Accomplished Journalist, Ken Wells, Speaks About The Evolution Of Newspapers

Ken Wells, a seasoned business journalist, watched print news outlets evolve from traditional printing presses to the Internet’s 24-hour news cycle. At the first newspaper where Wells worked in Bayou Black, Louisiana, he used to run downstairs and smell the ink of the first papers coming off the press. In today’s world, he considers himself agnostic on which medium to use for publication, as long as people continue to tell these news stories.

Ken Wells speaks to a crowded room
“The best business stories aren’t about business,” Wells said. “But about their use as an interface for the human condition.” Photo by Alyssa Rabil.

Yet when Wells first started college, he didn’t dream about becoming a journalist. “I liked biology, and my father was a marine, so I decided to become a marine biologist,” Wells said.

He quickly became disillusioned with his classes and dropped out of college. Wells started working as a short-order cook at a 24-hours diner, but he quit that job after intervening in a late-night fight between customers. “I decided that breaking up attempted murder for minimum wage was not a good career,” Wells said.

He found an ad in his hometown newspaper, the Houma Courier, that read “Wanted: Part-Time Reporter, $1.87 / hour.” After the Courier hired Wells, his editor sent him off with a Polaroid camera to report on a bartender who had caught a 300-pound snapping turtle. Wells spent several years at the Courier before getting his master’s degree at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1977. From there, Wells worked at the Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News.

Wells spoke to J-school members as part of the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, which honors Cole’s dedication to the journalism field after his death, on-assignment, on January 24th, 2001. Cole graduated from the UM J-school in 1980 and had worked his way up to The Wall Street Journal by 1992 as an editor and reporter. Participating in this lecture series had personal meaning for Wells, who met Cole through The Wall Street Journal. Wells said, “He was a great writer, a great reporter and always in amiable spirits.”

Both Wells and Cole followed their editors’ mantra “We can fix your writing, but we can’t fix your reporting.” Since then, Wells developed his own idioms for today’s journalists: “Google might run the news, but it won’t write it” and “You can break news on Twitter, but Twitter won’t save the world.”

Over the years, Wells’ reporting proved to him how strongly business relations influence science, culture and other important fields. He said, “Outside of terrorism, the business stories are probably the most important of our lives.”

During the question and answer session at the end of the lecture, second-year graduate student Andrew Graham asked Wells about approaching his first non-fiction books after his lengthy career writing for newspapers.

“There a few things you should never do for money,” Wells replied. “Get married, make love and write a book.”

Wells enjoyed the reporting stage so much that he didn’t become a diligent writer until he confronted his first 80,000-word deadline. He said he had to lock himself in the attic for 12 hours a day to write. “I stopped talking to my wife, I stopped taking showers and I started kicking the dog.”

Regardless of the medium, Wells said that business journalists must embrace their responsibility as public watchdogs to be the truth-sayers in society. “There are stories growing on trees,” he said. “I think that we have a bright future in front of us.”

Learn more about Ken Wells’ work as a journalist, author (fiction and non-fiction), photographer and musician from his website.

To catch up with live coverage of Ken Wells’s delivery of the annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, follow the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.

By Jana Wiegand

J-School trains new generation of investigative reporters

Loosely defined, investigative reporting is the arm of journalism that deals with the uncovering of facts and stories that illuminate wrongdoing and injustice. These are the stories that some would wish to remain hidden. It requires hard work, a nose for documents and data and an ability to find good sources and draw out the information they have. It’s reporting that can carry a deep impact and foster change, but also reporting that requires a major commitment from the organizations that carry it out. In an era of decreased resources for media outlets, investigative reporting has often fallen to the way side.

photo of the exterior of the school of journalism building

The International Consortium for Investigative Journalists describes the modern paradox like this:

“Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government. 

The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most.” 

At the University of Montana School of Journalism, an Investigations class is offered once a year. It’s taught by Assistant Professor Joe Eaton, an award winning investigative reporter who worked at the Center for Public Integrity before joining the faculty in 2013. While students in the class don’t necessarily take on transnational crime networks or rogue states, under his guidance they launch investigations into local and regional issues and institutions.

