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. 

Faculty Q&A: Professor Jule Banville on Her New, Big Podcast, The ‘Happy/Crappy’ of Sabbatical and How To Keep up the Excitement in Journalism

By Kathleen Shannon

Jule in the studio. Courtesy photo.

J-School professor Jule Banville is back from a year on sabbatical, which she spent working on a podcast, due to launch in late October. Jule has done loads of audio in her career, but this show is more serious in nature than some of her other projects and podcasts: it’s a crime investigation. Jule sat down with graduate student Kathleen Shannon recently and below is a transcript of their full conversation, edited ever so slightly.  Read all the way to the end to get Jule’s crucial advice for podcasters and makers and creatives in general.

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Q: Tell me about being on sabbatical. 

A: You know, I set my pace reporting this project. I set my schedule. I did a lot of life-affirming reporting trips, [in] which I did discover that … if you’re really feeling lost or down about this profession, what you need is to get in your car and go talk to people. Go talk to people where they live. So, I was lucky and I was unlucky, in a way, because this pandemic happened during my sabbatical. I feel like a lot of smart university professors had plans to go to Europe or go somewhere tropical or somewhere fabulous. And my plan was to stay in Montana. And so, I adjusted and I decided to keep my sabbatical, even though most people obviously didn’t because they couldn’t travel. So, every trip I took was in my car. I saw a lot of Montana.  

The crime in my story happened in Billings. My main source is a woman in her 40s. She was raped when she was eight. She lives in Livingston, which is an amazing place to visit. If you’ve never been to Livingston, it’s the best. I got to spend a good amount of time in Livingston, and then another major source lives in Kalispell, so then I was up in the Flathead. And, I did quite a bit of reporting in White Sulphur Springs. I went to Portland, Oregon, too. It was really important for me to get in-person tape. So even though it was during the pandemic, you know, I wore a mask, I had a boom a pole. Some of my subjects were masked, and some of them were not. And I came through without getting COVID, so far. So, it was a challenge. It was a reporting challenge. But I chose not to do Zoom. I did some Zoom tape. But I mostly went and did and reported and I’m just so grateful for that time.  

It doesn’t always work out the way that you plan, especially when you’re pitching a huge narrative. And it took me a long time to sell the story. It’s a hard story. It’s not one that everybody wants to buy. I had a lot of meetings. I would get pretty far with different companies in the podcast industry. I would get to the point of like, ‘send me your budget’ and ‘yes, that looks good.’ And then it would still: ‘poof,’ go up in smoke. It was a huge process. I wasn’t super prepared for that part of it. I didn’t have a contract until late July. 

Q: Which company picked it up?  

It’s a subsidiary of a big reality TV company in Austin. The big company is Megalomedia, Inc. They have a podcast subsidiary that’s pretty small and easy to work with and they’ve been awesome. That’s called Mopac Audio, which is named after a highway in Texas. They’ve released several podcasts and one of them caught my attention. It was about the Long Island serial killer case. And, the victims were sex workers. The way that they did that podcast — I admired how fully developed those victims were. I got to know a lot about them, about their families, about the people who became their families when they went through hard things. So, I reached out to them because I liked their approach. And they’ve been really great. It’s a hard story. Not everybody wants to hear this story and they’ve championed it and they’re going to distribute it. They are working with me to produce it and mix it. They’ll sell the ads, they’ll distribute it on all the platforms. And, they’re paying me, which is nice. 

Q: Yay! So, I’ve heard about the character. What is the premise of the podcast? What are you exploring? 

A: It’s called “An Absurd Result.” Part of that is signaling to the listener, that this is not a podcast where you get to the end and you wonder “who did it?” It’s done. It’s over. We know who did things. So, it’s really a story that this survivor is willing to tell and wants to tell, after a long time of not talking about it. When I met her in 2015, she had never talked to a journalist. I met her through a friend of her sister. And Linda, who is my source, she was ready. She was kind of mad at that point. She was pissed, because they hadn’t charged someone who had been identified by DNA as her rapist. So, there was this limbo period before those charges were filed. She and I met then and we talked on tape for three hours that day. A lot of that is in my podcast, actually, so I was glad I recorded it. But, she really needed a quicker turnaround story. So, at that point, I put her in touch with newspaper reporters who did stories in Billings. She needed pressure on the prosecutors in Billings and she needed more people in Montana to know her story. Then I just kept up with her [through] these years, and I didn’t get a chance to take a sabbatical before I did. Then when I [came up with the idea for the podcast], I first got in touch with her. And I said, ‘if you want to do this, then I’m going to apply for sabbatical. And if you don’t want to do this, then I’m not going to pursue it. Because, I really need you. And … only if it’s something that’s positive for you. I’m not interested in re-traumatizing you or doing a story you’re not into.’ Unfortunately, with the way that things have gone for her, she said, ‘this is the first truly positive thing that’s ever happened in my case.’ So, she’s all in. Yeah, she’s amazing.  

Q: I know you’ve done other podcasts in the past. What did you learn that was new or different from this particular experience? 

