By Kathleen Shannon
Dennis Swibold began teaching at the J-School in 1989, where he’s known for his in-depth knowledge of Montana politics and history. He teaches classes on the elements, ethics and trends of journalism. In the 1990s, he launched the J-School program in which students report from the legislative session in Helena.
Before coming to UM, he was the editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and his book Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics and the Montana Press, 1889-1959 was published in 2006.
Dennis recently answered some questions from graduate student Kathleen Shannon about changes in the journalism industry, the power of the first amendment and the coming 50th anniversary of Montana’s state constitution. The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Read to the end to learn which Thanksgiving dish is Dennis’s favorite (fun fact: you’ve probably never heard of it!).
Q: What classes are you teaching this year?
A: I’m teaching a very beginning writing courses called writing the news. It used to be elements of journalism. Basically, what we do is just teach students the conventions of news writing and how it’s different from other forms of writing. And we introduce them to things like style and convention. It’s also a chance to sort of brush up on things like grammar and punctuation and spelling, which sadly aren’t really taught very well anymore. And I understand exactly why because it’s hard to do. But I just try to make it a safe zone for people, to sort of say: “what are your worst fears about grammar and punctuation?” Let’s get them all out here and see if we can fix [them] up.
Then I’m also doing ethics and trends, which is the senior ethics seminar. There’s no end to what you can discuss in terms of ethics and so I try to show my greatest hits and greatest disasters, and I try to keep it as current and topical as possible. And then we talk about industry trends. They had a good introduction to the media landscape when they began and now it’s talking about where it’s changing and why and they could do some research on that, too. So, it’s a fun class. We argue a lot. It’s a good, respectful, but lively discussion almost every time.
Q: It sounds like you’ve been at the j-school longer than any other professor here, right?
A: I started in the fall of ’89, not as a professor, but I was a graduate student. I came here on a teaching fellowship, and one of the things they suggest that you do is work on a master’s degree while you’re doing that. I’d been in the newspaper business for 10 years at that point. So I started teaching right away, mostly very beginning kinds of classes with the help of great faculty members who’ve been doing it for a long time. And two years later, I was a member of the permanent faculty.
Q: What keeps you interested in teaching after 30 years?
A: It’s the students. And it’s just changes in the profession. You know, I get older but they stay the same in terms of their passions for things. It’s all new. It’s constantly good to sort of see it afresh and their questions and even their thoughts about it. And it’s always sort of an interesting time for journalism, whether it’s in crisis—it’s always in crisis! It’s kind of fascinating to see how they look at it and seeing their passion and enthusiasm for it, you know. I’m always inspired by that, by them and the things that they want to do and, and it helps me remember how passionate I was [and] why I started doing this kind of stuff, too. I don’t see any lack of desire today. People want to do it. They know it’s a fun job. They know it’s a privileged kind of position no matter how lousy it pays. But just to be this front-row spectator with the right to be nosy and tell everyone about what you know, just seems like kind of a fascinating thing.
I did a book on Montana history at a crucial time, which seems so quaint and antiquated though, at a time when the copper company owned the major dailies of the state and was so close to the press, because it’s hard to pick it that could happen today. We just have Facebook. So, the idea that ownership matters and how it’s monetized and incentivized and what the individual practitioner’s role in all of that is, is something that I love to talk about.
History is important because every group of students comes in with the idea that it has just begun, that it didn’t exist before [their] frame of reference, and that’s just the way we are. Right? So I have to talk about where we came from, in a way that makes [their] understanding of what we’re talking about today richer and not just: “well, back in the day.” It’s a difficult thing to do. Students seem to appreciate it if you approach it right. Or ask them the questions and get them to looking into: Where did this come from? How did it start? What’s been its evolution? And they talk about things today, like: “God we’re so politicized.” And I think, “you should have seen the press in 1810.”
