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

Watch: Award-Winning Journalist and Pollner Professor Leah Sottile on “Stories of the Wild, the Innocent and the Downright Disregarded”

The University Center Theater was standing-room only by the time writer, reporter, podcaster and this fall’s T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor Leah Sottile took the stage Monday to deliver the annual Pollner lecture for the School of Journalism.

It’s no surprise why. Sottile is a thoughtful reporter, dynamic storyteller and a savvy business woman with valuable insight to share with the J-School students she’s teaching and mentoring this fall and with the greater Montana journalism community. Her most well-known podcast, “Bundyville,” made in collaboration with Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting, is now reaching 3 million listeners.

As Associate Professor Jule Banville told the Missoulian recently:

“… She digs and understands how to get information. And she’s amazing at translating really complicated events and movements to all of us. She’s also fair and accurate and has a great voice. It’s a big deal in podcasting, and we’re super thrilled to have her teaching here.”

If you missed Sottile’s lecture on Monday, never fear. You can watch the whole thing here:

Grace Case Project Alumni Look Back on Covering Groundbreaking Case at the UM School of Journalism’s Homecoming Roundtable

By Jazzlyn Johnson

University of Montana School of Journalism Student

In 2009, when University of Montana journalism and law students started covering the criminal trial of the chemical company W.R. Grace, many of them did not realize how cutting edge their reporting would be.

In the lawsuit, the federal government alleged that Grace knew asbestos from its vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana was making people in the small town sick, and that executives covered it up.

It was a national story, but the trial took place just across the river from UM, walking distance from campus. It was also about the time that social media started really changing the way news is gathered and disseminated. Students took advantage of both of those things to cover one of the biggest environmental stories in recent history, and do it in new ways.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Grace Case Project, which brought together students from the School of Journalism and the School of Law to cover U.S. v. W.R. Grace.

Last week, three of the students, Chris D’Angelo, Laura Lundquist and Katy Furlong, came together for the School of Journalism’s homecoming alumni roundtable, to share their experiences and talk about how it added to their careers.

Journalism professor Nadia White, who taught the Grace Case Project class, relayed stories of W.R. Grace miners coming home after work covered in dust that contained life-threatening asbestos, which would then be released to the rest of their family. She said the asbestos was also in the bark of trees and in piles around town and on playgrounds.

There were also expansion plants all over the nation where people had no idea they were working in old plants that contained asbestos, White said.

Although the mine closed in 1990, White said the waste persisted and has had lasting effects.

The 10-week case, which took place in U.S. District Court in Missoula, resulted in the company’s acquittal.

“We were trying to be objective, but it we felt for the people of Libby,” said Lundquist who is now an environmental reporter for the Missoula Current.

Furlong was one of the law students tasked with explaining the legal strategies from the courtroom in a way that was easy for readers to understand.

Because Furlong and the other law students were used to writing for the courts and not the public, they had a chance for their writing to be read by more people.

“Lawyers forget their audience is the jury,” said Furlong. She said she noticed the jury not paying attention to the elaborate and boring documents the lawyers put in front of them. “That didn’t do (the lawyers) any favors.”

“I don’t think there’s been a trial quite like that in Missoula,” said Beth Brennan, who taught legal writing at the School of Law and worked with students on the Grace Case Project.

The students’ coverage gained national media attention from publications like the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal and brought thousands of viewers to their website.

Every day of the trial, the journalism and law students went to the courthouse to write recaps and live tweet the trial.

Brennan said originally, reporters were not normally allowed to use technology like laptops and phones in the courtroom since there were concerns about noise and disruption. They requested permission from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy and were eventually granted permission to tweet and use their laptops inside the courtroom.

White said by the end of the trial, the students had 14,000 tweets on their Grace Case Project account, which got the attention of Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, who was curious about what they were using Twitter for.

“I still find myself using Twitter the same way I did in this class,” said D’Angelo, who was a student reporter for the Grace Case Project in 2009 and is now an environmental reporter for the Huffington Post.

He said the class helped him and other students to grow a thick skin and learn their own styles.

“This class is the reason I’m doing what I’m doing and stuck with environmental journalism,” D’Angelo said.