5 Signs of Hope for New Mexico Local News in 2022, and the Challenges Ahead
News outlets gained from fundraisers and a return to in-person events, but staffing and other challenges remain
The pandemic might be largely behind us (hopefully), but there are still stubborn challenges for local news publishers in New Mexico. Finding reporters and business staff is difficult. Printing costs are still rising. But there are also some signs of hope, judging by our largest class of publishers in the New Mexico Local News Fund’s Local News Accelerator program this year.
Many publishers are focusing on upgrading technology, building up membership programs and fundraising infrastructure, and producing in-person events again. Smaller news outlets are surviving and thriving by being creative and listening to their communities. (You can read more about the goals of the 21 news outlets in the Accelerator in this previous post.)
For this year’s Accelerator program, we decided to give a bit less grant money per newsroom, but include double the number of newsrooms, which included newspapers, public and community radio, statewide nonprofits, and more. We also helped support any technology upgrades, and had breakout groups focused on various business and editorial topics. And we brought on some fantastic consultants to help us run those breakout groups, including Yossi Lichterman, Arjuna Soriano, Anita Li, John Roby and the folks from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
5 Positive Signs
Here’s a summary of some bright spots we saw among the local news publishers who participated in our Accelerator this year.
- In-person events are really back.
After some starts and stops due to the recurring COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events have finally come back to prominence, helping publishers connect with audiences and sell sponsorships. The alt-weekly Santa Fe Reporter was able to produce its special block party for its “Best of Santa Fe” issue. Las Cruces community radio station Radio KTAL had a 5th anniversary party and open house in August. And the weekly Taos News newspaper had a successful “Taos Woman” event and special issue.
“Our ‘Taos Woman’ event was a huge success,” said Chris Baker, publisher of Taos News. “We managed to sell over $30,000 in our special edition and another $7,500 in sponsorship money.”
2. Publishers are building fundraising infrastructure.
We all know that public media and nonprofit news outlets are masters of fundraising from their audience. But for-profit media outlets are coming along for the ride, realizing that they, too, can get donations and memberships from their communities if they sell their work as a public good. One great example is Abiquiu News, a rural online news site and email newsletter, which ran a fundraising campaign last year and will run another one with our Matching Campaign this December. “We are learning how to ask more for donations,” said Carol Bondy, co-owner of the news site. The Las Cruces Bulletin is planning to run its first fundraising campaign this December as well.
Plus, nonprofits were able to up their fundraising game. NM Political Report started a regular email pitch to readers. KSFR Radio in Santa Fe built up its email list of donors and funders. Plus, KENW public media in Eastern New Mexico hit its goal of raising $60,000 in memberships during a summer campaign.
3. More news outlets are upgrading technology platforms.
For the first time, we had an online Demo Day to showcase various news technology platforms that might interest our cohort of publishers. We also hired technology consultant Stephen Jefferson to provide one-on-one Office Hours for publishers who needed help. The arts magazine and website Southwest Contemporary did move to the BlueLena platform to support its work, especially for audience and membership growth. Rural news site Columbus NM News launched a new online classified section with a WordPress plug-in. And monthly newspaper Questa Del Rio News launched an online calendar so that key community organizations could upload their events.
“Our goal was to learn new approaches and explore new markets, and be more up to speed with trends and technology for both print and digital ad sales. We are in this process, and learning very quickly,” said Lou McCall, editor of Questa Del Rio News.
4. Web traffic and email lists are growing.
Business success starts with building a strong digital audience. That means covering as much of the community as possible, and growing an email list to send out regular newsletters and fundraising pitches. In fact, most local news fundraisers bring in the most money from email pitches — the more pitches, the better. Here are some success stories from our cohort:
- Taos News collected 400 emails from a “Dogs of Taos” online photo contest.
- Southwest Contemporary increased web traffic by 67% over last year, and email subscriptions by 27%, surpassing their goals.
- The Hobbs News-Sun increased email newsletter subscribers by 20%.
- Abiquiu News grew its pageviews by 363% from May to October 2022 compared to the previous year, with big readership of its coverage of the wildfires.
5. Business revenues are up.
While it’s nice to have a growing audience and email list, the bottom line is still the bottom line. Many local news publishers had a great year increasing their overall revenues, with help from special editions, events, ad sales and more. Here’s a sampling of some of those:
- Revenues at Abiquiu News were up 15% compared to last year.
- Hobbs News-Sun had an increase of 25% for its e-newspaper subscribers.
- Las Cruces Bulletin exceeded revenue goals by 19% in August.
- After months of losses, the Rio Rancho Observer turned a profit in September.
As with many industries post-pandemic, the journalism industry has suffered from people quitting and moving jobs. The talent pipeline needs to be refreshed. The Local News Fund does offer a Fellowship program but it’s not enough to plug all the holes at local newsrooms, especially on the business side.
“The biggest struggle we’ve had this year is staffing, particularly in advertising sales,” said Richard Coltharp, publisher of the Las Cruces Bulletin. “We lost four different sales people over three positions…We lost our managing editor at the end of June.” Luckily the Bulletin eventually hired back people into those positions, but it felt the lag in progress most of the year.
Many publishers also had to deal with higher printing costs, and struggles to expand their audience and ad sales. While some newsrooms hoped to upgrade back-end systems like accounting, customer relations management and email serving, they were often short on time and resources to make it happen.
Overall, the feedback on our Accelerator program was positive, and we especially provided a lifeline to many smaller, rural publishers. Our monthly cohort meetings on Zoom were well attended, and we included outside speakers as well as speakers from within our cohort of newsrooms. Popular topics included audience engagement, events and email newsletters. Many people said they appreciated what they learned from outside speakers as well as the knowledge shared by Henry Lopez at the Santa Fe New Mexican on events and diversifying revenues.
While our cohort appreciated all the specialized breakout groups and consultants, the attendance for those breakouts and even one-on-one Office Hours was lacking. Many folks said the amount of offerings was a bit confusing to follow, so we will consider simplifying the program in the coming year. There’s a balance to offering wide-ranging support for newsrooms while also being cognizant of their busy schedules and not wanting to over-stretch them.
Overall, it was great getting to know the diverse group of Accelerator participants this year, and we’re glad we can make a difference in local news here in New Mexico.
“[The Accelerator] is an excellent offering, and critical at a time when news deserts are blowing up everywhere, and we need to be engaged with our communities now more than ever instead of letting big media dictate the terms of our discussions within communities,” said Erik Roithmayr at Abiquiu News.
Mark Glaser is the Director of Business and Program Development for the New Mexico Local News Fund. He is also a communications consultant at Knight Foundation, and was the founder and executive editor of MediaShift.org.