Q&A With Podcast Superstar Nora Saks, MA: ‘You Can Be Pretty Creative About What You Do With This Degree’

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, The Richest Hill which, follows the past, present and future of a famous Superfund site in Butte, MT. The podcast was named one of the “Best Podcasts of 2019,” by The New Yorker magazine and it has become popular in and outside of Montana.

Nora Saks graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism with her MA in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism and Richest Hill was born out of her master’s thesis.

Graduate student Sierra Cistone chatted with her about the podcast and her time in graduate school. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Nora Saks is the host and reporter for MTPR’s podcast, Richest Hill photo credit: Grant Clark

What made you want to pursue a MA in journalism?

I spent about a decade almost as an organic farmer … and I think over time I realized I was interested in subjects like food justice and farming, but really what I enjoyed more than anything was listening to the farmers and hearing about their life experiences and backgrounds. And, that mostly got me interested in storytelling.

Eventually, I realized, ‘what is a job I could do that would let me keep learning, would let me talk to lots of people and walk a few steps in their shoes and have all kinds of adventures but do it with a purpose?’ And, I think that’s ultimately what led me into journalism.

Is there a class that was really helpful for practicing skills that you use today?

I remember Investigative Reporting being pretty helpful … that was when we had just the worst smoke season and Seeley Lake was just inundated with wildfire smoke. I am pretty interested in public health and environmental justice. So, Joe Eaton who is the instructor of that, taught us some good investigative reporting and research basics and then I decided to focus on the health impacts of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. I think having that class was a baseline for doing that work and I ended up getting two stories on NPR that were born in that class.

How did your idea for Richest Hill get started?

When I was reporting the radio documentary for my master’s it was on a much smaller piece of this puzzle. That was what my project [master’s thesis] was on and throughout that process of reporting that for months I realized “oh there are a lot of things happening right now in Butte around Superfund, not just what this activist group is focused on.” 

And, that’s what made us think, “oh this is a much bigger story…”

What was one of the biggest take-aways from the early episodes of producing Richest Hill?

There were a lot of people involved but I think some of the people who showed up in some of the early episodes come back. You never really know if you’re doing a project like this, who you are going to want to come back to and who might end up being a bigger presence.

So, I think keeping those relationships for your sources solid and up to date and as trustworthy as you can is pretty important if you are doing a long project.

Nora Saks interviews Mark Thompson with Montana Resources for Richest Hill. Courtesy photo.

What would you say to anyone considering pursuing a graduate degree in environmental journalism at UM?

For me the people and the relationships that came with those other students and the faculty — I probably didn’t really appreciate fully at the time and I’m only now beginning to understand how vital they are. 

I guess to anyone who’s worried about putting themselves in a box by doing this degree, I would say you don’t need to worry about that… Having an area of specialty or expertise is really useful and the coursework I did in school, as well as the research I did on my own in reporting, I think it’s actually really broad and kind of exciting in that way..

I think there are a lot of directions you can go with it and you don’t need to worry about getting pigeonholed and you can be pretty creative about what you do with this degree.


Q&A with Parker Seibold, ’17: Breaking Into Breaking News

Parker Seibold spent 2020 covering COVID-19, California’s fires, reopening of schools and other daily news for the Monterey County Weekly. Seibold graduated from the J-School in the Spring of 2017 and found an internship at the Missoula Independent the summer after school and later worked for the Missoulian. In a recent Q&A with graduate student Sierra Cistone, Seibold explained that her journey into being a hard news reporter was not something she had planned while still at the J-School.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Did you plan to be a breaking news reporter when you were in the J-School?

I did not. Breaking news always kind of stressed me out and I felt like I would never be good at it. I wanted to work on feature stories and anything I could spend a lot of time on. Now, I love breaking news and I think some of my strongest work comes from news assignments. 

What have you learned about covering breaking news through your work at the Monterey County Weekly?

I’ve learned a lot about how to be prepared to cover breaking news, especially wildfires. But I primarily cover more basic news because we are a weekly. I try to have all of my equipment easily accessible pretty much all the time. I also have a better grasp on how to do quick research about something so I can have a basic understanding of what is happening and know who I should be talking to when I get to an assignment. Knowing how to get that information makes a big difference in how efficiently I can cover breaking news. 

The Dolan Fire in Monterey County, CA. Photo courtesy of Parker Seibold.

What made you first interested in photojournalism?

I’ve always been interested in photojournalism. I think I was interested in it before I even really understood what it was. I always loved looking at, and felt I connected with, photos in magazines like National Geographic. I first said I wanted to be a photojournalist when I was in the fourth grade and got my first camera around the age or 12 or 13. From there my understanding of and love for visual storytelling grew. 

Covering schools reopening after COVID-19 lockdowns in Monterey, CA. Photo courtesy of Parker Seibold.

How did the J-School prepare you for the work you do now?

Exactly how their motto says they would. I learned by doing. The J-School and the professors there have high expectations of students and want you to go out and do journalism for a reason. They’re preparing you for the real world which is competitive and fast-paced. 

Covering COVID-19 in hospitals in Monterey County, CA. Photo courtesy of Parker Seibold.

Tailyr Irvine, ’18: Don’t Be Afraid to Follow Personal Stories

Tailyr Irvine is a 2018 J-School alumnus who is currently working as a freelance journalist and photographer. Her work has recently been featured in New York Times and National Geographic and you can view her piece, “Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America,” on the Smithsonian’s website and in American Indian Magazine.

After graduation, Irvine spent a year in Florida interning at the Tampa Bay Times before making the transition to freelance work. We spoke with Tailyr about what life is like as a freelancer and how the J-School helped to prepare her for life after college.

How does freelancing differ from working in a newsroom?

Freelancing is much more isolated. There is no newsroom and no cubicles to pop into if you need a quick second opinion. Going from a really fun team to working alone was difficult. You have to self-edit and work with reporters you don’t get to meet and editors that are across the country. It is also so much more work, you have to do a lot of planning ahead but also be available all the time. It’s an interesting balancing act. I struggle to carve out time for myself because I feel like I am always on and reachable. But I think it’s worth it because I get to do stories I really want to work on and there is a freelance network that is very helpful in regards to the isolation.

Photo Credits: Freddy Monares

What do you hope to convey to your viewers and readers?

I think through my work I just hope to show the audience pieces of life that they may not see. I think what I hope is my work takes the audience and … connects them with different humans that they might not connect with before and they can see ways that they are different but also see ways that they are similar to each other. And I think if we can get people to connect on that level, I think that changes the world actually.

What was the biggest take away from your time at the J-School that helped to prepare you for life after school?

You get out how much you put into a project. You are balancing a bunch of work at the J-School and that is pretty similar to how it is in real life. You don’t get time to just work on one thing, you are constantly balancing things. I remember feeling like the workload from each professor was impossible but it was actually reality. Time management is really valuable in this career and if you can’t balance multiple projects at the same time then you might want to rethink journalism.

As a photographer, what would you say to other aspiring photojournalists at the J-School now?

You get of this career what you put into it and I wouldn’t be afraid to follow stories that are personal. I think we have this idea in this industry that we have to be robots and be equally unbiased but I think it is the opposite. We have to recognize our biases and tell stories that are close to us because I just think those are better stories. Those are the stories that I want to read.

on October 19, 2019.
on October 19, 2019.
In Ronan, Montana.