How New Mexico Local Newsrooms Survived and Thrived During the Pandemic
Local news outlets around the state got creative to bring in new revenue sources during this challenging year
It’s been a tough year for local news outlets around New Mexico, with many suffering massive drops in advertising revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and having to lay off or furlough staff or cut pay. It’s obvious that when the local economy suffers, so do local news organizations.
But they’ve also distinguished themselves by providing timely and vital information about COVID-19 in their communities, as well as covering racial reckoning protests and local elections. And in my experience as Innovation Consultant for the New Mexico Local News Fund, helping to run the Revenue Initiative with 9 grantee newsrooms, I’ve seen some hard work and creativity pay off on the business side.
I wrote a progress report on the Revenue Initiative last month, and wanted to provide a year-end summary of what worked for the newsrooms, where they struggled, and what we can provide for them in the coming year. There’s a lot of potential among these newsrooms to continue successful initiatives in 2021, and to work together as a growing cohort who can share ideas and suggestions, and even collaborate on editorial and business projects.
Each participating newsroom was tasked with coming up with three goals (with deadlines) during the course of the grant. Some of these goals related directly to ad revenues and grants from foundations, and others were about building audience and engagement for future income.
Here are some successful initiatives from among the grantees:
- Taos News started a new Matching Advertising Grants Program (see image above) that used grant money to boost local advertisers’ buys by 3-to-1, thereby helping boost ad spending and the local businesses (no big box stores allowed). Campaigns in August and during the holiday season have netted $50,000 in revenues so far for the newspaper.
- GPK Media in Truth or Consequences, NM, brought in revenue by running candidate forums and selling guest DJ slots to political candidates on its AM radio station. They also bought a printing and monthly event guide business.
- Las Cruces Bulletin started its first ever “Bulletin’s Best” contest to let people vote on their favorite local businesses, garnering hundreds of thousands of votes, 24,000+ new email subscribers and thousands in new revenues.
- Similarly, the Mountain Monthly newspaper in Cloudcroft, NM, will bring back its Summer Guide next year and has soft-launched new video ads for local businesses.
- The Santa Fe Reporter ran a special letter-writing fundraising campaign by high-profile fans of the alt-weekly, surpassing its goal of $12,000.
- The Daily Lobo student newspaper at the University of New Mexico ran a crowdfunding campaign to get protective gear for reporters covering protests, and boosted its email newsletter list from 1,300 to more than 10,000 and growing.
Many of the grantees said they appreciated my bi-weekly phone or email check-ins with them to make sure they were on track, or to brainstorm potential ideas. Like all good journalists and publishers, having deadlines for their goals helped motivate them to action.
An ongoing challenge for these local newsrooms is trying to do more with less staff, less time, less energy, less of everything! Many newsrooms were interested in increasing their philanthropic income from grants, but didn’t have the time or staff to do more outreach to foundations and other funders. Similarly, many grantees learned about the success that the Santa Fe New Mexican has had with online events (thanks to a talk by Henry Lopez to the group), but have struggled to move their events online.
Even the best laid plans were scuttled due to COVID-19, with cancelled high school sports hurting the Sierra County Sentinel’s plans to live-stream games. And the Daily Lobo had to cut back its print run and frequency due to having less students on campus this fall. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, let’s hope that more live events and in-person schooling can happen in person by next summer or fall.
Meanwhile, the Local News Fund will consider new types of collaboration next year that could fill in the staffing gaps at newsrooms, perhaps with some shared freelancers who might help with online events, fundraising or other needs.
As part of the grant program, we had the grantees join us for four Friday Zoom cohort meetings, with guest speakers talking about topics of interest, including online events, grant fundraising, marketing for local businesses and finding major donors. These meetings helped the grantees network with colleagues and share some success stories and challenges.
The feedback I received from grantees on the cohort meetings was positive, with some folks asking for more than an hour to meet, and to allow more time for sharing ideas vs. having expert trainings.
“I loved these meetings,” said one participant in their feedback for the grant program. “The meetings got me very excited about how I feel we can all help build capacity and improve our work by working together and better serving our communities.”
The Local News Fund is planning another round of Revenue Initiative grants next spring to help support even more local newsrooms in diversifying their revenues. We will expand and extend the cohort meetings to include grantees from 2020 and 2021, so that there will be more room for collaboration and sharing.
I was really inspired by the group’s openness and willingness to offer support to other newsrooms around the state. And when the cohort includes an alt-weekly, public radio and TV, an online nonprofit newsroom and community newspapers, it’s even better to know that this generous spirit can cross formats and geography.
As one grantee wrote in their feedback: “I really appreciate the Initiative’s collaborative attitude and understanding of the vital role journalism plays in our democracy.”
Mark Glaser is the Innovation Consultant for the New Mexico Local News Fund. He is also an Associate at Dot Connector Studio, and was the founder and executive editor of MediaShift.org.