Local journalists awarded including Prairie Notebook column author

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Recently, two local outdoor media journalists were awarded for their writing during a ceremony hosted by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) at their conference in Michigan. The Awards-In-Craft were presented to both Bret Amundson of Milan, who is the host of Pioneer PBS’sThe Prairie Sportsman as well as to Tom Watson author of the Montevideo-American News regular column Prairie Notebook.

A press release from AGLOW notes that Amundson won several awards including, in the Broadcast/Electronic Media Division, under the TV, Video, Webcast, or Vlog category, the 1st Place award in the Open category, and 2nd places in the Hunting and Fishing categories. Additionally, Amundson was awarded a  ‘hat trick’ in the Radio/Podcast division, taking 1st Place in the Hunting, Fishing, and Open categories. Amundson also placed 3rd in the “Best of Photography” Fishing category. With all of those wins, he was also presented with the Print or Electric Media “Best of Show” award.

Tom Watson was awarded the third-place prize for the “Best of Magazine” division’s Fishing category as well as the 2nd place in the “Best of Photography” Outdoor Scenic category.

Tom Watson

Watson began writing Prairie Notebook in 2015. “I went to Leslie at the Appleton Newspaper and said, hey, I’ve got this idea to do kind of an outdoorsy, natural news column if you’re interested in it,” Watson says. The newspaper editor was, and so the column began running in the Appleton newspaper first. After a couple of years, Watson decided to expand the column and approached the Montevideo-American News to run the column as well with expanded information to include more local content for Montevideo readers. The column has run weekly ever since. That’s not the only writing Watson does. As a freelance journalist, he has published a number of articles, some consistently and some as a one-time publication in national magazines and newspapers. “I write for several websites. I write a column in a couple of outdoor papers. I do some national magazine stuff when opportunities come up,” says Watson. “I’m a working freelancer, so you’re always picking up projects when you can and where you can.” Additionally, Watson has published multiple guidebooks for the outdoors and self-reliance. “I used to live in Alaska, so my background has been heavy in the outdoors. Backcountry rescue, self-reliance, and sea kayaking. I write a lot of articles about those things for magazines that specialize in those topics. I was in the travel industry for several years, so I write travel pieces every now and then,” he says.

Watson decided to pursue freelance journalism as a way to have published works and to be able to enter writing competitions with writing that has been legitimized through publication. “As a freelancer, if you don’t have a publication to base your writing on you’re at the mercy of whoever wants to print your stories,” he notes. He overcomes this by staying up to date on the publications that accept work, knowing what kind of work they accept, and then making his pitch to them for submissions. Watson also belongs to two writing organizations - the Outdoor Writers Association of America, a national group, and the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers. “I’ve been lucky enough to have submitted a winning photo entry in eight of the last ten years,” he says of his membership with AGLOW. “It keeps me financially growing and it’s added to the credibility of my independent freelance writing so that when I submit work to a publisher I can use this recognition as validation of my credentials.”

His love of writing began in the fifth grade, and Watson credits his teacher, Mrs. Mead, at an elementary school in Minneapolis for forming his interest early on. “I was kind of a dorky, nerdy kid with a butch haircut and glasses all through school but I loved fantasy. I loved watching The Twilight Zone on TV. I loved reading that stuff - Bradbury and Asimov, and all of those guys. Because of my liking of English, my fifth-grade elementary teacher took about five of us from class and made a special writing group out of it. She encouraged us to do writing each week and would give us different themes. I enjoyed that. It made me feel good when one of my stories was selected for being read in class,” he says. He continued to enjoy and practice writing, and as an adult wrote an article for a Minneapolis newspaper that was published. “I thought hey, this is kind of cool. I started writing some other things and I evolved into working for the old Twin City Reader in Minneapolis. I had a column there and did feature writing for them. I did some projects and things on my own and then that got me into more journalism. That included everything from production, to head photographer, to art director, to even editing a newspaper in Alaska and being a featured travel writer for one of their business journals. It just kind of evolved,” he says. “It allows me to take my imagination, as weird as it is sometimes, and see what it can do and it all just worked out in areas where I could feel comfortable with it.”

The internet is a major factor in allowing Watson to pursue freelance journalism while living on the prairie in Southwest Minnesota. “I’m on the internet three to four hours a day doing research, corroborating things, and using it to send my stories out so people can see what I’ve done. To be honest the biggest challenge out here is having enough things to write about at a local level. I do 52 Prairie Notebook columns a year so the challenge is to find things that are hopefully informative and entertaining. Part of it, too, is to remain humble enough to realize people are reading you because they want to. Not because you’re some kind of great poet or sage with some scholastic knowledge. It’s just that you’ve got some things you want to share with people,” he says. 

Watson has also traveled extensively. “I’ve always enjoyed traveling. I spent a month in Yucatan hiking. I spent a month in Peru. I went to Honduras to kayak. I lived on Kodiak Island in Alaska and had a kayaking business there.” After seeing so much of the world, Watson has enjoyed a variety of landscapes but still says there’s a subtlety about the prairie in the local area that’s worth appreciation. “I appreciate that we’re on the prairie and have a pretty extensive river system. I’ve always enjoyed geology and I appreciate the fact that there are so many outward geological figures like the Big Stone area. The fact that we have so much prairie land, the woodland birds and the animals, the open skies for viewing at night… all those little subtleties out here. I’ve got a nephew who has never seen the Milky Way because he lives in the Cities. I can stand on my deck and see the Milky Way. The subtle richness of things out here… it’s not the big splash, it’s the subtlety. Our 'big splash' are prairie sunsets that you don’t get anywhere else,” he says. 

People locally may also recognize Watson from some musical performances he has done around the area, playing local venues on occasion at open mic nights and during Appleton’s Music in the Park series. Mostly, however, Watson says he is recognized locally for his Prairie Notebook column, appreciating the comments he receives from the public on his work. The Prairie Notebook column runs weekly in the Montevideo-American News on the opinion page.