Faculty Q&A: Professor Dennis Swibold on the Enduring Appeal of Journalism

By Kathleen Shannon

Dennis Swibold stands with his impressive office book collection.
Photo 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.

Faculty Q&A: Professor Keith Graham on the Growth of Multimedia During his Career

Professor Keith Graham helps a student pilot a drone during new student orientation this year.
Photo by Kathleen Shannon.

As far as anyone can calculate, Keith Graham has been a professor in the J-School for 22 years. For many graduates, when they think of the faculty of the J-School, Keith is the first name and face they see. Before he came to UM, he worked at the Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News and the Roanoke Times.

Keith teaches photography, multimedia and graphic design courses and with his compatriot Jeremy Lurgio, leads the photo side of many of the school’s professional capstone classes. This semester at UM, he’s teaching the Byline Magazine capstone, which will publish a magazine next month, a freelance photography class and a design class.

Keith recently sat down with graduate student Kathleen Shannon. They talked about his journalism career, what it was like being part of a newspaper’s very first website and more. The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: I didn’t realize how multimedia focused you are. You’ve worked with a lot of media!

A: As video and audio came into more prominence, [Jeremy Lurgio and I] picked up more of that because, well, one: it’s fun, but two: it’s a needed piece of the visual reporting that journalists [do] today. Even in our [introductory] class, [we’re] trying to teach those skills. [We’re] trying to get people to understand what’s the best way to tell the story. So that’s when I look at multimedia. Audio can work great when you’re trying to get emotion and listen to background history stories.

Q: Yeah, I recently watched a ProPublica video about environmental justice for class and I learned so much in two and a half minutes.

A: So, it was an explainer video? Then that’s also when you’re saying: “well, this graphic helped me remember that seven out of 10 people did x,” right? So the graphic is what’s going to allow us to process visually.

Q: Right. I noticed that your background is more in print. Can you tell me a little bit about your path in journalism?

A: I started as a photographer. I was an English and history major in undergrad at Vanderbilt. We didn’t have journalism. My second year of college there, a fellow photographer said, “Hey, we need people [to] come work for the yearbook. Come work for the paper.” And I think that was my first taste of journalism. So I left school with English and history degrees, freelanced for three years, studied in Switzerland, came back and did grad school in photo-j, did a book for my master’s project. And so that was the first part of writing and photographing, and then also try[ing] to learn the art of interviewing. Then I got hired at the Miami Herald [as] a photographer and also did some photo editing [and] design work. I wore three hats there.

When I moved from East Coast to West Coast, I [worked in] San Jose and that was a very sophisticated paper. They were fabulous reporters. I mean, I worked with at least two people who had Pulitzers that were great teachers [as a result]. When a lot of big stories came up, because I could photograph and edit, I would go on as a photographer, but be a photo editor on-site. [I’d] cover the World Series, Super Bowls, things like that. I picked up the love of seeing the bigger picture of journalism: how words and images work together.

Then my wife got tired of the fast lane [and we] moved to Roanoke. I was there as a picture editor, photographer and then, at the end, director of photography. And that’s where the Vice President came in one day and [said] we were going to start this thing called a website for our paper. This was just a couple of years after papers were getting online. And he said “I don’t care if you lose money the first year, I want you to start.” I remember the first piece we did. That was a true multimedia piece. We interviewed the remaining World War I Vets that were alive at the time.

Q: Wow. How many were there?

A: Twenty. Before we published, the only woman [of the group] died. You’ve got to remember the tools were rudimentary. We didn’t have apps. Adobe Audition didn’t exist. We actually had to go to a studio in town to do all the audio pieces.

Having done that World War I piece, it was like: This is what you can do online. This is what you can’t do in the paper. You can’t hear the voice of the World War I Jimmy. And I remember to this day [a photographer] walking down the road with Jimmy and interviewing him. And that was like: “Wow, this is different. We used to just be in print.” We can now tell a different story.

So that was the first piece. But here [at UM], as video became more important, and audio became more important and multimedia storytelling became more important, we just moved in that direction.

