By Kathleen Shannon
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.