12 newspapers, and there just was no publication that would give you this kind of truly comprehensive regional view as to what’s going on in the West,” he said. “And there’s so many people who live out here that bounce around the region and care about what’s going on not just in their own backyard but in other areas of the region. And so that’s kind of where the idea for Bitterroot came from.”

Mertens returned to her hometown of Seattle after living in Massachusetts, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., “to launch a journalism career that took her from NPR to Bloomberg to Glamour,” according to the Kickstarter website: “Four years ago, Maggie realized the Northeast was not the center of the universe, no matter how much the magazine world insisted it was, and moved back to Seattle to shed light on under-reported stories and get back in touch with her rapidly changing hometown.”

Upcoming stories in Bitterroot include ranchers dealing with predators, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, life on the Arizona-Sonora border, rent control in cities, unique family-planning circumstances Native Americans face and attempts to remake New Mexico’s public education.

The founders have formed a network of more than two dozen writers, photographers and illustrators across the West with a variety of expertise, he said. The magazine will reflect the growing diversity in the West with stories of various populations and seeking contributing journalists of those cultural backgrounds, Bullinger said.

“And then beyond that, with journalism in general, there’s a lot of great talented writers and photographers out there who just really haven’t gotten opportunities,” he said. “So Maggie and I have been very intentional about elevating women, elevating people of color and using Bitterroot as a platform for those folks.”

In a newsletter Bitterroot has published since January as a taste of the magazine, many have already covered stories from around the region, including in Wyoming.

Contributor Sarah Scoles, who is also a contributing editor at Popular Science, hopes the magazine will be a way for writers to bring Western readers stories that matter to them and for both groups to learn more about different areas of the West.

“I decided to contribute because I think stories written for people who live in a given place, by people who also live in and understand that place, are important,” Scoles told the Casper Star-Tribune in an email. “I also knew that Bitterroot would, as compared to a national publication, better understand why a Western story or issue was significant, beyond the ‘Well, that’s exotic’ angle that sometimes shows up in national stories.”

A different approach

The magazine will publish weekly with at least one long-form feature or photo essay and shorter articles explaining important topics.

“We’re going to be publishing stories slowly,” Bullinger said, “so that you know what you’re getting is valuable and well-reported.”

Readers won’t see any ads, because the magazine will rely entirely on subscriptions, Bullinger said.

“People are going to have to sign up, and we did that for a couple of reasons,” he said. “One, it simplifies the transaction. I think if we produce good stuff and people are willing to pay for it, then this mag is going to work out. And two, it makes us accountable exclusively to our readers.”

The founders believe the approach they’re trying is the way forward for their medium.

“This is where it gets fun because we’ve designed Bitterroot to be a successful small business that can quickly grow into a large media establishment,” Bullinger said. “And our goal is to turn Bitterroot into the cultural arbiter of the West. Like I said, our readers, we see them as informed and curious Westerners who care about the region as a whole. And our goal is to turn Bitterroot into an indispensable publication for those people. And so early on, our focus is going to be on the quality of the magazine as we gain more subscribers. And as we learn more from our subscribers — because we’re going to be constantly speaking with them — we’re going to produce more and more audacious journalism. We’re going to get more writers tackling these types of hairy stories that are really hard to kind of parse out and explain to folks.”

The founders are beginning with freelancers and hope to expand quickly into staff writers and photographers, he said. Down the road, he’s looking into possible audio stories and a podcast as the magazine expands.

“But first and foremost,” Bullinger said, “comes building the best magazine that we can.”

He sees Bitterroot readers keeping up on local news near them and also coming to Bitterroot for the regional context.

“A reader in Casper, for instance, might be interested to learn what Albuquerque or Seattle is doing to tackle homelessness,” he said. “Things that are affecting public lands in Oregon affect public lands in Wyoming as well. And so our readers, one: they bounce around the region. So they are interested in what’s going on across the West. And two: they can learn about the solutions that people and other areas of this region are trying for these types of things.”

The founders use a yardstick of regional relevance to every story, he said.

“So Wyoming policies around grizzly bear management, let’s say,” he said. “That has an impact on folks who live up here in western Washington where we’ve got grizzly bear habitat up in the North Cascades, but it doesn’t necessarily have any bears there. And then on the flip-side, Microsoft and Amazon and Google and huge tech firms like that — their energy aspirations have an effect in Wyoming because they’re putting out battery storage.”

The magazine will report on problems and ills in society but also focus on solutions by highlighting efforts showing some promise to problems like homelessness and income inequality around the West, he said.

“And I think that’s one reason that a regional outlook is going to be beneficial. Because if folks in Boise are trying something interesting, and folks in Cheyenne or Casper haven’t yet considered that,” he said, “then all of a sudden we’re providing a service for them.”

The Bitterroot founders knew it would be a lot of work when started the project last summer, but it’s been a lot of fun, he said.

“I’ve lived around the West, I’ve traveled around the West and I just I care so much about this region,” Bullinger said. “And so to be building something that can add a new journalistic voice into the region and provide a service for our readers, I think is super important,” he said. “And it’s super important right now because news services are struggling, and we’re learning about their value, and the West is changing super, super quickly and it’s important for people who live here to understand what’s going on around them.”

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Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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Star-Tribune reporter Elysia Conner covers arts, culture and the Casper community.

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