Q: That sounds like a really exciting time to be at the helm in the newsroom.

A: Oh, yeah. We got to do everything. We got to do anything. In Miami, literally after the first time they called me to go out of town, I had a suitcase packed. I got called one day and they go: “You need to be in the Miami Airport within 45 minutes, if you can.”

“Where am I going?”

“Out of the country, we’ll tell you later.”

That was part of the joy of being in that. It wasn’t: can we? It was: who’s going?

Q: Yeah. I know that the [newsroom] culture is a little different now.

A: Well, the culture is different. But the storytelling is still there. [The trick is] finding what’s relevant and finding a niche for yourself and an audience. Good stories need to be told. Good storytellers need to tell those stories, in whatever form.

Q: Is there a part of your academic year that’s really exciting for you?

A: Well, when we teach capstones [like the] Byline magazine class, this is when the time gets fun and crazy. Tuesday, we [did] our first copy slam.

When I’m teaching a freelance photo class, it’s so different because it’s not just editorial. It’s the only class where I expand past journalism, if you will. Because you want to train people here to be [able to freelance] when they want to work [both] in [and] also outside of journalism. So that class is fun, because it’s different assignments. They just turned in nature and wildlife. They’ll do portraits, we’ll do food, we’ll do products, we’ll do fashion, we’ll do travel and adventure sports portraits. We’ll do drones. Then we talk about business. I talk about copyright. I talk about contracts. It’s different every week. There are so many things we can do.

Then I teach a design class, too. I customized that class for Illustrator and InDesign, and then content management systems. I used to teach HTML and Dreamweaver in there. But I’ll leave that for a coding class. It’s a fun class because, again, it’s custom. Do you want to do more concert posters and book covers? Or do we want to do more magazines and social media graphics? We always do websites, but we also talk about theory of typography and color. It’s a different mindset, too. People get to have the creative part, but they’re graphic journalists. You were talking about the graphics earlier. You know, those are a part of storytelling. And why we’re attracted to that and how we need to display that. So people will look at, read, consume and understand [it]. And educate along the way.

Q: My last question is a light-hearted one. What would you get up to on an average Saturday?

A: Oh, well, depending on the week, it’ll be mowing the lawn and raking leaves. If [it’s the right] time, we’ll be at the Griz game! But also working. Most of my projects are rural. That’s what I love. I’m looking at a project on 150 years of livestock brands in Montana. The first livestock brand book: 1873. So [2023] would be the 150th anniversary. So that’s why I’m looking. It’s still being a journalist and it’s a lot of fun.

Faculty Q&A: Professor Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan on Her Freelance Career and the Power of ‘Campus Energy’

By Kathleen Shannon

Courtesy photo.

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan is an adjunct professor teaching a foundational seminar for new graduate students called Journalism and Society. She has done a variety of writing as a freelance journalist and she works as the deputy editor of Outside Business Journal’s print magazine.

Below is a lightly-edited transcript of Elisabeth’s conversation with graduate student Kathleen Shannon. Read to the end to find out how Elisabeth likes to spend her Saturdays in Missoula.

Q: Tell me about your background in journalism. 

A: I started out as a reporter working in a very small rural town in northwest Colorado at the Moffat County Morning News. I loved the job and I hated the town. I decided to go to graduate school after that, and applied to Northwestern and got in there and decided to specialize in magazine journalism. Because that was always my dream: to have a little bit of extra time versus [being] a daily newspaper reporter. I interviewed with Backpacker [Magazine] and got an internship. Right around that time, they were bought by Active Interest Media. They had been in Pennsylvania and they moved to Boulder, Colorado, so I was super excited about the chance to move [there]. I worked there as an intern for eight or nine months and then one of the junior editors happened to leave and so that opened up an assistant editor job that I got. So I started out editing the “Skills” section of Backpacker, [which] still remains near and dear to my heart. Then I decided to try a job [at an] educational media company and learned a bunch of video stuff and also learned that that wasn’t really where my heart was. So I got back into print and magazine journalism as a freelancer and I’ve worked on a variety of things over the past decade or so. I’ve done some freelance editing, I worked as the editor of Yellowstone Journal Magazine, which has turned into National Park Journal since I left. I have written all types of stories for Backpacker, 5280 Magazine, Women’s Adventure, The New York Times. I am also the deputy editor of Outside Business Journal’s print magazine, which we launched about three years ago. I’ve been doing that on a contract basis ever since. 

