UM Journalism Student Wins National Recognition for Montana Ranch Documentary

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MISSOULA – A University of Montana journalism student received first place in the Hearst Journalism Awards – one of the most prestigious honors for college-level journalism – for his look into Montana ranching.

Jiakai Lou will receive a $3,000 scholarship as the first-place winner in the Multimedia 1/Narrative Video Storytelling Competition for his piece “32 Below,” which he created for UM’s Montana Kaimin student newspaper.  

Chosen from among 88 entries from 54 schools, he qualifies to enter the National Multimedia Championship held in Houston in June.

“32 Below” takes an intimate look into the hard work, dedication and passion of one ranching family as they tend their cows and calves during last year’s frigid winter in Helmville, Montana.

Jiakai (JK) Lou, right, filmed his award-winning mini-documentary on Bignell Ranch in Helmville, Montana, last winter. Pictured is Tyrel James Bignell.
Jiakai (JK) Lou, right, filmed his award-winning mini-documentary on Bignell Ranch in Helmville, Montana, last winter. Pictured is Tyrel James Bignell.

Lou, who goes by JK, is an international student from China. He said he came to Montana for the outdoor activities and American western lifestyle. At first, he didn’t know what to study at UM, but soon rediscovered his love for documentaries.

“I gradually found my passion for visual storytelling when I was a sophomore,” he said. “Then I heard the School of Journalism at UM is one of the best in the country. I decided to dive in.” 

Lou began his mini-doc as a project for a distinguished Pollner Professor class last spring, which focused on intimacy and in-depth, long-form journalism. The class took place during a historically cold winter.

“I was wondering what ranchers were doing in that cold weather,” Lou said. “I heard from an old friend that ranchers in Montana were preparing for the upcoming calving season. It soon caught my attention and made me think of documenting it for my class project.”

Lou eventually connected with members of a ranching family who wanted to share their story – the Bignells – and he filmed the hardships and joys of calving from February to the end of April. The experience was eye-opening to him, and his truck got stuck in snow a few times on his way out to the Helmville ranch.

“Where the ranch is located is vast and secluded, and there was no cell service,” he said. “For me, that’s a place in the middle of nowhere – a place that brought me into a completely new experience. Documenting life on that ranch educated me on how hard it is in the cold weather and how tenacious the Montana ranchers are. Most surprisingly, I learned how to calve.”

Lou’s professors encouraged him to shorten, edit and finish the documentary last fall, as well as enter it into the national Hearst Competition and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

32 Below movie poster
"32 Below" movie poster

“Jiakai is an incredibly hardworking, dedicated and passionate student with incredible talent with cinematography, editing and video storytelling,” said Jeremy Lurgio, a UM photojournalism and multimedia associate professor. “He has spent many hours in and out of class honing his craft, and this project is the culmination of all his hard work. The story is intimate and genuine, and it is beautifully shot.”  

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival recently announced it selected “32 Below” to premiere on Sunday, Feb. 23, at The Wilma. Watch the trailer on the Montana Kaimin site.

The Journalism Awards Program, now in its 60th year, includes multimedia, writing, radio, television and photojournalism competitions offering up to $700,000 in scholarships, matching grants and stipends. Universities of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication with accredited undergraduate journalism programs – 104 member schools – are eligible to participate in the Hearst competitions.

Lou’s award follows another top 5 winner in the Hearst Competition from the UM School of Journalism. Sara Diggins finished second in the competition’s News and Feature photography category in December. 

For more information on the awards, visit  


Contact: Jeremy Lurgio, associate professor of photojournalism and multimedia, UM School of Journalism, 406-243-2601,; Jiakai Lou, UM journalism student,