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.




Alumni Spotlight Jack Ginsburg: ‘Journalism Is A Very Universal Degree’

Graduates of the University of Montana School of Journalism go on to do great things, in journalism and beyond. They direct newsrooms, report on international issues, photograph history, inform the public on air, start their own businesses, influence public policy, publish books and become leaders in their communities. Here, we spotlight some of our alumni who showcase just how powerful, and versatile, a journalism degree from UM can be. (If you are a graduate who would like to share your experience or know of someone we should spotlight, email Courtney Cowgill.)

This installment spotlights Jack Ginsburg, 2017, who got a job right after graduation working at KAJ-TV in Kalispell and now works at KPAX-TV.

Question: Can you describe an average day on the job and your current responsibilities?

Answer: An average day I wake up at 10 a.m. and go into work anywhere between 12-1 p.m. (awesome hours for sleep and work). Most days when I get into work I open up my email and sort through press releases that have been sent to me, or the news email. I choose the top stories and start to pursue them, calling contacts or possible interviewees that would be good for the story. Sometimes I don’t get calls back since I am the night side reporter and a lot of people only have until 4 or 5 to do the interview and already have something scheduled. In that case I always try to have a back up. I have a notebook with stories that can pretty much be done any day, like homelessness in the Flathead Valley or something on the jail systems in the valley, which is big right now, especially in Polson and Kalispell. I work at a bureau so I do everything myself. I shoot, interview and edit all of my news stories, then send them down to the broadcast studio in Missoula where they run the 5:30 and 10:00 news. Most of my stories go on the 10 o’clock news. I don’t really have any set responsibilities since the producers know that anything can happen and sometimes you have bad days and only get one, kind of lame story. On a good day I try to shoot a package and two or three vosots. 

What journalistic experiences at the J-School were notable in preparing you for your transition into a real-world journalism environment?

There are a lot of experiences at the J-School that gave me great preparation for the ‘real world.’ Probably the most notable is the fact that UM News is pretty damn close to being exactly how a news station runs. Instead of doing the stories in a week, I do them in one day. Ethics and Trends class also helped a lot with everyday things you experience on the job like how to handle difficult situations or how to properly report in an unbiased manner. I think the most helpful is that the J-school is like your parent teaching you to ride a bike. Your first year they are right there holding the seat, then out of nowhere they just let go, and if you paid attention to what they were saying the first year, you realize, ‘Hey, I can actually do this thing on my own.’ The professors are always there to help but they also give you responsibility and expect you to handle it, which is key in being successful in this field.

Can you explain the process of your job search senior year?

My senior year I was doing UM News and then one student told me I should intern at KPAX-TV, the local CBS affiliate in Missoula. I shot the news director an email and they looked at a few of my clips and gave me the internship. Two weeks into the internship, I ended up getting really lucky, as KPAX was looking for a weekend reporter. I decided to apply for it and got the job a week later (I highly recommend weekend reporting if the opportunity is available, most of the harder hitting news happens on the weekdays and the weekend is a great, smooth transition into the field.). I worked as the weekend reporter for the whole Spring semester and worked hard. After I graduated they offered me the full-time job in Kalispell and I took it. So, I got pretty lucky and didn’t even have to look for a job.

How do you feel about journalism now that you’re out of school and immersed in the industry? How does reality compare to your hopes and expectations?

I could write an entire essay on how I feel about journalism, but you don’t want or need to hear that. I love everything about it. It definitely has it’s ups and downs but there is so much inspiration in this field on a daily basis. That being said, a lot of times you have bad days … it’s just something you have to accept in this field. That’s probably one of my favorite things about TV. When you finish the day, unless you are working on a longer, investigative piece, you are done. That’s it. You leave the office and anything good or bad that happened is now behind you and you get to start over fresh tomorrow.