At the semester’s end, we caught up with a few students from the fall 2015 class, to hear about stories they’d come up with and lessons on reporting they’d learned along the way.

Kasey Bubnash, a junior and a news reporter for the Montana Kaimin, signed up for the investigative reporting class following her semester in Eaton’s Public Affairs class last year.

Investigative reporting differs from other journalism classes because students have more time to work on projects, Bubnash said. Students pursue a variety of investigations, some of which take more time than others, and stories from the class come together at different speeds depending on the difficulty of reporting they entail.

Some stories, Bubnash notes, just don’t work out. Experienced investigative journalists call these ‘dry holes;’ lots of digging for little results. Bubnash started the semester working on a story about HIV in urban areas. It was a tough task to report from Montana, and she said she ended up unable to get the sources she needed to make it work. In the end, she wrote a spin off story for the Montana Kaimin on a preventive pill for HIV, and moved on to the next project.

The story she’s now finishing up is about the lack of clear regulation for home renters in Missoula. Bubnash says the current situation is harmful to both college students and landlords, and that both parties take advantage of it. She was inspired to do the story after Eaton showed the class an investigative report on a similar issue in Boston, MA.

Ken Rand, a graduate student in the Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism program, started a story that will become a part of his master’s project. In conjunction with an on-campus genetics lab he has been tracing salmon from local grocery stores, to see if their labeling matches what genetics say is their true origin.

“It kind of questions the underlying label, everything for the most part is labeled Alaskan seafood or salmon, when in fact the majority of it isn’t from there,” he said.

Rand signed up for Investigations in order to shore up what he saw as gaps in his abilities as a journalist. “I could see in the reporting that I did before that I didn’t have the tools to do what I needed to do with data,” he said.

Peregrine Frissell, a senior, found himself investigating journalism itself. His first story dug into how Montana newspapers balance online free speech with protecting the advertisers responsible for their revenue. That piece will run in the 2016 Montana Journalism Review, which will be distributed this month.

Frissell said the class really grabbed his attention, not only in the reporting he was able to do but also through the classic investigative stories Eaton assigned as readings.

The second story Frissell wrote examined questions of athlete behavior and academic performance that hover around the University of Montana Athletic Department. That story ran as a feature in the Montana Kaimin.

“I’d never thought about investigative journalism as a possibility before, but everything we read just got me a lot more excited,” he said, adding that he hopes to pursue internships and eventually a career in this kind of reporting. “It was invigorating, more than anything I’ve done in a while.”

Frissell said Eaton was an important resource throughout the reporting process, noting especially the professor’s accessibility. “I’d finish a bunch of interviews and I’d be really excited and could run straight up there and talk with him about it, and that was incredibly valuable,” Frissell said.

The students said they’d run into reporting challenges they hadn’t seen elsewhere.

“For the first time I was asking people to tell me things off the record, and getting other people to confirm it. That was all really new and something I totally believe I would’ve graduated from journalism school without ever having the opportunity to do,” Frissell said.

For Bubnash, that challenge came when she left a message with one of the property management companies she was investigating for her story. Their attorney called her back. She’d never run into anything like that, and considered dropping the story.

“I asked Joe (Eaton) what to do, and he said no definitely interview them still,” Bubnash said. She did, and ended up very pleased with her story, which included the fact that a management company had refused to comment to a reporter, and instead had her speak with an attorney.

By Andrew Graham

Alumnus reflects on circumstance and ethics as “both a bystander and a journalist” in Paris

Shane McMillan is a native of western Montana and graduated from the School of Journalism in 2010, at which point he moved to Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship. He interned as a photographer with the Associated Press, and worked as an English translator for German film projects. It was this second gig that helped push him into a career as a freelancer, landing him a spot on the production crew of “Can’t Be Silent,” a documentary film about a group of refugee musicians in Germany.

Since first moving to Berlin McMillan has been working as a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker, with work published in the New York Times, the Guardian and PRI’s The World, among other places.

You can read more about McMillan and see his work on his website.
You can read more about McMillan and see his work on his website.

I asked McMillan if he had advice for any journalism students who might hope to make it as freelancers abroad. “Just, like, make it,” he said laughing. “Just work hard and do good work and keep in touch with people who you’ve done good work for.” McMillan focuses his work on human rights because it’s what he calls the thing he’s most likely to get in a bar fight about. “Try to make things that people want to see or care about,” he counsels.

