The third-floor hallway in the University of Montana’s School of Journalism reads like a museum, a who’s who of Montana reporters, its defenders of the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.
They include John Gilluly, who saved many Montana weekly newspapers from obscurity, and Martin Hutchens, who gave up his editor’s post at the Missoulian for the Butte Free Press, where he was shot for criticizing the Anaconda Company.
Beyond this walk of fame in the still-new Don Anderson Hall, the school’s ninth and newest dean, Larry Abramson, passes a classroom packed with aspiring journalists. The industry’s past has been written by the likes of those remembered in the hallway, but its future lies here in the classroom.
“We need to build the future and create an industry that can support us and serve the American people,” Abramson said. “We’re here to give our students the best experience they can have.”
After 30 years with National Public Radio, Abramson stands at the helm of a program now 100 years old. The School of Journalism has come a long way since Dean Arthur Stone pitched a few Army surplus tents on the Oval in 1914, opening the third accredited journalism school in the nation.
“It was a surprise to me that one of the oldest schools was way out here in Montana, and it was a good school,” Abramson said. “Until somebody sent me the job posting, I had no idea. There’s a huge sense of pride around that.”
The School of Journalism has bounced around this campus during the past 100 years, moving from tents to a bicycle shed to Marcus Cook Hall in 1920 before finding a lasting home in 1936.
There on the southeast corner of campus, the school was built for $180,000. It endured until 2007, when Don Anderson Hall was erected at a cost of $14 million. It rises today as a monument to a journalist who stripped the Anaconda Copper Mining Co.’s chokehold on four Montana newspapers and brought them into the fold of Lee Enterprises.
Yet the new building is more than brick, mortar and memories. It represents an industry that serves as a pillar of American democracy, a mission that today’s faculty members take to heart.
As the industry evolves with changing times and consumer habits, the principles pressed upon today’s journalism students aren't far removed from what Stone taught 100 years ago.
“Our students need to be truthful reporters, and sometimes that takes courage,” said journalism professor Dennis Swibold. “They need to minimize the harm they can do, be independent in what they cover so people believe them, and be accountable for what they write. Those are ethical things, and that hasn’t changed in 100 years.”
Swibold, a former Bozeman Daily Chronicle editor who has taught at UM for 25 years, has watched the industry undergo rapid changes over the past six years, changes that have led some pundits to question its future.
Television broadcasting has struggled to compete with the Internet and reach new audiences. Radio stations haven’t been exempt from the challenges of the digital age. The Internet hit newspapers equally hard. In 2009, more than 105 papers folded, including the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. During that year, thousands of media jobs were lost, advertising sales fell and circulation dropped, according to Business Insider.
But many news outlets survived and evolved, including the Seattle PI, which reinvented itself as an online newspaper. News outlets big and small have applied new tools to stay relevant, giving added weight to digital products while using social media to promote their work and extend their reach.
“We now expect our students to tell stories in more than one way and use differing formats more effectively,” Swibold said. “We have to be prepared for where the industry may go, and that means making our students fluent in more storytelling mediums. They’re the ones who are going to build the next evolution of the industry.”
When Stone founded the J-School in 1914, he taught what Swibold described as a “factory model” for newspapers. The practice endured for decades, and Swibold admits the J-School was newspaper-centric.
Given its beginnings, the program has long conjured images of its past when, as one UM document notes, “the whipping winds whistle(d) their way through cracks and holes to reach and slow down the tingling fingers of the scribes as they pound(ed) out the news.”
Radio production wouldn’t arrive at UM until the 1930s, Swibold said, and Stone was gone from this world by the time television broadcasting made its way to the university. For the first 50 years, the program didn’t see much change.
“People could get in their silos, their tracts, and get comfortable in that things weren’t going to change much,” Swibold said. “But there’s so much foment, turmoil and churn in the industry now, we want students to see that right away.”
With that turmoil in mind, the School of Journalism scrutinized its curriculum and looked at industry trends. Changes came as a result and programs were rewritten, if not eliminated.
Gone was the school’s newspaper track, the radio track and the magazine track. With a new building in place, broadcast journalism and radio production moved in with print journalism, the three pillars of the trade finally located under one roof.
Faculty members collaborated and courses were offered to cover the entire journalistic spectrum. The result was a benefit to students, leaving them more prepared to tackle the expectations of today’s industry.
“The future wasn’t that clear and the tools the students learned as freshmen wouldn’t necessarily be there in four years when they graduated,” said Peggy Kuhr, who served as dean from 2007 to 2012. “We looked at the basic skills – thinking critically, assessing sources of information and credibility, how to write clearly no matter what the medium. We talked about being able to communicate across multiple platforms.”
A small display on the fourth floor of the Mansfield Library pays tribute to the program’s first 100 years. Above it hangs a cutout of a vintage Remington typewriter, not unlike the machine Stone used in his day.
Pictures of past deans and clippings from old papers note the program’s progress, including 1913, when UM’s executive board approved $200 for the journalism program and $2,500 for a new professor.
Carlie Magill, archive specialist at the library, conducted the research to compile the display. The archives revealed treasures she found both surprising and amusing.
“In doing the research, I went through our university publications record and looked through a lot of the early brochures that were sent out to recruit journalism students,” she said. “They were really interesting and something I didn’t know anything about.”
The publications included two journalism pamphlets written by the fraternity Sigma Delta Chi and the sorority Theta Sigma Phi. One publication took a serious view of journalism while another predated The Onion with fake news.
Another consisted of gossip and satire.
“Notice to All,” a 1927 publication from Theta Sigma Phi read. “We hear no evil, we see no evil, we speak no evil – we write it. Signed, the Dirty Diggers.”
The program’s past is built on pride and tradition, and faculty members see a promising future despite the industry’s challenges. They’re quick to say that journalism isn’t a trade school, but one that prepares students to face a complicated world and work in a number of fields.
Through the ups and downs, the school remains true to what Stone established a century ago. And Abramson grins when he considers the school’s future.
“The faculty has been doing an outstanding job here for 100 years now,” Abramson said. “In talking to the provost and president, they’re very proud of this school. It’s independent – it’s not part of some larger program. It has its own identity and attitude, and people here have a strong sense of who they are.”