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100 years later, UM School of Journalism imparts new skills, timeless values
Kathleen Stone began her journalism education at the University of Montana last year with the homesick apprehension familiar to most freshmen. She was alone in a new state, facing a challenging course load, 500 miles away from her family in Salt Lake City.
But unlike most of her peers, Stone had a tiny corner of campus that anchored her to this place. It came in the form of a desk, inconspicuously stationed near the elevator on the second floor of Don Anderson Hall, home of the School of Journalism. It was stately but simple, with an old Remington typewriter sitting on top. Other students might dismiss it as a misplaced piece of furniture, the typewriter a quaint throwback to journalism’s yesteryear.
But for Stone, the desk was a monument. She made a point of walking by it twice a week on the way to class. The faculty can’t be entirely sure—they teach students to question everything, even their mother’s love—but they think the desk belonged to her great-great-grandfather, Arthur L. Stone, the man who founded UM’s School of Journalism 100 years ago. There’s a photo of him on the wall. Black moleskin binders of his neatly typed lecture notes sit in a display cabinet nearby. Whenever she passed by these relics, Stone felt a nod of approval from her forefather, confirmation that she was in the right place, in the right major.
“Walking by that desk was a reminder that I have a legacy to continue,” Stone says. “It just makes me feel like I’m doing something.”
Arthur L. Stone needed no reminder of what he was doing in the fall of 1914, when he staked some Army surplus tents into the Oval’s grass and opened the third journalism school in the country. Photographs depict Dean Stone as a wizened man with a quizzical expression on a face as round as his glasses. Coming off of twenty-three years in newspapers in Anaconda and Missoula, he had just the right combination of charisma, ambition, and willpower to conjure a journalism school and build it from the ground up.
He made a few things immediately clear. There would be no textbooks. Instead he subscribed the school to more than twenty newspapers. The curriculum would be highly practical. He intended to train students to become steady reporters who took care with facts, knew better than to make assumptions, and could make themselves useful to a newspaper upon graduation. The classroom would be an extension of the newsroom, and students were expected to meet their deadlines with stories written in clean, clear English.
A total of twelve students signed up to study journalism in those canvas classrooms in the fall of 1914. The school soon upgraded to an old bicycle shed, then a clapboard shack, a converted Army barracks, and finally, in 1937, to a brick-and-granite building all its own. Under Dean Stone’s leadership, the school already had shown its ability to adapt, proving that good journalism—the kind that tells the stories of our time with speed, clarity, and accuracy—could be practiced even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Those circumstances had improved a good deal by the time Dennis Swibold arrived on campus as a graduate student in 1989. Swibold started teaching immediately in the very building Dean Stone had fought for.
“It had the smell of age and tradition,” Swibold remembers now, a quarter century later. “Some of those rooms I’ll never forget.”
Unforgettable though they may have been, most of those rooms were tiny. The computer lab was hopelessly crammed. And the building only had space for the print and photo departments—radio and TV had separate quarters across campus. And as the years went by, journalism was changing. The days of traditional newspapers looked numbered. News outlets were cutting staff and now expected their reporters to work in several different media. The school’s traditional curriculum, which specialized students in print, photo, or broadcast, no longer reflected reality. The School of Journalism prepared for its next ricochet across campus.
This time, in 2007, the school moved into the brand-new Don Anderson Hall, a stone’s throw from the tents of yore, with five spacious floors of gleaming classrooms, wired workspaces, professional studios, and airy offices. More importantly, there was space for all of the school’s disciplines.
“That’s been one of the best moves we’ve made,” Swibold says. “The new building is more than just a building. It’s kind of a symbol of what’s going on in media. It’s a convergence.”
With the new building came changes to the curriculum. Students no longer choose a specialty but rather experiment in multiple platforms of storytelling.
“They can get broad, or they can get deep,” Swibold says. “We’ve built it that way because we know the world is changing, but we don’t know the ways it may change. We need a curriculum that’s flexible enough that students can make their own combinations based on the jobs that they see out there.”
Dean Stone was a naturalist, historian, and chemist, and he knew that in order to tell stories about the world, you must first understand it. The school has adapted that philosophy into its curriculum by requiring students to explore different disciplines. Journalism majors spend their first two years immersed in the liberal arts. Then they spend their final two years in the professional program learning Associated Press style, how to write a broadcast script, take a telling photograph, report on city council meetings, and more.
