By Kathleen Shannon
Austin Amestoy is originally from Laurel, Montana, and is now a senior, majoring in journalism with a minor in political science. His experiences include spending a semester covering the Montana legislative session in Helena and starting a podcast for the Montana Kaimin student newspaper.
Austin sat down with graduate student Kathleen Shannon to talk about his years at the j-school dabbling in all the media tracks possible. The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Read to the end for Austin’s sage advice to incoming students.
Q: How are you feeling about wrapping up your time at UM?
A: Excited and nervous. I am leaving well-prepared for the outside world, but I have to get a wrangle on what I want to do first because I like it all. There’s going to be some decisions being made in the next month or so. But I’m also not trying to pressure myself too much.
Q: If you could pull together a dream job, what would that be?
A: Well, it was probably my dream job from when I was young. And it’s still probably true today. But the interesting thing about journalism is by the time I get to that point, it might not really even be a job anymore. But it’s [to be a] nightly news anchor. Because I’ve always admired that job. And I admire the anchors who can go out and do their own reporting and bring it back into the newsroom or just report live from the scene of an important event that’s happening. I’ve always admired that. And that’s something that a lot of national-level nightly news anchors get to do. But more and more, we’re seeing, like [at] the local level, that anchor position is kind of phasing out, especially in Montana. At least the MTN stations are focusing a lot more on turning their anchor positions into senior reporter positions and doing less anchor newscasts and more just hopping from story to story, which delivers more news, which is really awesome. But I feel like there’s a special place in people’s hearts for their nightly news anchor. So I would love to do that at a national level. And I think those jobs will be sticking around at least in the near term. I also think it’d be really awesome to work on a podcast for NPR or something like that because I think podcasts are only going to grow as a medium for journalism. And that’s why I was really excited to be able to start practicing that now, while I’m still in school.
Q: What track are you following in the j-school?
A: I’m graduating with a broad base degree in Bachelors of Arts in Journalism. I think the track that I’ve done the most classes in is probably just writing, which is funny because I have done probably more reported work in TV broadcast and radio. But, you know, I did Denise Dowling’s intermediate audio class, which was really awesome, and got my foot in the door with audio reporting. And then I took intermediate video photography last semester with Jeremy Lurgio, which was really great. And that actually helped push me a little bit because it was more of a documentary style class, and I’ve done mostly broadcast work before at KTVQ in Billings over the last few summers. The great thing that the j-school taught me is a very foundational knowledge of AP style and broadcast writing and reporting. And I don’t think a lot of people realize that if you have those skills, it’s not a big stretch to put them to use in TV, radio or print because it’s all the same skill set. You just need to learn a few of the technical nuances of shooting video or recording audio and then editing and once you can do that, you can tell stories in any medium. So, I got a lot of my practice in broadcast outside the j-school, but it would have taken so much more effort and work and, you know, trial-by-fire learning to get to that point without all the skills that I learned here.
Q: That’s really insightful. I’m curious if you had a specific track in mind when you started out. What’s your journey been like exploring the different tracks?
A: Well, as a student in the j-school, I’m a little bit nontraditional. I did my freshman year at MSU in Bozeman, so I’m a turncoat. But when I transferred, very little of what I did in Bozeman actually even came over. I got a lot of my general credits that transferred over. But I came to Missoula because of my interest in TV broadcasts. My original interest was in that arena because I grew up watching the nightly news and I loved TV journalism. I thought it was super fascinating. But I also love to write just on my own. I’m a creative writer. And so it didn’t take me long to figure out that I also liked print reporting. Because it really is just writing creatively, but sticking to the truth and the hard news and the information that you can report out in the world. I transferred in as a sophomore and started in the program a little bit behind because I didn’t get to do the freshman level classes in the j-school as a freshman. So over the next three years, I really did a lot of catching up. And I’m graduating on time. But you know, going through that program, and getting so much of the journalism program so quickly, was really beneficial I think because it encouraged me to just hop from one class to the next to the next to the next and just build on those things. And I also just did a sampling platter of all the forms of media, just to see what would stick. But I think really the turning point of my time here was definitely when I covered the legislature. Because that was a really big deal for me and, like, figuring out what I was interested in and getting a chance to just go out and just be a reporter for a semester, you know? And do what everyone else in that capitol building was doing. And making some radio stories, but doing a lot of print reporting. It’s a really cool opportunity to test my education and say: ‘Oh, I actually really do like doing this. I’m on the right track.’
