SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
by Kristin Rodine
Students crowd into an editing room, watching rough footage on a small television screen while three professors fire questions at them. "Where's your two-shot?" "What about that lip-flap?"
The students are members of The University of Montana's Student Documentary Unit, which has racked up an impressive array of awards while giving UM students something few schools offer: the experience of producing an hourlong documentary for broadcast throughout the state.
One by one, the teams play their footage for the faculty. Questions and comments are tough, to the point, and from all directions. Students defend their choices and explore options. One student yields to the strain with tears of frustration. It's been a long semester, and in a matter of days these segments are scheduled to air in Montana.
The exchanges are frank, with professors addressing students as colleagues. That professional atmosphere is a key part of the process and a prime example of what radio-television Professor Bill Knowles calls the "Montana method" of practical journalism training. UM's School of Journalism, of which the radio-television department is a part, focuses on practical skills and hands-on experience.
While many "J" schools emphasize communication theory, Knowles says, UM strives to give future professionals a running start. "My view of my job is to make students employable in the industry," says Knowles, a former West Coast bureau chief for ABC News.
That approach works. Former students work in stations across the state and across the nation. A few success stories: Terry Meyers is one of two evening news producers for New York City's CBS station; James Rafferty covered last summer's Olympics for a Wisconsin station; Chris Goode is a trainer for a company that makes weather graphics for Fox and MSNBC; and Jeanelle Lamphier is a successful reporter and producer for a Billings TV station. Several of the students who worked on this year's documentary have snared prestigious internships: Anna Kloss at National Public Radio, Suzi Jewett at Fox Broadcasting's WFXT in Boston and Margrete Raugstad at ABC's "Good Morning, America."
For eleven years, the Student Documentary Unit has given UM broadcast journalism and radio-television production majors a rare opportunity to work on a long-form documentary. "Long-form training is very rare in journalism schools," Knowles says, noting that UM is one of only two schools in the nation with a student documentary unit. "This is really a capstone experience for these kids," he says.
With the help of UM's entire radio-television department-Knowles, Joe Durso Jr. and department Chair Greg MacDonald-the unit's thirty-five students handle all aspects of the documentary, from budgeting and travel arrangements to choosing music and graphics to accompany the segments. A $5,000 budget, courtesy of the Greater Montana Foundation and Montana Public Television, covers travel and other expenses.
"We take statewide issues, send the students out across the state to do strong segments and put together a program that studies the issue in depth," Knowles says.
The unit picks "the topics people are talking about," he says-sales tax, land development, the inability of Montana students to find good jobs in their home state. This year's documentary, a one-hour, comprehensive look at tribal sovereignty in Montana, is one of the SDU's most ambitious. "I really salute the students for choosing this topic," Knowles says. "This is a really difficult subject, very comprehensive and incredibly important. And I think they've done very well with it."
Native America: Whose Land? Whose Law? provides an overview of the history of tribal sovereignty and details current issues involving gambling, taxes, land use, criminal justice and the Indian Child Welfare Act.
"Every single one of them is a high-conflict issue in Montana right now," says the program's producer, Jewett. "It's exciting how timely this is." Native America aired on Montana Public Television in mid-December and again in March; it also was featured during the UM-hosted Native American Film Festival this spring.
Students traveled the state for interviews and footage, visiting three Indian reservations and interviewing a wide range of native and non-native Montanans, from shopkeepers to the state attorney general.
The process can be exhausting, with many late nights in the editing room and road trips across the state, on top of other TV projects, including the weekly "College Beat" news break during local airings of NBC's "Today" show. Students sacrifice a lot during their SDU semester, Knowles says, noting that "December can be a bit of a train wreck."
The ultimate payoff is a program with a permanence that is rare in television news. "They end up with something with lasting value, much more than the average minute-and-a-half story," Knowles says. "It takes away the ephemeral nature of television."
Over the years, the documentaries have received a "terrific response" from Montanans, he says. People tape them; people buy them. The school is still selling copies of past programs. And the unit has collected shelves full of accolades: regional Society of Professional Journalism honors ten out of ten years, three national SPJ awards and numerous Rocky Mountain Emmies and Montana Broadcasters' Association awards.
"An Incredible Experience"
On top of being a recruiting asset for the School of Journalism, attracting aspiring broadcast journalists from Canada, Norway and twelve states, Native America research chief Mike Spurlock says the SDU is great technical and professional training. Unit members have individual responsibilities, but students must work together to make each segment fit into the whole. And, Spurlock says, students hone their journalistic instincts: "They learn how to pick out the strengths and weaknesses of a story and how the individual stories relate to the overall plan."
Watching his classmates gathered in teams, sharing ideas and progress reports, Spurlock says, "I'm sure some of these kids are going to be famous someday."
Producer Jewett, who oversaw boiling down thirty-five hours of video into an hour-long documentary, calls it an incredible experience. "Every time I'd walk into the editing studios and see the pieces coming together, it was so exciting for me," she says. "This is what I want to do with the rest of my life."
Kristin Rodine is city news editor at the Idaho Press Tribune in Nampa, Idaho.