Faculty Q&A: Professor Ray Fanning on Past and Present Projects

By Kathleen Shannon

Ray Fanning under excellent lighting in the j-school’s broadcast studio.
Photo by Kathleen Shannon

Professor Ray Fanning teaches broadcast journalism courses as well as core undergraduate courses in the j-school. He joined the staff in 2007 after working at TV stations in Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, Spokane, Wash. and Boise, Idaho. His radio reporting on wrongful convictions in Montana won multiple awards. He’s currently working on a project about one of Missoula’s most influential architects.

Ray sat down with graduate student Kathleen Shannon to talk about his career, projects, the courses he teaches and the growing accessibility of video journalism.

The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Read until the end to learn his favorite ways to get out on the water.

Q: What was the most formative experience of your career before you started teaching?

A: I worked as a as a newscast producer for probably 20 years. And, you know, you’re putting together a newscast every day. The highlights of things I got to do in that time was I got to cover three Olympic Games: Nagano, Salt Lake City and Athens. And the last one I did right before I switched over to start teaching. That [meant] getting a chance to cover something that the world is watching. That’s really gratifying.

Q: Are you tracking the Beijing games right now?

A: Absolutely. Yeah.

Q: When you’re watching the Olympics now, as someone who has formerly worked at producing the coverage of that, do you find yourself lost in the games? Or do you find yourself sort of critiquing the video approach?

A: I think it’s a lot more curated and packaged now. There are lots of different places to see the Olympics and, you know, no one’s waiting to hear who won because you can find out [even] when it’s in a different country [and] a different time zone. So I find that they’re really curating and finding these stories that they’re going to follow, you know, like the Shaun White story. They put a lot of emphasis on that when there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on. The sort of nightly news, primetime coverage, is narrower than it used to be. They’re finding the stories that they really think people will tune into emotionally. So then you’re on your own to go out and find the other stuff that they aren’t covering in the prime time block in the evening.

Q: Yeah. I can see how that’s happened, too. Tell me about some recent projects you’ve worked on.

A: Around 2012 or 2013, I did a series of stories for Montana public radio on wrongful convictions in Montana. If you’ve listened to Jule [Banville’s] podcast, [An Absurd Result], it was sort of based around the same case, but not the same angle. The impetus for the stories I did was that it had been 10 years since [the wrongfully-convicted man] was exonerated. So I went back and looked at what the state had done to maybe solve some of the problems that lead to wrongful convictions, like the way they do photo lineups for eyewitness identification. There were problems in that case in the state crime lab. So I went back to the state crime lab and looked at what reforms they’d done. There were problems with the public defender’s office [I looked at]. Ten years after his exoneration, what has the state done to try to minimize wrongful convictions?

And then I did a documentary for Montana Public Radio on race. At the time, there were a lot of the protests going on for Black Lives Matter. Montana was one of those states that never gets much attention in terms of what the race relations ar, and what the racial problems are. So I tried to look at that in terms of, you know, over-representation of minorities in Montana prisons, and just different experiences of minorities in Montana and tried to tell some of their stories.

Now I’m currently working on a documentary for Montana PBS, that’s going to be about an architect named A.J. Gibson. He’s probably Western Montana’s most prominent architect, not that most people would know his name. But he designed Main Hall, he designed Jeannette Rankin Hall, he designed five of the first buildings on campus. He also designed the Missoula County Courthouse and a lot of residential homes including the big Daly Mansion in the Bitterroot. He was a force in shaping the idea of Western architecture. That’s what I’m working on now.

Q: I’m interested in what it’s like approaching video stories that are more historically-based. I imagine it’s different to talk to someone who’s currently dealing with the issues of race or wrongful conviction versus digging into history.

A: There are a lot of sources. You can’t go, “what was this guy like?” because, you know, all the people who knew him were no longer with us. H. Rafael Chacón in the art department wrote a book about Gibson. We’re sort of using Chacón as our central expert, and then looking at the architecture and the development of the architecture. So it’s more visual than it is interview-based, which makes it interesting. And then a lot of it’s going to be archival photographs. You can also do some some interesting things with drone photography now that give you interesting angles and shots on the buildings. So, that’s the idea: looking at how this sense of Western architecture evolved from the idea of a log cabin into various other things.

Q: What are you excited about this semester?