Q: So by that you mean you’re interested in continuing to cover politics?
A: Yeah, I’m actually a political science minor. So I’ve always been interested in government, I guess– maybe government more than politics. That’s one of the things that [Professor] Courtney Cowgill and I talked about a lot at the legislature was separating the policy from the politics. Because politicking is that sort of high art of spinning things to, you know, to win votes. Whereas government, and the processes that actually turn ideas into laws, and then the enforcement of those laws is so interesting. But those two concepts are really married, as well. And so I had a great opportunity to take some political science classes here and kind of sharpen my understanding of politics and government, and then really got to put that to use at the legislature. And I discovered that I really do love government reporting, state health reporting, and I’d love to do more of it in the future.
Q: And what semester were you in Helena?
A: This time last year, so spring semester 2021. It’s an amazing opportunity. And it’s really only afforded to a couple of students every two years. And so I was really lucky to have been one of them because I mean, it’s the epitome of the ‘learn by doing’ idea, right? It’s the j-school paying for students to go to Helena for four months and to just report and be reporters and then have really direct one-on-one support from an editor, being Courtney in this case. That was huge. [There’s] no newsroom out there [in which] two reporters [are] working with one editor. You’d be lucky if you’re sharing an editor with like four or five other people at most newsrooms, at least at the local level. So that was a huge opportunity to grow as a writer and reporter.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges of embracing all the tracks?
A: Well, I guess one of the challenges was by wanting to try all the different tracks, and just by the nature of me not wanting to go to school for six years, I wasn’t able to pursue all of them out to their capstone ends. But that was a choice that I made because I wanted to get experience in all of them. And I knew that even getting that baseline experience would help me practice that in the field, which I have fortunately been able to do. I did a lot of print reporting at the legislature, I was able to do some audio work there. Of course, I’m doing audio work now at The Kaimin Cast. And then I did a lot of TV reporting experience over my last three summers at KTVQ in Billings. So I guess the calculus in it for me was: I still want to graduate in four years, you know, because I want to graduate with all my friends and everything. But I’m going to get the foundational learning here, and then practice it and get that sort of higher level insight from editors outside of the classroom. And the j-school facilitated that super well. Like I already said, the legislature provided that opportunity for me. And then the Kaimin was willing to open an entirely new section this last fall after I pitched them the podcast for me to sort of selfishly practice my own audio techniques, but also hopefully leave something behind as value for the Kaimin. So definitely a challenge is the more areas you’re interested in, the more time it’s going to take to get to know those fields. But I think it’s just all about, you know, the amount of time that you as a person decide you want to devote to class and then how much you want to devote to your extracurriculars. And that’s a different calculus for everyone.
Q: Talk about a project you’re particularly proud of.
A: The Kaimin Cast. It’s sort of my—well, really, it’s the Kaimin’s baby as a whole—but I am particularly proud of it. And I know our editor in chief Addie Slanger is proud as well because we were able to really make it come together. I think that every reporter at the Kaimin should be proud of it [because] especially for the first semester, I was exclusively talking with the reporters at the time for The Kaimin Cast. So they were the ones who were out there doing the reporting for their stories and I just helped them turn it into a an audio story. But I’m super proud of that project because we really did build it from nothing, from scratch. Last fall, we found the distribution service, and I had to go in and figure out how to get us linked to Spotify and Apple podcasts and Amazon and every distribution platform you could imagine and get those accounts set up and those services linked. And, you know, we had to come up with the production schedule and the production flow and when we would publish. And then, not only that, but we were putting out episodes on a [weekly] basis. So while they were always based on the feature story from that week’s paper, we had to determine how that was going to translate best into an audio format. It’s an ongoing challenge every week. You know, sometimes some stories are easier to translate to audio than others, but we made it happen. I think I’m most proud of the fact that we never missed a week of regular publication with The Kaimin Cast since we started in the fall. We’ve always had an episode. And then this semester, we were able to devote some more hours to get an audio reporter in the section as well. And Elinor Smith has been putting out a companion episode every Monday to accompany the Thursday main Kaimin Cast as A Second Look, we call it, at the previous week’s episode. So we’ve been really able to create an audio department at the paper and then turn it into what it is now in the course of a few months and that’s been a huge point of pride for us. And now we’re working on succession and making sure that the program keeps around after, you know, a lot of the current editors graduate, and we’re on track to do that, too. I didn’t think it was right for, you know, this 100-year-old paper we have at the university to not have an audio component. That’s just becoming so much more common these days. And Addie I both said last fall, that if we could create an audio department and a podcast that would be self-sustaining after we graduated, we would have done our jobs. And we’re pretty close to doing that.