Q: I’ve only been here one semester, but on the way out of the building at one point, I read the first amendment in the lobby I was reminded that it’s badass. I just hadn’t really appreciated it. Joe Eaton was telling us how, when he had taught journalism in Vietnam and Russia, he explained the Freedom of Information Act to them. And that was not something they could use.
A: I taught in China ona couple of occasions, just briefly, but I was careful not to tell them how they should do it. I was very interested in showing them what American journalism practice was and what it had been: good, bad, indifferent, you know. I just represented it. Then I brought 14 graduate students from Shanghai International Studies University to Montana to spend a month. All we did was kind of look at American journalism as practiced locally and their coverage of civic institutions. The first time we walked into a court session, they were flabbergasted. I mean, even the idea that you could walk into a court session was revolutionary. It was a municipal court thing, so not a big deal. Nobody comes to this full court session when somebody’s arguing a traffic ticket. And so 14 of us come in and we take up the jury box because there’s no room for us.
And the judge is bored, so he starts to say, “oh, who are you? Where are you from?” And he says, “if you have any questions during the procedure, just ask them and I’ll stop and I’ll explain how this all works.”
The poor guy in the docket is like “Oh, geez.” But it was a fascinating experience for them, from a society that even then was getting more tightly-controlled than they knew. The second time I went back, it had changed in the space of three or four years.
Q: What year did they come?
A: Oh, that was 2014 and then I went back in 2019. Yes, it was quite a good challenge. I mean, 2014 I was in Shanghai, which is like going to New York. It’s super modern, super “highways in the sky” kind of a place and buildings as far as you can see. And the faculty were there was so proud of all their technological expertise and ability to get anything anytime. They had a Montana party for me. They’re bringing me pizza and stuff like that, but they’re so proud of their ability to connect to a larger world and do that kind of stuff.
If I went back to that same faculty today, personally, they’d be great. They’d be warm. But this openness to the world would be different. Even then, it’d be like if all American TV shows were about the Civil War or antebellum South: just a historical time frame designed to promote nationalism. So there was an effort to build pride and build a national esteem because they’d been hammered, you know, if you look over the 20th century at that country.
I remember a year ago over Christmas break, I did a five-hour session with graduate students on Zoom. But they were really skeptical. I mean, more and more skeptical and I wasn’t really trying to argue for a position. I just tried to explain how it was. And all the people in journalism schools all had to be party members because they’re part of the state’s messaging apparatus. That’s their job.
Q: I’m surprised they even had you in as a teacher at that point.
A: I was surprised, too. But I think they liked my approach because I was basically telling them how the American journalism system works. And I wasn’t afraid to talk about its flaws. But I also made it clear that there were things that were expected of American press and in its own principles that—I didn’t say “you don’t have”—but [that]’s clearly the case. It was powerful. And a lot of them would come up afterward and talk to me in sort of hushed tones and tell me I should go visit Tiananmen Square, and that kind of stuff. So they were kind of fascinated but they couldn’t really be that open about it.
Coming back here with that experience was like: “oh, now this puts everything in a different light.” Yeah, it’s been a great place to see the profession.
Q: When other j-school staff bring up your name, they’re usually encouraging students to talk to you about Montana history and politics. Is there anything fueling your fire in that world at the moment?
A: Montana history is fascinating and right now the political environment in Montana is swinging to the right in ways that it’s not been in my time here. It’s been pretty much a purple state until the last 10 years or so. And so that trend and that change, you know, I’m fascinated by it. This morning, I read a piece in the Montana Free Press [about] some powerful House members calling for throwing out the state’s Constitution as a socialist drag. This is the 50th year anniversary of Montana’s constitution, so that’s a pretty amazing thing to say. It wasn’t that popular in the past, but it’s kind of been venerated over the years as a fairly progressive model. But he wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t think there was a fertile ground for that kind of idea. And so that’s something that fascinates me. What’s going to happen? What’s the change?
