Eli Saslow returns to J-School

Students in the Pollner Seminar, along with faculty and other students, were treated to a visit from Pullitzer prize winning journalist Eli Saslow.

Monday, September 21st, For an hour and a half Saslow, who taught at the Journalism School as the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor in 2010, spoke on reporting and structuring long form narrative stories.

Photo of Eli Saslow
“I think that my best reporting comes when I’m the same version of myself in both places,” said Saslow.

Saslow, who writes for The Washington Post and ESPN the Magazine, described his work as an attempt to humanize the national issues of the day by telling the stories of people at their center. His stories have connected his readers with people for whom complex issues such as food insecurity or deportation are hard realities. To prepare for his visit, students in Kevin Van Valkenberg’s Pollner Seminar read Saslow’s article “After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet,” in which he profiled the Bardens, a family who lost a son in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

To capture the powerful emotions in the story, Saslow spent two weeks with the Bardens. Dedicated that kind of time to the subjects of his story is something he said is central to his reporting. Saslow repeatedly emphasized the importance of making subjects feel comfortable with a reporters presence, even during interviews. “Ask a question five minutes into the conversation, then ask the same question 50 minutes in and you get very different answers,” Saslow said.

Many of the students’ questions dealt with the emotional toils of Saslow’s reporting, along with the ethical questions he faces spending time with people in difficult situations. Saslow emphasized for students the importance of finding stories you can care about as a journalist, and of keeping an eye on the big picture and the impact well reported stories can carry. He also described the value in being as observant, and as much as possible unobtrusive, reporter.

“I’ve interviewed Obama in the oval office and I’ve interviewed other people who have never talked to a reporter,” Saslow said, “I think that my best reporting comes when I’m the same version of myself in both places.”

By Andrew Graham

Senior ESPN Writer comes home

Each semester, the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professorship endowment brings exceptional talent from the working world of journalism to teach a seminar class. This fall semester, ESPN the magazine and ESPN.com Senior Writer Kevin Van Valkenburg is carrying on the tradition; except that he is the first Pollner professor to be returning home, and the first to have known the endowment’s namesake.

Photo of Kevin Van Valkenburg
Kevin Van Valkenburg is a 2000 graduate of the UM School of Journalism.

The program began in 2001, when Anthony Pollner, a graduate and former staff member on the Montana Kaimin, died in a motorcycle accident. Van Valkenburg and Pollner were friends and co-workers at the Kaimin during their shared time at the University.

“Anthony was someone who inspired a lot of us,” Van Valkenburg said.

In addition to being back at the University, town and state that he calls home, Van Valkenburg is excited to pass along his enthusiasm for story telling in all its forms, and inspire the kind of ambitious work he knew Anthony loved.

Professor Henriette Lowisch, who first came to the University as a Pollner Professor, sees Van Valkenburg as a natural continuation to a great tradition. “The idea of the Pollner professorship is to inject the reality of the industry into the J-school,” she said.

Van Valkenburg’s experience with a wide variety of media – radio, website and magazine writing, makes him a real asset to students. “That’s such a unique experience he brings,” she said.

Students in Van Valkenburg’s class are learning the nuances of writing great non-fiction and embracing the challenge inherent in a Pollner Seminar. “Sometimes, from really awful things, can come wonderful things,” said Van Valkenburg.

By Andrew Graham

J-School Professor speaks about science journalism

A University of Montana Journalism professor said the Environmental Science Journalism graduate program is a unique part of the Roundtable on the Crown of the Continent.

Logo for the Crown of the Continent Reporting Project
The Crown Reporting Project sponsors students at the University of Montana to produce stories about the environment in the Crown of the Continent region. Learn more about it on the website.

The round table is an annual conference which serves to encourage a dialogue about environmental science in the mountainous north west region of North America. The area known as the Crown of the Continent includes all of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It is one of the wildest places on the continent.

September 17th, Professor Nadia White gave a talk about the specifics of the UM J-School’s environmental science graduate program. “We do emphasize the science end of things,” White said, before going on to explain one of the program’s most unique features, a semester long seminar called Story Lab.

In Story Lab, graduate students in the journalism program are paired with their counterparts in the sciences. The science journalists-to-be embed in research labs, where they spend the semester producing stories in all different mediums about the science and the scientists they get to know.

The motivation behind the class is to address a problematic culture gap between science and journalism. Scientists often “worry about letting someone else control the narrative of their science,” White said. Meanwhile, deadline driven journalists are often frustrated at scientists’ reluctance to give definitive responses before the completion of the excruciating peer review process so necessary to science’s function. This program allows both sides to get to know each other, and two distinct cultures.

In addition to Story Lab, White discussed the new Crown Reporting Fund, which supports journalism students as they pursue stories in the Glacier National Park area of Montana and Canada.

This year, two graduate students have been paired with accomplished professional journalists as mentors. Celia Tobin teamed up with Ted Alvarez, editor of the environmental news website Grist to pursue a story on border crossing contamination from mine waste. Ken Rand is paired with Christopher Joyce, a science correspondent at National Public Radio, to write about invasive fish species in the Flathead Valley.

“Our whole program is based on the idea that we’re in a terrific place to learn to tell stories about the landscape,” said White.

By Andrew Graham