A: Well, one of the things I’m excited about is we’re revamping the intermediate video class. We lost the faculty member who taught the production side of the class. Normally, this is the class where students get to learn how to put together a live newscast. Now it’s shifting into being an advanced video recording class. So it’s been fun to tweak that class and change it up a little bit this semester.

Q: What other courses are you teaching this semester?

A: I’m teaching Journalism 100, sort of the basic entry class that we teach online in the spring. I have about 110 students in that class. Most of our classes are, you know, 20 students or fewer, but that’s one of the bigger ones.

[Another class] I’m teaching this semester is the beginning photo and video course, Journalism 257. I teach that most semesters. I’ve taught all of the lower [division] core courses, but in the upper division, mostly I teach in video.

Q: How did you get interested in video?

A: I’ve always had kind of a fascination with the idea of being able to share pictures of stories across long distances. It’s fun to tell a story, but when you can add the pictures and the sounds that go with it, I just think it enhances that.

Q: And this is probably one of the media that’s changing the most rapidly.

A: Yeah. Certainly the internet has changed the way video and television work. I mean, it used to be that you had to have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to produce a film or a television program or a video. Now, you can do it with your phone. So it’s opened it up to a lot more people. It’s not exclusively in the hands of the media, you know? Anyone can use that technology now.

Q: Do you have a sense of how that’s affected the interests or expectations of incoming students now that they all have video production equipment in their pockets?

A: I don’t know if that’s affected their expectations. But a lot of students are much more savvy coming into the classes. They’ve shot video before, they’ve shot pictures before, whether it’s for Tik Tok or some other social media. I think there’s probably more experience because before, it was quite a financial investment to be able to play around with video. And now the entry level is your phone.

Q: Cool! Last question: can you tell me about something you like to do on a weekend that has nothing to do with work?

A: I have a kayak that I like to take out [on] one of the little lakes around, often Seeley Lake, and get out and paddle for a while to get away from things. Yeah. I’m also a big movie fan, although that’s been curtailed a bit by the pandemic. Something [else] I enjoy doing is sailing. I have a cousin who’s a big sailor so often I’ll go up in the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle and spend some time there. That’s fun, too.

Faculty Q&A: Professor Nadia White on the ‘Happy/Crappy’ of Sabbatical and Why She’s Excited to be Back

By Kathleen Shannon

Nadia in her office. Photo by Kathleen Shannon.

Nadia White is the director of the master’s program at the j-school: Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism. She joined the faculty in 2006 after making her way from the East Coast through the Midwest and into the Mountain West as a newspaper journalist. In addition to shepherding students through the graduate program, she also teaches classes on science reporting and global current events reporting.

Nadia recently answered some questions from graduate student Kathleen Shannon about how she spent her time on sabbatical (including a particularly wild bike ride) and what she’s digging into now that she’s back on campus.

The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Read to the end to find out how Nadia most likes to play in the Montana snow.

Q: Let’s play my favorite interview game for professors returning from sabbatical. What was one happy thing about being on sabbatical and one crappy thing?

A: I didn’t even know you’re allowed to have a crappy about sabbatical.

Q: There’s no crappy?

A: Well, there’s a very multi-dimensional question there. Gosh, sabbatical was a great time to refresh and invest in my own creative process. So I got to do some journalism. I got to do some art. I got to read. And I got to teach a class that helped me really expand my knowledge locally, which was part of my goal: to know Montana better. So I’m happy about all of those things. The crappy part about sabbatical during a pandemic if you don’t have kids at home, which I don’t, is it’s just super lonely. I had a partner who’s working very hard on Zoom at home for a lot of hours a day. And we were pretty isolated and hell-bent on not getting sick. And we didn’t get sick. I was healthy but lonely. So my dog and I were very fit. And we got out a lot.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about teaching a class. Was it through the University of Montana?

A: It was from the Wild Rockies Field Institute. And it was a bicycle tour course on climate change and energy. One of the objectives of my sabbatical was to really get to know Montana better. A huge part of my career was working in Wyoming and I know Wyoming quite well. I am not as familiar with Montana. So this course allowed us to ride our bikes from Billings to Whitefish, about 700 miles, working our way along looking at energy production and climate change issues. We had students from MSU, from the University of Wisconsin from a couple private schools in Minnesota. It was a great bunch of nine students and was very self-supported. I learned so much about teaching in the field. I had a very excellent, experienced field-teaching partner, Dave Morris. We took a deep dive into climate change issues facing Montana and the challenges to engaging solutions in Montana and met people who were doing those things. We looked at energy production from a coal perspective, wind, solar and a pumped hydro storage perspective. And we got off our bikes. I went and met with those people and looked at those things. We talked to ranchers about regenerative agriculture. We talked a lot about meatpacking consolidation because that is what ranchers want to talk about. It was fabulous and an honor and just a great pace to meet people and learn about their lives.

