Karen Coates

T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, Fall 2011

Pollner Professor Karen CoatesABOUT: Karen Coates is a freelance journalist who has spent more than a decade reporting from Southeast Asia. She is the author of five books, and her work has been published in dozens of magazines and newspapers. Her Pollner seminar, "The Savvy Journalist: A 21st Century Survival Guide," helped students understand how to find and pursue interesting stories, how to sell them to a variety of publications, and how to find funding for enterprise journalism. For more on Karen, check out her website.


"My Pollner Experience" by Karen Coates

I'm pretty lucky. A lot of folks dream of Montana, of meeting the mountains and playing beneath the Big Sky. They want to see bears and eat huckleberries and drink a pint of Moose Drool. And when they finally make that trek to the Treasure State, the memories stick with them forever. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

But I’ve now had the pleasure of living in Montana. Twice. When I was 17, my high school adviser was skeptical when I decided to enroll at The University of Montana. Montana? Really? But he didn’t know what I knew: not only did that university have one of the country’s best journalism schools, but classes in outdoor recreation and a culture that promoted it. I grew up in Wisconsin—it’s flat. I remember touring the UM campus and asking the guide if students really, truly laced up their boots and hit the trails every day. The answer was zigzagging up Mount Sentinel toward the M.

I loved UM and I loved the J-School as a student in the early 90s. I also loved the Kaimin, which became more of a home than my grotty little apartment. I lived in that newsroom, working there most of my college career. That’s where my friends and I learned to be reporters and editors: on the job, doing it, for real.

When I learned of the Pollner position several years ago, I knew immediately I wanted that professorship someday.

But of course I didn’t travel back in time when I set foot on campus last August. While the grounds—and many of the faculty—remain the same, so much else has changed. The J-School has a big, beautiful new building; the Kaimin ditched its scruffy, lumpy couch; students have access to the latest technology, and they know how to use it. Editors and reporters text each other questions and answers, and I proofed stories from anywhere via email. Those things, for better or worse, never happened in my own college days.

But one thing hasn’t changed in all these years: students still want to be journalists. Real journalists doing real, good work—despite an industry that’s quaking all around them.

I taught a class in the business of freelance journalism: how to be a reporter, editor, photographer, videographer, publicist, accountant and choreographer all in one (because today’s journalism world pretty much demands it). At least that’s what the syllabus said. But in reality, the students taught themselves. They had arrived in class with a blizzard of ideas and the drive to pursue them. I had students starting websites, pitching stories, applying for grants, flying to Nicaragua. And they will make it in this quickly shifting journalism world because they still have what I remember from my first tour in Missoula: passion for the job. That comes from the J-School, and it comes from something deep inside each individual.

And that, I think, is the students’ biggest gift to me—renewed passion for my job. After four short months, I’m back in New Mexico now, gazing at a big blue sky full of potential. I’m finishing a manuscript—not in a typical storm of stress, but with pleasure. I’m writing more, reading more and thinking about the next big trip abroad to gather new material. I’ve watched several students dive straight into the stories and projects that mean the most to them, and I’ve seen them fight hard for the chance to do it.

They are my guides now, as I return to the freelance life. And we share this critical knowledge: there is every reason in the world to keep doing what we do.