Keila Szpaller, Higher Education Reporter

When it’s easy to just ‘fill the paper,’ local journalist digs deeper

By Shaylee Ragar

Keila Szpaller used to have a rule: She would respond to every question and concern regarding any of her stories. But after she received a flood of hate mail in 2010 for covering an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the Missoula City Council, she no longer feels compelled to answer every snarky email and voicemail.

“It’s just little blips where people maybe take reporting personally, and it’s not personal,” she said.

Keila Szpaller, Spring 2017. Photo by Shaylee Ragar

Szpaller has been a reporter for the Missoulian since 2006. After covering city government for nearly a decade, she took charge of reporting on higher education and thus her own alma mater in 2015. It’s one of the most important beats at the paper because Missoula’s economy depends on the University of Montana, which is currently experiencing some difficulties.

A drop in enrollment was the catalyst for the university’s trouble. With the search for a new university president, an impending tuition increase, faculty cuts and a myriad of other issues, Szpaller has her hands full.

“Those stories are always on your list, and you’re the one who has to get them done,” she said.

Szpaller is the only reporter covering the university for the Missoulian. Since she started working for the paper, there have been rounds of layoffs. This is normal in today’s newspaper business. In 2016, Pew Research Center reported that, across the U.S., the newspaper workforce decreased by about 20,000 jobs in the past 20 years.

After getting a B.A. in English, Szpaller considered pursuing an M.F.A. However, she decided on a master’s degree in journalism, thinking it would offer job security, “which, of course, has not been the case,” she said. For some, this would be cause for cynicism, but Szpaller prefers to remain optimistic.

She said now, more than ever, she wants to prioritize the most important stories, giving them the time and energy they need, while collaborating with her colleagues. “I feel like we’re lucky to still be able to do some of that for now,” she said.

What Keila Szpaller wants readers to know about how local journalism works.

On a recent Thursday morning, Szpaller sat at her desk, typing energetically, headset on and coffee mug close by. Over the course of three hours, she tweeted five times, called a state representative twice, called the ACLU, answered emails, set up a meeting with a university professor and wrote a blog post. Reporters’ notebooks stacked up on her desk.

“Only an hour behind schedule,” she said, laughing.

Kevin McRae, the Montana University System spokesman, said the multitude of deadlines met by journalists today is amazing to him.

“I think highly of them. The Missoulian does an excellent job,” McRae said.

McRae has worked with the Missoulian often and said he respects the editorial staff. In a healthy way, he said, there is disproportionate coverage of UM compared to other Montana universities. He attributed this to a highly competitive press corps in Missoula that isn’t present in other college towns. Local journalists should always add “context, perspective and comparative information” to their stories, McRae said.

Szpaller said her most recent experience of hostility came from a professor who felt the Missoulian was negatively biased toward the university. He apologized once she had explained her position, she said.

“I think as a reporter, I want to be fair to the truth at the university.”

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