Q: I wish all my classes could be like that.

A: It was a high point. Now, there were those days [when] we hit all the heat domes, when Seattle was like 112 degrees. Yeah, we were riding our bikes across the Musselshell River Valley in really impressive headwinds. You really learned to appreciate roadside bars [and] leafed-out trees.

It was fantastic. I love the prairie. I even love the wind. I lived in Casper for a long time and I’m okay with wind. It does great things for the air. It is a beautiful transition to find yourself moving across the prairie into Badger-Two Medicine, up and over Glacier and down into the Mountain West of the state. The transitions are beautiful. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful. It was a great way to accomplish part of my mission of learning more about the state.

Q: Definitely. Did you learn any surprising Montana facts? Or something you still think about?

A: Montana facts? Well, no, I don’t know about Montana facts. On day four, I got hit very directly by a dust devil. We had separated a little bit. There’s a little group of three or four of us out front, maybe 20 yards ahead of a little pack behind us and the back bunch said, “Oh, that’s coming right at them. What’s going to happen?”

And they said “I don’t know, I guess we’ll see.”

And it just, it hit us and [my] bike just got blown out from under me. And there I was in the borrow pit. There you have it. I [saw] it coming, [but] there was just nothing to be done about it. We talked about it later. What should you do if you’re about to be hit by a dust devil? Maybe I could have stopped and put my feet on the ground.

Q: That’s really more of a surprise encounter with Montana. I like that. You mentioned spending a lot of time in Wyoming. Can you give me an elevator pitch version of where you’ve been in the world of journalism?

A: You bet. I am a print journalist by trade. I worked in newsrooms in Maine, Minnesota and Wyoming. I was [at the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming] for over a decade working as an environmental reporter, a Washington, D.C. bureau chief living in D.C. and covering federal issues important to the cowboy state. Then I was the state editor for many years directing coverage of our Washington, D.C. bureau, and the bureaus that we have around Wyoming. And I loved that job. That was the newsroom that raised me.

Q: Cool. What are you teaching this semester now that you’re back at UM?

A: Well, while I was on sabbatical, we got some great professional science journalists to fill in for Story Lab [a class for grad students who work with a research lab on campus to practice science reporting]. And they agreed to do it again. I think I’ll go back to teaching Story Lab next year. So I am teaching Basic Reporting and Global Current Events, which is an honors class that is ridiculously labor-intensive, but it is a labor of love. And I work hard, the students work hard. Both of those classes are really fun, undergraduate classes. But I kind of miss teaching graduate students.

Q: We miss you, too. What excites you about being back after two semesters away?

A: I am so glad to be back. I’m the only person ever to be this excited to be back at work. It was a lonely pandemic sabbatical. I take a lot of responsibility for that. But, nonetheless, I apparently need structure.

I am refreshed. I am excited about teaching journalism [and] about thinking forward about the journalism school. Our graduate program is really catching a lot of applicants’ attention and [we’re] hearing from a lot of international students. I’m anxious to see how we work that out.

We got a very generous gift that came in while I was on sabbatical. That will allow us to offer some bigger scholarships, hopefully to some international students, but also to expand and keep working on our Crown Reporting Fellowships. So I’m super excited to reinvest my energies in in our existing programs and to see what we need to build going forward. It’s a changing world. We need to change, too.

Q: My last question: what is your favorite winter recreational sport to do in Montana?

A: Oh, I have to say cross country skiing. I really love Nordic skiing. I don’t backcountry ski as much as I used to. But I have my secret stashes where my dog and I find our way up into the high country without triggering avalanches. So that’s very much my favorite thing.

During sabbatical I got back into ceramics, which I’ve done off and on and has brought sanity to my life at various stages, especially when I lived in D.C. But then I had not worked in a ceramics studio since I started teaching full time. I never could figure out how to combine those two things. So my great goal is to try to continue to work in ceramics while I’m teaching. Let’s see if I can do it.