When students reach the professional program, they quickly realize their professors are professionals.
“All of us come from the profession,” Swibold says. “We’re not academics in the pure sense. All we really know how to do is teach people by doing. And that’s really fortunate, because that’s an old tradition here.”
Before Nadia White joined the faculty in 2006, she was a reporter and editor for newspapers in Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. She didn’t stop writing when she started teaching, either. In 2012, she paddled a kayak alone from Port Townsend, Wash., to Juneau, Alaska, writing about the experience for High Country News. This summer she floated 444 miles of the Yukon River in a voyageur canoe as part of a book she’s writing about her family’s history in Alaska.
In short, White lives what she teaches, and students take notice. They trickle in and out of her office all day to get advice, talk about an assignment, or just to hear a story.
One of the most memorable classes White has taught came in the spring of 2009. The chemical company W.R. Grace was being criminally prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Missoula for allegedly covering up the dangers of its vermiculite mine in Libby, which left an entire community scarred by lung disease and asbestosis. [Graduate students from the journalism school were among the first to report on Libby’s asbestos contamination in 1999.] White jumped at the opportunity to give students firsthand experience covering a major trial. She and a law professor cotaught the course, which lumped law and journalism students together in the classroom and gave them a front-row seat in the courtroom as the trial unfolded.
The students assembled a blog, called the Grace Case Project, in which journalism students wrote stories about the trial and law students explained the legal concepts. White had the students use Twitter to report live from the courtroom. Twitter was still in its infancy, and this was the first use of it in a federal courtroom—a practice that is now much more common. The blog and the Twitter feed let people in Libby follow the trial closely.
“This was a classic use of technology to a targeted audience,” White says. “And it worked.”
The students’ blog was followed by The Wall Street Journal and papers in London. The more than 4,500 tweets the students sent out caught the attention of Twitter’s top brass. Santosh Jayaram, Twitter’s vice president of business practices, called White to ask about the flood of tweets coming out of this small corner of Montana
Throughout the trial, White says, the students were hardworking and professional. They understood the importance of being fast but accurate and telling the stories well for an audience that had a stake in the case. After the jury delivered a “not guilty” verdict, the students drove themselves up to Libby to report reaction pieces and put the story in context.k about the flood of tweets coming out of this small corner of Montana.
White takes heart in this level of passion and commitment her students put into their work. With the journalism industry in a season of upheaval, she says, it’s these sorts of graduates who will help redefine the craft.
“This is the most exciting possible time to be in journalism school,” she says. “I can’t tell you what job you’ll be applying for in ten years. But I hope in five years, you’ll be creating those jobs.”
Students are equal cause for optimism for Lee Banville, an associate professor who left his job as editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour at PBS to teach at UM in 2009. To him, UM’s journalism students have shown a spirit of path-breaking ingenuity from the very beginning.
“Can you imagine signing up for the class that’s taught in a tent?” he asks. “That kind of student is still here. They’re doing journalism just like those kids 100 years ago were doing journalism. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s that different.”
“He’d certainly be weirded out by the amount of equipment we use,” Banville says. “But what we’re doing is the same act of creation. That’s what they’ve been doing for 100 years here.”
OK, perhaps a little different. If Dean Stone were to walk into Don Anderson Hall today, he might be overwhelmed by how journalism has changed.
Old Dean Stone would still recognize a good deal in the school he founded, especially its commitment to giving students professional experiences. In the early years of the school, students were required to work for the Montana Kaimin, the independent campus newspaper that predated the school by sixteen years. It’s no longer mandatory, but today’s students have even more extracurricular opportunities to polish their skills in real-world settings. Some work at the Kaimin. Others produce content for the local public radio, TV stations, and daily newspaper.
Every student is required to have a professional internship before they graduate. And seniors participate in a capstone project that serves as a culmination of everything they’ve learned. For some it’s the Native News Honors Project, in which students report from Indian reservations around the state. For others, it’s the Student Documentary Unit or the Montana Journalism Review—the nation’s first academic journalism review. UM students win regular accolades for these projects, taking in a disproportionate share of national Hearst Awards, often called college Pulitzers, for a school of this size.
