Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
It’s about 250 miles from Questa to Denver, Colorado, but it can seem a lot longer when it’s a trip from the small town to the big city.
Mikayla Ortega, 29, a Questa High School graduate, knows better than most just what it takes to make that journey.
Ortega is a senior assignment editor on the nightside desk with Denver7 News – and an Emmy award winner.
“It was by happenstance,” she said of her career in TV news. “I was in a college internship at KOB4 (in Albuquerque) and I never thought they would even allow me to enter in there,” she said with a chuckle. “It was just an honor to be an intern there. I took everything they taught and everything they told me, and I went to work.”
It may have been happenstance, but she very quickly proved she belonged in the newsroom.
Within her first week there, old-school reporter Stuart Dyson was asked to find and interview some family or friends of a homicide victim.
“Sitting there, listening to him go on, I got on my phone and found a person on social media,” Ortega said. “I messaged them and said, ‘Hey Stu, I got you the interview.’ He told me, ‘Come with me.’ I was honored. I watched him on TV growing up. He told me that should be my career. ‘You’re able to think on your toes and figure out how to get from A to B, and make those connections and about networking.'”
It wasn’t long before she was promoted from intern to staffer.
“They were really impressed with my networking skills,” Ortega said. “They said I had a knack for the desk and newsworthiness. They hired me after a month as an intern. I was an assignment editor. I worked weekends, the odd shifts. I did that for six months, then I was promoted to primetime editor and I was there for a year and half.”
It was quite a jump for someone from Questa who almost didn’t make through her first week in at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“I remember the first week, I was overwhelmed,” Ortega recalled. “During the summer before I started college, I was working at the local grocery store at Questa. It may have been my second day; I was crying and I called my dad, saying what I am going to do. There’s so many people.”
Her dad, however, was able to apply a pretty quick fix.
” ‘Well mijita, come home and work at the grocery,’ ” she recalled him saying. “Ok, I’m going to class.”
Just getting to attend UNM out of high school was a pretty big deal, she said.
“Our senior class took a trip to Albuquerque to visit and we went to CNM (Central New Mexico Community College) and I asked when we’re going to see UNM,” Ortega said.
“But the counselor that was with us said it’s not really realistic that you go to UNM, we didn’t even tour it because they thought it was so far out of what they thought we could do.
“So I went to school there (UNM). Just kind of doing what they say you can’t do, it makes you feel good.”
Once she was ensconced at KOB, Ortega began to get noticed by stations in bigger markets.
“I got a call from a few places around the country about a year and a half after I was at KOB,” she said. “That’s the way TV works. Word of mouth and you get a reputation as a bulldog, and news directors take notice. Las Vegas, Denver were both calling. I really did love both newsrooms. Denver had the proximity to home which Las Vegas didn’t have. I could get there in four hours if I needed to. I chose Denver and it has a bigger news market.”
And all Ortega has done in her two years in Denver is win three Emmy awards.
In 2018, it was for breaking news and, in 2019, it was for best investigative series and best evening newscast in a larger market.
“The last year was a whirlwind, it was so busy,” she said. “I was working the dayside desk Monday through Friday from 8-5. We won the Murrow national award, which was a huge honor.”
In the investigative piece, Ortega played a large role in getting the story.
“I actually went undercover and used my northern New Mexico Spanish,” she said. “This guy was posing as a doctor who only spoke Spanish and doing procedures on people and he was not licensed in the U.S. I basically asked him to do plastic surgery on my face and he agreed. Then the cameras rushed in.”
The story helped put the bogus practitioner out of business and gained Ortega additional kudos that have drawn more attention nationally.
“CNN in Atlanta is a possibility and there are opportunities in LA,” she said. “It just depends if I want to take that next step. I’m trying to balance it out and figure out where to go next.”
In her role as assignment editor, Ortega works behind the scenes, initiating story ideas, and interacting with the public and agencies.
“It’s the gatekeeper of the newsroom,” she said. “People will contact me with story pitches. PR companies call me. I work with law enforcement, and I work to confirm information that goes into the newscast.”
No matter where her next career move takes her, Ortega said she remains a norteña.
“Growing up and going to Questa High School, there were 32 graduates in my class,” she said. “All of my family is still there. It was hard to leave the little community I grew up in and was the only place I knew. I go back often and it’s a big part of my life. Home is there, it will always be home.”