Q&A: Rashad Mahmood on how the Local News Fund supports journalism in New Mexico

Will Fischer
Center for Cooperative Media
7 min read4 days ago

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Rashad Mahmood is executive director of the New Mexico Local News Fund, a collaborative network that helps to fund journalism and information across the state.

Having worked as a journalist in New Mexico, Mahmood is perfectly positioned to direct resources and support to other local news outlets — and being named a Press Forward local chapter will certainly help those efforts.

We caught up with Mahmood to hear about the Local News Fund and why more and more states are looking to similar collaborative models to bolster local journalism.

WF: How did you get involved in journalism?

RM: I got into journalism in a roundabout way. I had worked in international development at the US Institute for Peace in DC and Iraq, as well as the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. My first journalism job was in Cairo — my wife was doing her dissertation research there and I got in touch with one of my old bosses, and he also ran a business magazine in English. He asked if I wanted to join as a writer, and I had already been interested in journalism. I jumped at the opportunity and really enjoyed it. When we moved to New Mexico several years later, I ended up working at the local NPR station, KUNM. I really enjoyed that, and then one of my colleagues, Sarah Gustavus Lim, founded the Local News Fund and invited me to join, and that’s where I am today.

WF: When did you start thinking about collaborative journalism?

RM: At KUNM, we were part of several collaborative journalism projects. One was a collaborative legislative reporting project, where we worked with the local PBS TV station KNME, the Santa Fe Reporter, and New Mexico In Depth. It was really a great experience taking such an important issue and pooling our resources to help inform the people of New Mexico. There were definitely lessons learned as well, which helped inform my philosophy — one of them is making sure that there’s adequate staffing for collaboratives. You really need some sort of central coordinator whose job is to make sure things run smoothly. In general, New Mexico has a very collaborative mindset in the journalism community. It might partly be because there are so few news outlets, there isn’t a ton of direct competition. I’ve found that people want both individual journalists and their fellow news organizations to succeed.

WF: What made you want to join the Local News Fund after working as a journalist?

RM: Philanthropy and grant-making in journalism is still a relatively new field, it was very low visibility for a long time. There was kind of a special art to writing journalism applications back in the day, in terms of framing it in a way to convince funders that it’s worthy of investment. At KUNM, I did some grant-making, and when Sarah offered me the opportunity to do that on behalf of the local news ecosystem as a whole in New Mexico, it really appealed to me. When Sarah first started, she did a lot of focus group meetings with community members, journalists, and students to really make sure that the work of the News Fund was grounded in their needs. Those assessments continue to inform our work — and there were a few things that were surprising.

Overwhelmingly, we heard that there were so few entry level journalism jobs in New Mexico, and people felt like they had to go to Arizona, Colorado, Texas, or California to start their careers. We started our fellowship program to address these issues — the lack of resources for newsrooms and opportunities for new journalists. The majority of former fellows are still working in local news in New Mexico, they’re all over the state, and the participating newsrooms are happy with the program. That’s been quite successful, and a model for other places. We started looking at state funding for the program and also spoke with people in California about it, as they ended up getting $25 million in state funding to start a similar fellowship program out of Berkeley. Other states have looked at that as a model for state funding, and we have gotten some state support, too, so it’s gratifying to feel like that’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

WF: How do you incorporate collaborative journalism into your work at the Local News Fund?

RM: We have an accelerator program to help existing local news outlets innovate on the revenue side. We have it structured as a cohort model. When we first started, there were about seven to 10 outlets. We’ve made it much bigger, essentially as a community of practice, and the last two years there have been around 15 to 18 newsrooms. A lot of the feedback we’ve received is that it’s most helpful for some of the smaller, rural news outlets. It’s about feeling part of something bigger, and they have someone on their side looking out for them. For a long time, they’ve just felt isolated because they’re the only ones doing journalism in their communities and they don’t feel a strong connection to news outlets in other parts of the state. We’re really trying to create this wraparound sense of support for local news outlets in New Mexico so that they feel like they can do it and be successful.

WF: How did you become involved with Press Forward and what will that funding allow you to do?

RM: We heard about Press Forward early on in the formative stages. When the opportunity to create Press Forward local chapters was announced, it seemed natural that was something we would pursue, especially because of the emphasis on community and place-based foundations. Here in New Mexico, like in other places, there are a lot of funders that aren’t comfortable or used to supporting local news, they don’t really see it as a cause that needed or was worthy of support. But with the opportunity for national funding from Press Forward, and because we’ve been having conversations with our local funders here for years, it felt like it was that critical mass or the last piece of the puzzle to get them to sign on. We were really fortunate that a lot of community foundations all over the state decided to join.

We modeled our chapter a little bit on the Alaska one, which was one of the first chapters announced. It’s a partnership between a traditional foundation and a journalism support organization. We’re very fortunate the Thornburg Foundation agreed to be the lead foundation and we co-chair Press Forward New Mexico with them. We have a steering committee that makes grant decisions collectively. Separately, we formed an advisory committee including some journalists, several people from community organizations, and two sitting legislators. It’s a diverse group that’s been brought together with a shared commitment to supporting and growing local news in New Mexico.

In terms of the funds, one thing that was universally supported was re-visiting some of our initial work to create a complete news map of the state, similar to the Colorado News Mapping Project. That will provide a baseline for where we’re at, the opportunities, and what parts of the state need more investment. We’re also going to do some polling around attitudes towards news, trusted news organizations, things like that. Many of these projects are things we’ve talked about for a long time, but the impetus with Press Forward is really helping to make them happen. Some of the funding will also go towards expanding our current programs, but we’re still figuring out what that will look like.

WF: What do you think has changed that’s encouraged more funders to become interested in supporting journalism?

RM: I think it’s a matter of awareness. The Pew Research Center has asked people how they view the financial health of journalism, and more than 60% think local news outlets are doing well. It’s just not something the average person thinks about, they don’t realize it. For some consumers, we’re in the golden age of journalism, in a sense. Part of my family is from Pakistan, and within 10 seconds, I can read about what’s going on in Lahore, the city my family came from — that’s incredible. On the surface, it’s easy for the average person to say that journalism is doing great. But over time, there’s been increasing awareness of our economic challenges, especially leading up to the 2016 election and with the pandemic in 2020, which both highlighted the importance of accurate information in communities for a strong democracy.

In the past, there haven’t been many intermediaries focused on a specific geographic area to support journalism in those communities. The Democracy Fund really saw that gap, perceptively I think, and helped fund organizations like ourselves, Colorado Media Project, North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, even the Center for Cooperative Media. That vision has been validated and Press Forward is building on it. There are so many times where I’ve thought, if we didn’t exist, these opportunities would not have happened. I’m on the board of our local foundation for open government, and I can act as a liaison from the journalism community. There’s a local group that’s advocating around trust in elections, and it would be a little weird for an editor from a news outlet to be on that committee. As someone that’s not doing journalism myself but supporting journalism, I’m happy to serve in that role. It’s just so valuable having an organization looking out for the best interests of local news and information for the state.

Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at willfisch15@gmail.com.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism and support an informed society in New Jersey and beyond. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, the Independence Public Media Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.

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Will Fischer
Center for Cooperative Media

I write about collaborative journalism and local media ecosystems. Follow me on Twitter @willfisch15 or email me at willfisch15@gmail.com.