UM Journalism Unveils Women’s Wall to Honor Pioneering Women in Journalism

By Josie Harris

Alumni and friends gathered at the University of Montana School of Journalism on Friday, September 23 to celebrate the unveiling of  new, large-scale, vibrant piece of art hanging in Don Anderson Hall designed to honor women pioneers in Montana’s journalism history. The piece features seven trail-blazing women and artifacts related to their work.

The idea for the women’s wall was conceived shortly after Jane Jeffers Rybus ’46 passed away in October 2018. As a Griz, she was known around campus as “Jeff” and during World War II became UM’s first woman student body president.

Her death moved Tom and Pam Rybus, her son and daughter-in-law and supporters of the Montana Media Lab, to approach then interim Dean and later Director of the J-School Denise Dowling and then Development Director Gita Saedi Kiely to explore how Jeff and her legacy could be honored.

Together, they developed the idea to create a piece of art celebrating Montana women who made ground-breaking achievements in journalism and media.

In addition to Rybus, Dowling and Kiely thought to pay tribute to other women journalists in Montana’s history. After a year-long search including hours of research, faculty input and discussion, they selected six more women to be featured on the wall including Dorothy Rochon Powers, Judith Blakely Morgan, Bonnie Red Elk, Dorothy Johnson, Gretchen Billings, and Aline Mosby.

To make their vision a reality, they commissioned artist and alumna Amber Bushnell McBath ’11, an innovative media artist, to curate the glowing homage to the seven honorees.

Viewers gathered on Friday to admire the completed work for the first time. Found on the first floor of the School of Journalism—suitably located near the Montana Media Lab, which is devoted to innovation, experimentation and emerging media—the women’s wall greets students along the popular gathering and studying spot that stretches across the J-School’s south entrance.

At the dedication event, Dowling invited family members of the honorees to speak.

Erin Billings ’95, who was herself a dogged and acclaimed political journalist and now works in strategic communications,  spoke passionately of her grandmother, Gretchen Billings, who wrote and edited for the People’s Voice, a progressive Helena-based paper. In the 1940s-60s, Gretchen didn’t just cover controversial topics, she ran into them.

“She broke the glass ceiling for women in political journalism,” Billings said..

Kristofer Boyd, Bonnie Red Elk’s nephew, who worked alongside Red Elk at her self-started paper, the Fort Peck Journal, expressed great appreciation for her influence and devotion to holding tribal government officials to account, and for standing out in an industry often dominated by men.

“I’m glad things are changing, I really am,” Boyd said.

Following the dedication, Lee Banville, the new director of the School of Journalism, held a panel discussion with three young women in journalism: Maritsa Georgiou ’07, Katheryn Houghton ’15 and Madison Dapcevich ’17. They each shared insights into their very different careers.

Georgiou, a national correspondent for Newsy and award-winning broadcast journalist, spoke of her dedication to getting across the whole story.

“Even if it takes seven minutes to tell,” she said, “I want everyone else to know everything I learned, too.”

Covering all things healthcare as the Montana correspondent for the nonprofit Kaiser Health News, Houghton challenged the assertion that healthcare is an uninteresting, dry topic. “When you talk about access to healthcare, you’re talking about people’s most personal moments,” Houghton said.

As a science reporter and fact-checker at Lead Stories and former science communication fellow with the Ocean Exploration Trust aboard the E/V Nautilus, Dapcevich hardly struggles to make her beat interesting. Instead, Madison said her challenge as a science fact-checker stems from the complicated process of science. She can’t always deliver the answers people want when they want them.

The women’s wall and the dedication represents a great collaborative effort to honor the inspirational women who “blazed a trail for our young female and male students,” Dowling said.

Follow the J-School here and on Instagram @umjschool in the coming days and weeks as we profile each of the outstanding women honored in this dedication.

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.