McMillan says he highly values the many facets of his education at the School of Journalism, he says, believing it was one of the reasons he landed a job in documentary film making. “I could write, I could do TV, I could do radio and I could take photos,” he said.

 

A WITNESS IN PARIS

 

Friday, November 13th, McMillan was editing work in an apartment he says practically touched the Bataclan concert hall in Paris as the terrorist attacks began. He was in town for a photography festival, part of his work as studio manager for celebrated fine art photographer Nan Goldin.

As it became clear that they were not hearing fireworks but instead sustained gunfire, Goldin and McMillan tried to figure out what was going on and debated leaving the building. “I really didn’t want to go outside that much,” McMillan said, but eventually he followed Goldin down the stairs.

They walked into a triage center. Police officers had been breaking into courtyards along their block to set up casualty centers for the injured, many of whom were severely hurt. McMillan said he found out the next day that three people died in their courtyard alone.

The two photographers began shooting photos once they got outside, but police forced them to stop. McMillan was sent out into the street, while Goldin was made to return inside.

On the street, McMillan said, his “natural instinct to shoot” as a journalist quickly faded. “People were very opposed to me taking photographs or even having my camera there,” he said.

He decided they were right. McMillan said he didn’t feel like his photography could accurately portray the scene, and didn’t end up taking very many pictures on Friday. “I didn’t feel like photographing that night because I really just wanted to talk to people,” he said.

Instead, he received a text from Anne Bailey at Public Radio International’s The World program. A former adjunct professor and fellow graduate of the School of Journalism, Bailey asked McMillan if he was in Paris. He then started reporting for PRI via phone and text message, describing what he was seeing, which he called a surreal experience.

“Without being inside of that place (the Bataclan) I was about as close as anyone was, or at least any journalist was,” he said. Read McMillan’s and Bailey’s story on the PRI website.

Far from providing a scoop, this proximity tested McMillan’s training as a journalist. He didn’t want to ask the trademark questions a breaking news journalist would, like asking people to describe their experiences and how they were feeling inside and outside the concert hall. “In that moment it was just too much of a violation of their need to process what just happened,” he said.

Instead he helped people. He asked simple questions and talked with those he thought were ready to do so. If someone was ready to talk, he said, you could see it in their face.

“That may or may not be what they would tell you to do in journalism school but I strongly believe that you have to come to situations like this as a person first,” McMillan says.

While answering my questions via video, and remembering Friday night, McMillan was visibly upset. However he said he was strangely calm at the time. Bailey, from PRI, helped a lot by talking him through the reporting via text.

McMillan described a man he spoke with who was looking for his girlfriend. The couple had been separated during the concert, and the man was unsure if she was alive or not. There was blood on the man, and by now, McMillan would like to know if she was all right. At the time, he said, it was very hard to know whether he should share that kind of story or not.

“It was a lot of really intense decisions made in a very quick turnaround,” McMillan says. He did not give the man’s story to media at the time.

“It’s tough to be there when people’s lives are changing in such a fundamental way, and to feel both a responsibility to them and to telling the story,” McMillan said. There’s a tension that he said he feels even more conscious of now after some time to reflect. “I was in this very strange position of being both a journalist and a bystander at the same time.”

At first he was being called by a lot of big media outlets, with whom he has now stopped talking, having tired of giving eyewitness accounts. He answered my questions from a hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland.

In return for what he called “a more personal slice” of his mind, I was asked to treat his story with respect and also to deliver the following message:

“I ask you to credit the University for what I’ve learned. Because I did learn a lot at school and I’ve learned a lot in life following that and I learned a lot this weekend.”

Much of what he does, McMillan said, “is based upon an education from a collection of people who are really amazing journalists and really amazing teachers, who forged me as a professional.”

McMillan will be working with the School of Journalism as their local facilitator and trainer in Berlin for a study abroad trip this summer. Students will be reporting stories from the influx of refugees to Germany and Europe. The documentary McMillan worked on will be showing at 6:30 pm on November 18th in The Payne Family Native American Center.

By Andrew Graham