One of my favorite classes is with Lee every other year because we teach the covering elections class. We also groom some students to go to Helena and cover the legislature, which has been something I started and sort of amplified in the early ‘90s. But we send two or three students to help out or to cover the session for all these really small weeklies that can’t afford to cover it. And if they do, they’re just getting op-eds from the local legislator that are mostly self-serving. So this way they can kind of get independent of that. Courtney’s the wonderful editor of that. I did it for the first, you know, 20 years and she’s taken over the last 10 and done it really well, too, and expanded not only how it’s done, but all the different places that it shows up. And our students are more ambidextrous in terms of mediums than they have ever been, which is something that’s been encouraging to see. They’re doing audio stories, they’re doing their regular print analysis, they’re doing online stuff. They know what the demands of different mediums are and how to look for stories there. So that’s fascinating to me. I’ve got to help create some of those things that have gone on. It’s kind of been gratifying to see them flower in different ways.
Q: Yeah, that was part of my research before I moved to Montana. I listened to the podcast Shared State and I thought they really broke down the state constitution pretty well.
A: The thing about it is it has a beautiful prelude. You can’t argue with it. It’s perfect. At the time of its passage, it was considered sort of a progressive model, that’s what Time Magazine said and yet it barely passed the public vote. It passed by 2000 votes. People had to vote to approve it and it was close. And yet, the public impression sort of grew over past years. But now I think there’s a point of discontent with it. I don’t know how deep that really runs, but it certainly is something that’s interesting to me.
Montana has always been really good at beautiful words. What’s always been sort of lacking is the effective administration and follow through and organization to sort of make the right-to-know sort of work. I mean, enforcement is, you know, more than half the battle for me. I got to work on a project with the Center for Public Integrity. We had this concept called state integrity project where we looked at laws and then see how they’re enforced [regarding] openness and civil society kinds of things. We had this huge database [and after] all these editors looked over it with me, we came up with a B+ for Montana laws in that regard and a D for its execution. If you think about this being a place with not many people and not many resources, you can kind of understand how there could be that disconnect.
We’d go to local counties and look for information and be told: “it doesn’t exist and we can’t get it.” It seems to be the default answer from people who really don’t know the law or don’t understand it or don’t know how to help people or if they should, if they’re going to get in trouble or whatever the case may be. So that’s a constant process of re-educating people all the time. But it’s hard, particularly when you’re talking about public information because it’s one thing to have it available to a few people to go and see it. It’s another thing to have it available to everyone. So, it’s raised questions about privacy. And that’s always been the battle with Montana in terms of the information and it continues to be: privacy and openness. I think there are reasonable reasons to think that Montana’s constitution says you have a right to privacy and a right to know.
Q: Yeah, that goes back to the beginning of our conversation about how badass the First Amendment is and how a lot of people probably don’t even realize that’s the case.
A: It’s one of those things you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. And you realize you can’t get these fundamental things. I think there’s a real respect for having this kind of stuff. But there’s also a growing fear about privacy in ways that sort of worry me as a journalist. I mean, I used to always get that information. How would I know how things are working? What systems are fair or just if I can’t see that stuff? And yeah, I could see people worrying about what might be the effect of having somebody doing damage to them as a result of having this information, too. All these things are worth talking about.
Q: On a less serious note, this will be published the day after Thanksgiving. So what’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish?
A: My wife and I have had kind of a tradition the past few years of making this soup, that takes all day. It’s an Iranian recipe because my brother-in-law is Iranian-American. It’s called ash [pronounced osh]. And the hard part is chopping up a million different kinds of things. And then every hour, you have to put more in the pot. It’s a five-hour process, which is kind of a fun thing to do when we cook together, throw things in the pot. There’s meat, but you can use mushrooms if you want to make a vegetarian version. There’s different kinds of legumes and different kinds of greens and there’s a rice that’s part of it. There’s different kinds of beans in it. It’s fun to do. You don’t really have to think about it. You chop it all up for the first hour and get all the stuff ready and then you go sit down for an hour.