Leah Sottile on Her Time At the UM J-School: ‘These are the people who will carry us through.’

By Leah Sottile, T. Anthony Pollner Professor, fall 2019

Woman wearing glasses looking at camera. Leah Sottile
Leah Sottile. Courtesy photo.

Montana is a place I am not a stranger to. I spent a lot of my wild, younger nights in the very Missoula watering holes that my journalism students are currently spending their wild, young nights. Funny how, overnight, you transform from young to not-young. Until I got to Missoula, my college days still seemed so close; being here, I realized how very far away they are.

So I didn’t come here thinking about how big the sky would be, how earnest the people, how local the steak. I would not be buying boots. The West is already my home. I came here because I love journalism. It is my breath. I’m one of those people who call it a calling, never a job. I do it because I have to, and I surround myself with people who understand that about me. I came to Montana with a message: you can be weird and maybe a little different, like me, and still be a journalist. For too long, the media has been one kind of voice.

I’m a freelance journalist. So, I don’t have a newsroom. I get more done that way. I can isolate myself with my sources, and my stories, and relatively little else.

You can understand, then, that immersed in the University of Montana’s School of Journalism for the past five months was a complete and total lifestyle change. I found myself surrounded by people — the best people. First, in the jittery pre-semester summer days, I was surrounded by a faculty that devotes themselves to this place, this cause, this craft, to bringing in the next generation of journalists. I don’t know if the students know how lucky they are.

This semester I taught a class of 12 journalism students, showing them the work that inspires me, deconstructing and reconstructing how great stories are made. I told them I’m a student of journalism, too. I hope I always will be. I don’t trust any journalist who isn’t.

And each week I was in the belly of the Montana Kaimin, telling the brave student staff to take risks, swing for the fences, stick up for people and dammit, be yourselves. We traded books. We talked politics. My heart broke when their stories fell apart and they broke down in tears. I could tell them about all the times this job had broken my heart, but I knew they wouldn’t hear it for at least another ten years.

These are the people who will carry us through. I’m sure of it now. When you have been surrounded for months by the constant, caffeinated buzz of twentysomething journalists, you find hope. They smile big. They laugh hard. They fight mercilessly. They work hard. They tell each other — all the time — how much they love each other.

For all this time, I have never been alone, and I have gotten nothing done. Usually, I’d be tearing my hair out over that. But pretty quickly I asked myself: why would I waste this precious time on my own work, when I could have my soul stitched back together again? Being a journalist right now, in a time of fear and broken systems, is difficult and even dangerous. Even the best among us are deemed enemies.

So here in Montana, I haven’t found sky or trees or snow or cows. I have found people: the best people. Young people who have forever changed me, inspired me, shown me that all my assumptions about humanity were wrong. There is good left. There is hope. And I’ll tell you where to find it: it’s on the second floor of Don Anderson Hall. It’s up in Room 301. It’s on the fourth floor faculty offices. And it’s hanging on the walls: framed black and white photos of the journalists this place has produced, the yellowed-front pages those people wrote. This is a school, yes, but it’s also a celebration of everything this country and this profession has endured, just to get to this exact moment in history. If only we would just stop and notice it, I think we might all feel a little restored.

Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist whose features, profiles, investigations and essays have been featured by the Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic, Vice and several others. She is the host and reporter of the National Magazine Award-nominated and Apple Top 10 podcast Bundyville, made in collaboration with Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting. She served as the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor in 2019, teaching a course on freelance journalism and storytelling as well as advising the independent newspaper, The Montana Kaimin. The professorship brings professional, cutting-edge journalists into the classrooms of the University of Montana School of Journalism in the memory of J-School graduate T. Anthony Pollner.

The fall Pollner professor gives a public lecture on campus. Watch Sottile’s talk on alternative media, storytelling and her career here:

Stories of the Wild, the Innocent and the Downright Disregarded by Leah Sottile from Montana Journalism on Vimeo.

The program is currently taking applications for the next Pollner professor. Learn more and apply here

Meet the Professors: Lee Banville

We are constantly hearing from students that one of the J-School’s biggest strengths is the dedicated, talented, fearless, experienced, fun, doors-are-always-open faculty.

The Social Media and Engagement class set out to tell that story via Instagram. Over the coming weeks, we will highlight these stories, which illustrate the personalities, philosophies and experience of our top-notch faculty. This week, we give you Associate Professor Lee Banville.

Lee joined the University of Montana faculty in 2009 after 13 years at PBS NewsHour, where he was editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour.

With a background in web and digital reporting and social media, Lee teaches courses that include digital and web reporting, audience engagement.

Because he teaches the introductory media history and literacy course (J100), he’s often the first professor students have when they enter the J-School. We’re all lucky for that because Lee makes learning just about anything fun and interesting.

And yes, that includes Media Law, which he also teaches, focusing on access and open meeting laws. Lee also co-teaches election reporting every two years.

Meet the Professors: Joe Eaton

We are constantly hearing from students that one of the J-School’s biggest strengths is the dedicated, talented, fearless, experienced, fun, doors-are-always-open faculty.

The Social Media and Engagement class set out to tell that story via Instagram. Over the coming weeks, we will highlight these stories, which illustrate the personalities, philosophies and experience of our top-notch faculty. This week, we give you Assistant Professor Joe Eaton.

Joe joined the school’s faculty in the fall of 2013 and teaches courses in public affairs reporting, investigative reporting and editing.

This last fall, Joe’s investigations class partnered with the Missoulian to produce a chilling and important series of reports that explored how pregnant women who use drugs are treated in Montana. Over three months, the team interviewed more than a dozen women, numerous experts, and leaders at Montana hospitals, treatment centers and state government.

This spring, he will lead a group of students to South Korea to work on a project that will run in partnership with Atlantic Media’s CityLab. When he’s not teaching, editing and mentoring, Joe is writing beautiful and impactful pieces for magazines and websites including National Geographic, CityLab, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard and Wired.

One of his latest pieces, a harrowing story of a teenage drug dealer in Idaho, appeared in the Pacific Standard in November.

Before joining the faculty, he worked as an investigative reporter at the Washington, D.C.- based Center for Public Integrity. He has also been a reporter at the Roanoke Times in Virginia and Washington City Paper.

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Joe Eaton’s journalistic career was sparked after he was inspired to tell stories while teaching in South Korea. He worked as an investigative reporter in Washington D.C. prior to joining the @umontana journalism program in 2013. Eaton’s most valuable lesson is the “Two-notebook theory.” He explains that it is important for budding journalists to keep two notebooks: “feed the beast” and “passion projects.” The feed the beast mentality represents the daily grind of stories that keep food on the table. While the passion projects notebook is designed for “stories that ultimately make careers and keep people happy.” One of Eaton’s passion projects, “The King of Boise,” was recently published by @pacificstand magazine. #meettheprofs

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