Jule portrait by Kathleen
Jule on campus. Photo by Kathleen Shannon.

A: Well, a lot of what I have done in my career as far as radio, even when I was at WNYC, the stories that I was drawn to and the stories that I did there were quirky and fun. I was on the staff of a show called The Next Big Thing. It was a weird show where there were a lot of kinds of stories. A lot of different kinds of radio were welcomed on that show. I was the quirky correspondent. I did funny stories. This isn’t that. This was a really serious story. There was some investigation involved. There was definitely some calling people and knocking on doors and people who didn’t want to talk to me. So, I learned a lot. I learned that I can do it. You know, I teach reporting, I teach narrative, I teach audio, I teach all these things. And, I know that I can edit all these things, but this was a huge reporting challenge. And, I loved it. I love being a reporter. It’s actually really great. 

Q: So you’re reporting on a really serious incident. Were there moments where you were feeling down where you kind of had to lift yourself back up? What was the balance between the joys of traveling out on the road and the seriousness of this story? 

A: I would say that I never felt weighed down by the story. I always felt buoyed by it because I know that Linda wants to tell it. I know that Linda’s story is important. I know that it’s about her. So it’s heavy in the way that I better do a good job because she trusted me with this story. She was eight. You know, she was in her bed asleep. And this man broke into her house and did this to her. And now she just feels really ready and I’m just so grateful. For me, it’s [energizing], to be honest, because I get to be the one to tell her story this way. And it’s [a privilege]. It doesn’t bother me that it’s about something so hard. I definitely understand that from other people. When I was trying to sell it, that was tough. People are like, “don’t use that tape of her explicitly talking about the rape.” And I’m like, “but that’s how she talks about it. That’s what she says.” So that’s important for that, too. It’s a hard story, but I think what’s great about it is her. She’s awesome. And I never forgot who it was about.  

Q: I’m sure you and Linda spent a ton of time together.  

A: We did. And I hope we still do. But, yeah, she’s my source. It’s hard to have that separation when what happened to her was horrendous. And it’s not just the act itself, [it’s also] what happened with the law, which is a lot about what my story is about. You know, that’ll make you mad.   

Q: I assume you’re diving into a lot of legal documents and court proceedings in the podcast. How did that go for you?  

A: I was a cop reporter in a previous life, so some of that was kind of familiar. And one thing that I learned early as a cop reporter that was a benefit to me was you have to be nice to the people who actually control the information. So that’s clerks. When I was a cop reporter, it was dispatchers because they’re the ones who knew everything because they answer the 911 calls. You’ve got to go out of your way and not be fake at all because they can pick up on that. There’s a lot of people trying to butter them up. But yeah, I learned how to be nice to court clerks. That’s clutch. They are clutch people. I got lucky, too, because the defense lawyer in this case, who defended the guy who was charged with sexual assault without consent, there was a moment in his office, where there’s like ten boxes and he’s like, “yeah, you can look through these.” And several things that were really important to my story ended up being in there.  

Q: So now we’re going to play this game called “happy crappy” where you tell me one really great thing about sabbatical one bad thing about sabbatical. 

A: I love happy crappy. Yeah, we’re going to do that at my dinner table tonight. 

We moved our desks [at home] around during the pandemic, like everybody does. And so my desk moved into my bedroom. And, that happened to me once before when I was a freelancer and it was not a happy. It was crappy. Because, I didn’t have a focused project and so the desk was a little bit too close to my bed. [And now] I sort of wistfully look at the time I sat my ass down and I wrote a seven-episode narrative. I just did it! In a pretty short period of time. I just sat my ass down and wrote the story. And even though it was really hard, I did that. And I didn’t know that I could really do it. But I can, as it turns out. 

Yeah, crappy. I thought I was going to hike every day. I often go up the Sentinel fire road. And I was like, “oh, man, when I’m on sabbatical, I’m going to be on that thing every day.” I was so busy. I was working all the time. If I wasn’t planning a reporting trip, I was trying to get documents, I was trying to line up interviews, I was trying to sell the thing. That took forever. You know, it was lots of pressure. It was a lot of anxiety about having the story land somewhere because I was so tied to it and Linda, too. So, I didn’t hike. That’s crappy. I went for walks in my neighborhood and listened to other podcasts, which made me also more anxious. 

Q: What would you say to a student who has a podcast idea he/she is really excited about?  

A: I think on one level, make it. Just make things. That’s how you’re going to maintain your excitement about something and that’s how you’re going to learn. The other sort of prong of that is: listen. Listen to things that are like the things that you want to make. And you can’t listen as a consumer, right? You have to listen as a maker. You have to listen as a journalist to understand the decisions that this producer made, or this host made, or who are the multitudes of people who are making this thing? It takes a lot to pull off these kinds of projects. And it’s not impossible. I did most of it myself, but I’ve also been doing this for 20-odd years. I think that there’s a lot you can learn by making but I think there’s maybe even more you can learn by listening. 

 

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