By Luke Schmit
Fritz Neighbor started as an art major at the University of Montana. In his sophomore year of college, he took Reporting 270, which changed his life forever. He enjoyed journalism so much, he changed his major and set his goal of becoming a sportswriter. He did not graduate from UM but did join the local daily newspaper, the Missoulian, part-time in 1987. Then, he took a full-time job at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 1988 and then moved to the Billings Gazette in 1991. Finally, he returned to the Missoulian again in 2004 and left in January of 2015. Now, Neighbor works for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell as a sports editor. Fritz has 2,059 followers on Twitter, which is the only platform he posts to. But, he does enjoy laughing at TikTok and catching up with friends and family on Facebook. The most likes Fritz has seen on one of his tweets is 47 and that included a record 24 retweets for him.
Neighbor recently chatted with current UM student Luke Schmit over email. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: Do you have a social media account that you post your articles or work to?
A: I have a Twitter account, on which I post some (but not all, or not enough) of my stories. I mainly use it to give fans updates of games I’m covering. It’s a service to those who care (including other writers) and at times it actually helps when I get ready to write the game story. I have an Instagram account but almost never post. Facebook is good for families and, otherwise, is a cesspool.
Q: Do you have different platforms that you post your work to? How do you maintain that schedule, if so?
A: The most painful part of my shift at the Inter Lake is turning around and posting our local stories to the web. The Inter Lake has a good online presence/e-edition. We’re a two-person staff, so every shift takes that much longer because of editing, the layout and posting.
Q: What do you look towards when writing to a specific audience?
A: Selfishly, I try to write what I would like to read, and trust that I have good taste. I’ve been a big fan of certain writers for a long time: the late Frank Deford, Steve Rushin, contemporaries like John Blanchette (he’s still writing for the Spokesman; I grew up reading his columns in the Billings Gazette) and Kevin Van Valkenburg. I hope some of their best qualities bleed into my writing.
Q: Where do you look for new content or story ideas?
A: I always look for the local angle. One example is UM has restarted its hockey club—the Flying Mules were a thing when I was in college in the ‘80s. I’m thinking with Whitefish having a great youth hockey program that somebody from the Flathead Valley is on that club. I’ll research it Tuesday. I also ask coaches for input for features. In high schools, I usually stick to seniors. With the Griz, I tried to wait until players (transfers, newcomers) actually start contributing before writing anything big. I remember asking Bobby Hauck one spring about doing a feature on a Brigham Young University transfer and he responded, “Well I’d do it now, while he is still here.” The guy didn’t last through spring drills.
Q: Have you ever made a mistake in journalism? What do you do to fix it?
A: Oh, yeah. Misspelled names, misidentifications. I have a mental block with time zones and directions (Huntsville: NE of Houston or NW?) so I really have to triple-check those. Our policy at the Inter Lake when writing a correction is simply to correct it. Don’t repeat your error in print. And this may sound weird, but writing a correction actually feels cleansing. It doesn’t feel good, mind you. But it sharpens me up. Also, and I’ve said this many times, including to former Gov. Marc Racicot: Journalists make mistakes and we’re human. But in my experience people have been their angriest over something I got absolutely right.
Q: What’s your favorite thing that brings you back every day to your job?
A: Writing up a good column or feature or game story. I think game stories are fun to write (and read). I was out of the business for five years before joining the Inter Lake in Dec., 2019. I found that I missed the grind. I worked a couple different places, but I kept thinking about the lively newsroom at the Gazette and grinding on features and “maintenance” during the week and getting rewarded with a game or two on the weekends.
Q: Do you easily like to travel for your content and stories? Does that ever get annoying or tiring?
A: In my younger years at the Gazette, I drove all over Montana. Sidney to Missoula to Scobey to Terry to Baker. Lots of miles, lots of car karaoke. I think Montanans like to drive. I commute each week from Missoula for my current job and don’t mind it. Air travel on the other hand: wow. Covering the Griz meant three or four trips via plane per season, and more if there was a deep playoff run, which isn’t many! Those trips exhausted me. My friend Ryan Divish covers the Mariners for the Seattle Times, and he has over 20 of those every summer. I don’t know if I could handle that (but I’d love to try).
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years with the evolving technology around us? How do you feel about that? Scared? Excited?
A: In 10 years, I’d better be retired and looking at the Crazy Mountains off my deck in Harlowton. I’m pretty stubborn about the new tech. Not to be Conspiracy Fritz here, but I believe a lot of newspapers’ turns toward video is based on a Facebook lie. I stubbornly put box scores for prep games in the Inter Lake; I learned how to take my own stats in football and basketball by watching Kim Briggeman and Rial Cummings do the same. Readers like it. You’re getting names in the paper. Lee Enterprises, ever shrinking, has done away with boxes and gone way too hard at video. My point for retaining readers—and when my phone rings at the Inter Lake, it’s always a veteran reader—is keep writing better and better stuff.
Q: Do you see the use of social media and news being put together as a good thing? Or bad?
A: I guess social media is good. It certainly doesn’t hurt to push things out there beyond the circulation area. Ryan Divish told me in or around 2008 that I’d better embrace Twitter, because it wasn’t going away. Now I’m hooked, and I generally follow writers and comedians that I like. But it’s not real life, as the saying goes. Nobody comes up to me and says they liked something I said or did on Twitter. People remark on a story or compliment my work for the paper much more often.
Q: If you could change one thing in journalism, what would it be? Why?
A: No more corporate ownerships. Their profit margins and stock shares have obviously been bad for newspapers. I believe papers still make money, just not the huge profits of before. I witnessed a period of growth from 1991-2008. The decline since then has been
stunning. It didn’t have to be that way. The business model only works for the executives. Selling the Missoulian pays the execs and shareholders, and not my wife (who still works there). I feel like Lee and other chains are their own worst enemy. I wish Lee, for which I toiled for 26 years, had made it easier to climb within the chain. I felt I was a good enough writer to move up and over, but the opportunities they championed never seemed to be plentiful. I interviewed in Lincoln, Nebraska, for example, and they ended up hiring a younger, cheaper guy.
Q: Does being in Montana hurt the number of followers/readers you have? And does that matter to you, personally?
A: It makes me sad to hear that the Missoulian, which once had a circulation around 30,000, is under 10,000 now. The Inter Lake has held steadier, partly because the valley keeps growing. So that matters to me. I maybe wish I had more Twitter followers because I think I have good taste in tweets. But I don’t take it too seriously. I’m in Montana, after all. None of my family is on Twitter, and I love it that way.
Q: What is your favorite platform of social media? And why? Do you tend to use it more than others?
A: The obvious answer is Twitter. I get the most laughs from it (though TikTok has some funny stuff). It’s also been very useful for my job. In 2020 I pieced together a game story from Columbia Falls based on the tweets of Flathead’s radio play-by-play guy, whowas there on a rare night off. Speaking of which, I find it amazing that with all this new technology the same issues remain: namely, getting games into the next morning’s paper. Libby and Eureka never communicate after their Friday football games, and in 2020 we didn’t get a single Whitefish home game in the Inter Lake. And the school is 15 minutes away. The Whitefish issue has been resolved, but it goes back to your earlier question about tech: It only helps if people use it right.
Luke Schmit is a student in the UM School of Journalism’s Social Media and Engagement class, which conducted Q&As this semester with more than 20 journalists as part of a research project on best practices for journalists on social media.