From An Idea To A Thriving Local News Ecosystem

View south from Sandia Peak
Photo: Sarah Gustavus Lim

I am a wildly optimistic person.

I always believe that big things are possible.

That’s exactly why I loved a question that was brought to me in 2018 — what could a thriving local news ecosystem in New Mexico look like?

For years now, we’ve been hearing that local news and journalism is dying. I’m drawn in the opposite direction, toward hope that we can build new things and help people thrive.

With the support of the Democracy Fund and the Thornburg Foundation, I worked with New Mexico First to convene focus groups to surface key challenges for journalists and news outlets. I used what we learned to create the New Mexico Local News Fund.

My goal was to support both existing local news outlets and new efforts to create organizations or products that would better serve people who had been historically marginalized in news coverage. Not only in places where there is no local outlet, but communities that don’t trust local news because of the negative ways they have been portrayed in the media. We followed up the next year with community focus groups to ask people what they valued about local news and how they could support it.

I’m proud of what our growing team has built over the past three years. I’m also moving on to other opportunities at the end of this year, but wanted to share three lessons that I learned from this ecosystem-building work in New Mexico.

#1 Collaboration is crucial for strengthening a local news ecosystem.

The shared management of water and the acequia system in New Mexico shaped my thinking about building collaborations in journalism across the state. We can share resources and knowledge that help everyone thrive.

We’re already seeing this in the Local News Revenue Initiative. Mark Glaser arrived in New Mexico during the pandemic and stepped up to lead what was just an idea — help local newsrooms with funding now but also support them in developing robust plans for revenue generation. Newsrooms in two rounds of the initiative shared ideas and supported each other while maintaining their independence and ability to serve their own unique audiences.

Collaboration isn’t a new idea in the local news ecosystem. Previous collaborations led to an increase in coverage of state government, cannabis and the local impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, NMLNF helped launch a southern New Mexico collaborative to cover the legislature with a shared reporter. Diana Alba Soular, NMLNF’s southern New Mexico coordinator, skillfully helped those newsrooms continue to build their growing collaborative.

#2 We need to cultivate the next generation of journalists so newsrooms reflect the diversity of the communities they are covering.

I wasn’t surprised to hear in our focus groups with journalists that recent graduates couldn’t find jobs in New Mexico. I’d heard that from years of working with interns at KUNM and New Mexico PBS. I tried to support promising young reporters but watched again and again as they either left journalism or left New Mexico.

Newsrooms in New Mexico, like the rest of the United States, often do not reflect the diversity of the communities they are reporting on. That’s why we supported an early career fellowship, based at the University of New Mexico, over the past two years. People like Mike Marcotte and Gwyneth Doland Parker have done an incredible job supporting both fellows and newsrooms. I believe the fellowship, which aims to place promising early career journalists in local newsrooms, can be a model for other states that face similar challenges.

#3 Systems-level change is slow, but it’s important to measure progress along the way.

Over the past three years, we’ve measured success in small wins that point toward progress — the number of fellows that now have full-time jobs or newsrooms finding new sources of revenue. It can be hard, even for an optimist like myself, to not feel sometimes things are stalled. I’m still learning how to effectively track progress, but I have found that keeping a list and reviewing it often helps to envision the path forward as it’s still being built.

NMLNF will continue to be led by Rashad Mahmood. Our incredible team — Diana Alba Soular, Tara Gatewood and Tanya Cole — has deep roots in the state. We’re also fortunate Mark Glaser, who has a wealth of experience in journalism, joined the team when he moved to Santa Fe last year.

I lived in Albuquerque for more than ten years. That experience changed me in profound ways, personally and professionally. I’m honored that I was able to invest part of myself into something that will continue to serve this incredible state. I’m grateful for the chance to have worked alongside so many wonderful colleagues and supporters of local news. It’s amazing to look back on the positive strides we’ve made so far, and I look forward to the gains that I know you will collectively continue to make.

The future is bright, both for New Mexico and the New Mexico Local News Fund.