William Glaberson

T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, Fall 2014

Pollner Professor Bill GlabersonABOUT: William Glaberson worked at The New York Times from 1987 through 2013, covering law, social issues, and media and business for the paper. While at the Times, he covered some of the biggest legal stories of the era, including the Guantanamo terror courts, the Unabomber trial, and the Bush vs. Gore election challenge. His work has earned him a number of awards, including the Daniel Pearl Investigative Award, as well as several Pulitzer Prize nominations. During his tenure as Pollner professor during the fall of 2014, he taught a course in covering the courts. His Pollner lecture outlined the challenges and opportunities journalists face in the "Snowden era."


"My Pollner Experience" by William Glaberson

When you arrive in August, the campus is glistening. Students loll. Professor types move quickly across paths.
You are to be one of them, stepping briskly on the way to teach, whatever that is. Do you know anything to teach? You have cranked it out in newsrooms for years. Can you explain what you do? What was that, again, about active versus passive story leads?
It has been a while since you thought about why you love the news. Sure, you have opinions about what works and doesn’t. But in all these years, there have been no gatherings regularly on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays in which you have been called upon, as you will be in your semester here, to explain journalism.
There they are, looking eager. They expect you to have something to say.
You go for the low-hanging fruit. This 48-word lead is too long. “Cohort,” is way too much jargon in that story’s top. The article on the new 3D printer buried the juicy details: it prints lifelike copies of the scary Grizzly statue that everyone in Missoula seems to love.
There is a way students look at you in the beginning, some testing in the look: who are you? But there is some fear, too.
So when the look turns icy, you reach for one of journalism’s old jokes to break the ice. They must have heard it before:
The crusty editor sends the cub reporter out to cover the mayor’s speech.
“No story,” the cub says when he returns.
Crusty: “Why not?”
Cub: “The mayor was shot to death, so he didn’t give the speech.”
They are laughing. Maybe you are not so frightening.
You realize they haven’t heard that joke before because they haven’t been around journalism — or anything — long enough to have heard much at all.
That is how the partnership begins. You bring in what you know, what you’ve done and read and written. You tell them about great practitioners of the craft, some of them long gone by the time they read their first article.
You tell war stories. They teach you how to teach.
In the nice office with the view of the mountain that is yours for a while, you are sitting with a student. The story he has written meanders like the trail you see out the window that swings back and forth up Mount Sentinel. You tell him about writing clean and straight and clear and editing yourself ruthlessly so the reader can follow you.
He interrupts: “Can I explain?”
You are not sure he really heard you. But his next story is as clean as a whistle. The one after that, cleaner still. Did you teach that? Or did he learn it?
Your confidence grows.
Beware of clichés, you tell them. Find fresh ways of telling stories. Ask officials follow-up questions. Be skeptical. Look stuff up.
You roll out your journalism sayings: “Move the juicy stuff up.” “Quotes make stories.” And the one you stole from Facebook, so useful for reporters agonizing on deadline: “Done is better than perfect.”
Who knew you had journalism sayings?
Every day, you read The Kaimin, the 116-year-old Montana student newspaper, because it is your job. Soon, you realize that is more fun than you have had in journalism in a while.
You notice that there is newsprint smudge on your fingers, as there once was when you— about the age they are now — swayed in the New York subways devouring the latest editions with the lyrical leads and gripping interviews that would be in your head forever.
You tell them how Hemingway learned to write at The Kansas City Star. You talk to them about Capote’s non-fiction reporting and the newspaper articles of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You read them a section from Dennis Swibold’s book that shows that great reporting has some history in Montana too. Maybe they are realizing that the newsprint on their fingertips and yours binds you all together.
One day, one of the student reporters shows up in your nice office. “So,” he says, “what did you think?” He means what did you think of his story that day that you had neglected to mention in your daily bulletin-board critique. “I like it when you are mean,” he says.
What he means is: it is your job to tell us the truth while we are here, where it is safe and we can learn from our mistakes.
You know he is right. That helps you focus. The headline-is-insensitive-the-quote-is-a-cliche-the-lead-is-confusing. Compare apples to apples. Too boring. Too wordy. Once or twice, you catch yourself actually being mean and you know that is not what he meant.
As the days turn cold, you notice some things are changing. One student had a way of hanging back so you might not notice him. And then you notice. His reporting is suddenly on fire with vivid details and quotes that catch the way people talk. You tell him how his lead read smooth and sweet. He tells you he worked on it all weekend. You know he gets journalism.
Another student comes in, as she has before, with a question about how to handle some reporting problem. Back when the Montana days were long and warm, you found the questions easy to answer. Now, as winter sets in, you realize that the questions are getting harder because the questioners know so much more. You have a familiar sensation. Oh, yes, this is what it felt like back in the newsroom, talking with other reporters and editors about stories.
The cold means it is time to go.
Your students have come a long way. You hope you had something to do with that.
You learned a lot from them.
I learned a lot.