I think when you decide to major in journalism you see all the great parts of it, on the national level, but don’t see or hear much about the local or smaller markets. That is both good and bad. You need to spend a lot of time in this field to get where you want to and that can be a struggle for a lot of people but you also find there are incredible stories even in the smallest places.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

There are so many things I love about my job. I would have to say the best part is that I get to meet new people every single day. And on top of that I have started to form a bond with the community. You get to know people, you expand your network and contacts and people really start to trust you. I’ve already been offered three other jobs in random fields I never would have thought of. Journalism is a very universal degree, it allows you to do so much more than you think. I also love that I spend 90 percent of most of my days outside the office running around and keeping busy, it makes the day fly by.

My least favorite part is probably the stress you can feel when you don’t have a plan for the week or the day. Always do as much pre-reporting as possible.

How does the work load compare to college?

Honestly, I think I had more work in college. I have a lot of things to balance everyday at work, but most of them I am interested in and in college you are constantly doing homework for classes you couldn’t care less about. I also like that I do everything in one day rather than a week, like in UM News, I don’t have that time to procrastinate anymore.

What advice would you give to someone considering a journalism degree?

DO IT… Already, I have found how valuable this degree is. Sometimes I look at jobs on LinkedIn just for fun and it is incredible how many companies want journalists for jobs I didn’t think pertained to the major. Journalism and especially the school at UM gives us so many valuable tools to do so much more than just report or write.

Did you feel that your education prepared you for your job? In hindsight, is there anything you would’ve liked to focus on more than you did?

Hell yes it did. I wish I was there this semester honestly. I see that social media is becoming more prevalent at the J-school and I’m really interested in that. I also wish I did a college related podcast or focused more on radio while I had those tools available, that UM provides.

Where do you see yourself career-wise in the future?

I honestly do not know. If I stick with TV I want to see how far I can get. That means shooting for the stars. Why wouldn’t I set my standards high? I tell myself everyday to work hard and I know it will pay off, I have already seen it start to. I don’t want to sound to cocky but you should tell yourself that you can do great things in this field and have confidence, have a lot of it, but keep it to yourself (which I kind of didn’t just do, but you get it).

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

There are so many great opportunities at the J-School and in the field of journalism right now. It is changing all the time and I really think our journalism school does a great job embracing it. But if you want to be a successful journalist, it’s ultimately up to you. Keep your nose to the grindstone and work your butt off, you’ll be happy you did. Also find time to unwind and separate yourself from your work life on your days off. Give yourself the rest and recovery your body and mind needs. Follow every lead. You never know when it could be a bigger story than it seems.


Tate Samata is finishing her fifth and final year at the UM School of Journalism, and will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and psychology minor. Tate’s journalistic focus is primarily photo and multimedia, but she is also passionate about writing, copy editing and social media. 

Welcome Back from Dean Abramson

Don Anderson Hall building exterior
Don Anderson Hall, home of the J-School

Boy, what a summer it’s been. Could there be any doubt that we need caring, smart journalists now more than ever?

As we prepare to open the doors for another year at the UM J-School, I keep asking myself that question. Just take one news story as an example: we have a presidential election before us between two people who seem to have a very troubled relationship with the truth. How could the average citizen possibly scrutinize statements by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, without professional help from reporters, editors and researchers? Reporters remain, despite the turmoil in our industry, our election ghostbusters: they are uniquely qualified to train their ray guns on statements like Trump’s assertion that the real unemployment rate is closer to 42 percent than 5 percent. And we still need someone to jump on distortions like Hillary’s insistence that the FBI Director called her statements about her email server “truthful.”

While the need for good reporting remains clear, the way to pay for it is not—the crystal ball remains cloudy on that point. As comedian John Oliver pointed out recently, even he ruthlessly rakes through the work of journalists in the search for joke material, without signing up for a subscription. Oliver’s appeal to recognize the work of journalists got a lot of play, but I predict it will have zero impact on the financial plight of the news biz. That’s because pity is not going to help us make news profitable again. Only innovation and hard work will.

So, as we start the year I will present our students with this simple challenge: come help us save the world from a flood of lies. It’s our job.

By Larry Abramson