Q: That was probably a really cool learning process. 

A: Yeah, it was. We really had to build a magazine from the ground up. And we had to do it fast because the company really wanted to distribute it at the outdoor retailer show that year. When we started [it was] early fall and it was done by January. That’s kind of our timeline now for an existing magazine. Doing that plus also deciding what it even was, was crazy. But it was really fun. And it’s been really well-received. We’ve gotten a whole bunch of awards and award nominations. So it feels really good to be a part of it. 

Q: What are some of your most fun duties as an editor? 

A: The best part of any production cycle is always the beginning. It’s the brainstorming phase when [we] have kind of a blank canvas and we have to figure out what we’re going to put on there. It’s like piecing together a puzzle because you have specific topics and areas that you want to hit like, for example, DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion resources). Inclusion is a really big part of our magazine, so we always want to make sure that we’re representing that topic in some way. Sustainability is a huge part of it. We want to make sure we have a good mix of writers and a good mix of types of stories. You know, we’ve got 80 pages to fill and we meet together and brainstorm different ways to do it. We bring in our art team and they talk about the different ways that we can visually put these together, which is always really fun because that’s not my strong suit.  

Q: I bet having 80 pages to fill feels like a big moment of possibility. 

A: [Then] you kind of get into the grind of actually doing it. That’s fun: to work with individual writers. Particularly with a less-experienced person who’s got a lot of potential, it’s really rewarding to kind of help them figure out how to find their own voice and how to put a story together. Then you get to the last couple of weeks [when you’re] just reading the same thing over and over again. It’s really daunting. 

Q: How does it feel to be back on a campus and teaching here at UM? 

A: It feels great. I always was just a big fan of school, in general. I loved college, I loved going back to grad school and just being back in that environment because you don’t really have the same, you know, business pressures. Really, it’s a place where you’re supposed to just dedicate yourself to learning and getting better and talking about big ideas and figuring out what you want to do with your life. I think that environment is just very invigorating and inspiring. So it’s really nice to be back among students who are in the middle of that. And it’s fun to just be on the campus and feel the energy of the campus scene. 

Q: Who are some writers that you admire and like to read? 

A: I love Susan Orlean. She’s awesome. A colleague and friend of mine who I think is brilliant is Tracy Ross. She writes about everything, but she does a lot of outdoor journalism. And she’s wonderful. Bruce Barcott. He’s out of the Pacific Northwest, and he does a lot of really interesting kind of environmental and outdoor stuff. 

Q: Tell me about a project from your career that you’re proud of.  

A: My very first big feature story was a neurology and outdoor piece that I did for Backpacker. I think we ended up calling it “Hiking makes you smarter.” It was about research in the Utah desert. There’s a researcher who is at the University of Utah who was look[ing] at how wilderness immersion changes the way the brain works, specifically relating to [how it] restores your executive function. So I got to shadow him and a couple of his co-researchers as they went on a trip in southeastern Utah, [while] they were coming up with the way they wanted to tackle it. It was such a cool way to bring hard science into a magazine like Backpacker and a great way for me to learn how to handle a bigger story. 

Q: What kind of fun thing do you find yourself doing on an average Saturday in Missoula? 

A: We almost always are out on a local trail with the kiddos. You know, they’re not super fast. It’s not usually a hardcore hike, but we take them somewhere beautiful and let them run free. And everybody’s in a good mood and everybody gets tired. 

Q: Great! That’s like me and my dog. 

A: Four-year-olds and dogs are very similar. You gotta work ‘em out.