Banville says students are motivated when they realize their work is going out to a real audience.
“I can threaten a kid with a bad grade,” he says. “But it has nothing like the effect of knowing that you’re doing this for real.”
These professional projects and partnerships with national media organizations help keep the school current.
“As much as I want to keep my finger on the pulse of journalism, it’s beating pretty fast,” Banville says. “The only way I keep relevant is to make sure we’re always working with people who are actually doing it for a living.”
To that end, Banville has had students participate in projects like the Public Insight Network, a sort of national Rolodex of experts that helps journalists avoid going back to the same sources. Other students have worked with the American Communities Project, which uses county-level data to redraw a map of America that goes beyond the standard red-state, blue-state divisions. Still other students have filed stories for NewsHour on the 2012 elections and live fact-checked candidate debates for local TV.
In an age of rapid change and public pessimism about the future of journalism, it’s helpful to have a school that’s as flexible as, well, a canvas tent.
“We are still making it up as we go because the field itself is making it up as it goes,” Banville says. “It’s that ability to adapt that I think will be what separates the truly standout reporters from the others. I see kids coming out of here who are doing that, and that makes me pretty excited about what’s coming next.”
Dean Stone spent some time thinking about journalism’s tomorrow, too.
“Journalism must progress as the world advances,” he wrote. “It must always be a day’s march ahead. The message which it sends back must be truthful. I have no fears for the future of American journalism.”
He would smile to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning graduates of the school he started, the students who have gone on to work at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. He’d surely be proud of his latest successor, Larry Abramson, who left National Public Radio this year to become the school’s ninth permanent dean.
“I don’t have to set up a tent on the lawn,” Abramson says as he settles into his office on the second floor of Don Anderson Hall. “I’m really glad about that. This building is a testament to how much the University believes in the unique role of this school.”
Abramson spent twenty-nine years with NPR. He most recently covered the Department of Defense, reporting on national security issues after September 11, 2001. He was the chief education correspondent for five years and education editor for another five. He’s reported from Israel, South America, Asia, and the Middle East. He valued the emphasis on participatory learning at NPR, where people were writing copy for broadcast soon after they were hired.
“I want our students to have that same sort of immediate experience,” he says.
Rather than an old Remington typewriter, Abramson has a MacBook Air on his desk. He’s aware of the upheavals in journalism—he’s seen them play out in his own professional career. But rather than chase after the latest trends, Abramson aims to enter the second century of Montana journalism by keeping the school focused on the timeless basics—the communication skills, care with facts, critical thinking, and ethical integrity that Dean Stone would recognize.
“The profession is changing so rapidly,” Abramson says. “The best thing we can do is to produce leaders. I want our students to be leaders in this evolution, to make sure journalism comes out strong.”
Abramson understands that journalism may not be for everyone, especially now with the field in flux. Indeed, many graduates of the school have gone on to successful careers outside journalism—in politics, law, advertising, and other fields. But Abramson says for those who are excited about meeting new people, learning new things, and telling important stories in bold new ways, there are few better livelihoods.
“You have to go into this profession because you’re passionate about it,” he says. “This is a great profession for people who want to learn a lot about everything. You have to be able to talk to anybody at any imaginable cocktail party and ask them an interesting question. I think the basic requirement is a deep, deep curiosity about the world.”
It’s fitting, then, that the new dean will begin his tenure in the classroom, sitting among the students, watching the professors teach.
“They’ve been doing this for a long time,” Abramson says. “I see myself as an enabler for them. I’m their support.”
Kathleen Stone admits she got some questionable looks when she told people she was going to major in journalism. Such is the public’s perception of the trade. But so far, Stone’s experience in the school her ancestor founded has been nothing but positive.
“It feels very professional,” she says. “Everyone who’s teaching has done really cool things in their own journalism careers. It’s hopeful and exciting to think, well, I could be doing that.”
And this semester, when she’s on her way to class and she walks by that old desk and typewriter on the second floor, she can rest assured that the new dean shares her great-great-grandfather’s trailblazing optimism for the value and the future of the storytelling craft.
Jacob Baynham graduated from UM with a journalism degree in 2007. He writes for Men’s Journal, Outside, and other magazines. He lives in Polson with his wife, Hilly McGahan ’07, and their newborn son.