Q: Can you talk about something that you learned from doing The Kaimin Cast that surprised you?
A: I think what would have surprised me when starting out was that it would become easier as we went along. The initial learning curve of starting something off can seem really daunting. And, you know, for the first probably five, six, seven episodes, I would spend three, four, five hours straight editing after we had finished recording. And the more you do something and you develop your workflow and you develop your processes, you start cutting that time down. And then you can afford yourself more time to focus on other aspects to make the storytelling better. Last year, we talked pretty much only to reporters, and there was a lot of editing involved. And by the end of the semester, you know, our advisor of the Kaimin, Jule Banville, who’s also a professor here at the school, was saying: ‘How can we make this happen? How can we shake this up, make this more interesting?’ And it was something that, you know, can be discouraging to hear after you’ve been working, just to get out a product every week. But was what we needed to hear. Well, we decided to change the publication day from the Monday before the paper came out to Thursday, the same day as the paper. And in doing so we pushed our timelines back by four days, and then in doing so, we were able to switch up the format a little bit and we started bringing in people from outside the Kaimin to interview on the on the Kaimin Cast. We were getting students from around campus into the audio booth and people from the community and then we were still talking to reporters sometimes as well, you know, and we had this really healthy balance of sources for the podcast. So I guess I was surprised at the trajectory The Kaimin Cast took because you go into it thinking it’s going to be one thing, and you really just kind of have to let go of the reins sometimes and figure out where the horse wants to go. And then you’ve got to follow. That was the case with the podcast. And you know, I think it’s in a better place now for it. I’m a notorious control freak. Learning to let go of the control and also being okay with that, was definitely my surprising, revelatory moment.
Q: That’s a good life lesson, too. Okay, last question. What sort of advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out at the j-school?
A: Oh, well, first of all, congrats for choosing the best program in UM and also the state. You’re in a good place. And you picked right.
My advice to them would be, well, this is the cliche advice, but get involved with the Kaimin, first of all. Two stories per week is the expectation of a reporter. But if you’re interested in photo, apply to be a photographer. If you’re interested in design, apply to be a designer of the paper. If you’re interested in audio, please apply to be an audio reporter. Even if you’re not picked to be a paid reporter, we do hire interns all the time. And the best thing you can do at the j-school is start getting involved, whether that is at the Kaimin or not. Start making connections and friendships with people in the building and get to know your professors. Because that was really hard for me coming in as a transfer student. I came in and didn’t really get an orientation like traditional freshmen do coming in. And so I sort of started off a little bit cold and really had to get to know everyone. But once I did, it was like transformational—a better experience when you’re connected to the people around you and in the school. So that would be my recommendation. Because once you have those connections, your learning will also just bloom. You’ll be surrounded by people with different ideas and methods of going about journalism, and you’ll get advice from so many different corners. And you can pick and choose the best pieces of advice that serve your style of learning and your style of reporting. And you’ll make yourself an infinitely better reporter in the process. You’ll also just have more fun. So I would say just don’t be afraid to dive in and get your feet wet. Because the ‘learn by doing’ thing is a motto, but it’s also a mandate, basically. You’ve got to do it here because otherwise you’re doing yourself a disservice. And don’t be scared. Yeah, it can be really scary. But there’s a reason you’re here and not starting off at The New York Times, right? You’re supposed to be learning. You’re supposed to be failing—but, you know, hopefully failing upward.