U Montana’s Pollner professorship in journalism: advice, tips, resources

The Pollner Distinguished Professorships at the University of Montana School of Journalism present an exciting, unique opportunity for professional journalists (or “news media experts,” if you want to look beyond writers, editors or photographers) to take a career break and make a big difference. The one-semester posts carry a generous $40,000 stipend. The application period is typically closes end of January each year, but check this page for updates.

In 2015, I was fortunate to be the first to hold the new spring professorship, endowed to expand the school’s offerings in visual journalism, digital media, and/or the business side of the news (as distinct from business or financial reporting – the fall professorship, as it has for years, goes to an expert in reporting or editing, so if you are a business reporter or editor, that’s likely the spot you want to check out).

Following are four reasons the Pollner job might interest you, some things that really wowed me about my tenure, and tips for preparing your application. (Note that these are my own views and not official advice from the UM faculty or selection committee.)

1. Create and teach the course you think may be missing.

Our class celebrates the end of the semester at the Top Hat, one of Missoula’s great venues for food and live music.

What’s the best thing your career has prepared you to offer today’s students, which UM or other schools might not quite be offering? Fall semester applicants may pitch a master class on areas you have covered as a journalist or managed as an editor. The spring semester post may encourage you to think more broadly, as the visual-digital-business focus speaks to lots of synergies you may have experienced, or even pioneered. I titled my course “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” springing out of innovation, reinvention and change management work I was doing at the time. That link will take you to my complete syllabus, with required reading, work produced by the students, and other resources. (Here’s a later semester’s syllabus from sportswriting genius Kevin Van Valkenburg, and an earlier syllabus from Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever. A Google search will likely reveal others.)

PRO TIPS: First, explore the courses currently being offered at UM so your course proposal stands out as something the students need now. The school does a fine job of covering the fundamentals, and you don’t want to overlap too much. For your course proposal, outline at least roughly the week-by-week topics you may want to explore. (You can always revise it later.) Research and mention the books, websites, or other resources you may assign to your class, and it’s not too early to brainstorm some specific assignments. Have some guest speakers in mind? Mention those. Applicants for both semesters will have an edge if you are active and well connected in digital and social media. If  selected, start thinking about the creative ways you might use your blog, Twitter, or other digital resources to keep track of your work or communicate with students. (We used a closed Facebook page for lots of classroom communications. Here are some examples about how Hank used his blog.)

2. Help advise and shape student media in a time of radical change.

During my semester, the Montana Kaimin made the bold decision to convert from a daily to weekly print publication, and expand its digital presence, while navigating difficult challenges of revenue generation and support from student government. One requirement of the professorship is assisting the resident faculty adviser to the student newsroom. This means lots of time critiquing and coaching their writing and editing, but you’ll find lots of room to make it more than that. Since the spring post emphasizes the strategic and business side of the news, I spent some good time with the paper’s editors talking through management and leadership issues related to the conversion to weekly, and with the business manager and ad sales staff talking about what the changes could mean for revenue and marketing. To the print feedback I also added daily critiques of work the Kaimin published or promoted on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

PRO TIPS: While preparing your application, spend some good time exploring the Kaimin website, which features PDFs of the weekly print edition, as well as the paper’s presence across social media platforms. (Note that the most recent work published around the midwinter deadline for the Pollner post is usually end- or start-of-semester stuff, so you may want to go back a few months and poke around for when they were really in the thick of it.) Reference in your application the expertise you will offer to push these platforms to the next level. If you are selected, be prepared to be REALLY BUSY with office hours, and critiquing their work across these platforms to whatever extent you like.

3. Collaborate and innovate with a small but terrific faculty and guest experts. 

I had worked for decades as an adjunct, Poynter faculty and department director, and trainer of university faculty via AEJMC, ASNE and other professional associations. I can say after my four months in their midst, the UMJ faculty is among the best in the business. (Worth noting: Teaching experience is not required to apply. My primary resume was based on change work I had done in newsrooms around the world.)

You’ll have chances to team-teach, sit in on other classes, create lectures or workshops for the public or for local or regional students, contribute to the Montana Journalism Review (which last semester did very impressive work at Standing Rock), and likely sit in on regular faculty meetings and many informal conversations. (This is more of a courtesy and should not be feared as a burden on your time there. Academic red tape is not something you’ll need to worry about as a visiting professor.)

Each spring, the school brings in a heavy hitter or two to give public lectures. I got to hang out with, and host in my classroom, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, which dovetailed nicely with lots of study we’d been doing on NYT innovation. (The fall Pollner professor delivers a lecture of interest to the public.) Outside the J-school, I met and befriended UM professors of poetry and business. Keep an eye out for university lectures, conferences and other events, and you’ll rub elbows with some really terrific minds.

PRO TIPS: While preparing your application, you may want to reach out to their faculty experts in reporting, radio, web, visuals or other areas to ask questions about how to put your best foot forward. If selected, hang out as much as you can with these folks, in the journalism building, on a hike, or at one of Missoula’s great brew pubs, music clubs or restaurants. Before your arrival, you might even connect with a few and start conspiring.

4. Enjoy life in a really terrific mountain town. 

Scene from the Rattlesnake Wilderness.

I’d been a big fan of the West for years, had visited 48 National Parks and love a great road trip, so I was very stoked at the notion of picking up and moving from Chicago to Missoula for four months. (I actually lingered another six weeks after my course ended, to decompress and enjoy the summer in Montana, as did my successor for the spring post, Sally Stapleton. Her syllabus is here, by the way.) The condo that we, and many others, rented happened to be right at the foot of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, an expansive area with rivers, forests and mountains for cross country skiing, hiking, biking and camping. Nearby are several other mountain ranges, and if you get lucky you may hit some decent snow at the end or start of your visit, if you are into snow sports. I explored hot springs, went floating and rafting on area rivers, and produced tons of nature photography.

PRO TIPS: Study Missoula and Montana media before you apply. If you are selected, consider some great hiking boots and pack your outdoor gear accordingly. Try to get a bike or take one with you if you can – it’s a great way to get to campus and around town. After my course ended, I was invited to speak to the Montana Press Association, which was meeting in Big Sky, and went mountain biking at the nearby ski resort, and backpacked for several nights at nearby Yellowstone National Park.

There are many more reasons to consider the Pollner appointment, but I’ll stop here. I found it a life-changing challenge and enjoy looking back on and discussing the opportunity with others.

Footnote: This was my second time applying, after the first swing didn’t hit the mark. I like to think it was because the original professorship has a reporting/editing bent, not my chief area of expertise, but many factors influence the selection process. When the spring position was added later, I jumped again. I’ve always advised: If you want a fellowship, scholarship, internship or job, apply for as many opportunities as possible, your focus will become sharper each time, and something will click.

Have any questions about the application process, or work and life at the school or in Missoula? Happy to chat. Email me at ronreason@gmail.com and put “Pollner question” in the subject line. Good luck! 

Related or semi-related:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *