by Jenna Spinelle
New Mexico is a big, diverse state that struggles to meet the information needs of its residents, from big cities like Santa Fe to rural areas like Silver City. The New Mexico Local News Fund brings news organizations across the state together to harness their collective reporting and fundraising power and tell regional or statewide stories that one outlet could not fully cover on its own. The organization is building on a collaborative mindset already in place among New Mexico’s journalists and providing them with resources and training to enhance their reporting.
Since its creation in 2018, the New Mexico Local News Fund has created a fellowship program for journalism students, provided COVID-19 emergency grants to journalists, supported newsroom collaborations across the state, and launched a local news revenue initiative.
Organization Background: The New Mexico Local News Fund aims to grow the ecosystem of local news across our state to better serve the information needs of all New Mexicans and give them access to the local news and information they need to thrive. To accomplish that goal, the organization works with both existing newsrooms and trusted community organizations.
The New Mexico Local News Fund follows the Democracy Fund’s model of creating sustainable news ecosystems that meet the information needs of the communities they serve. The ecosystem model includes both traditional news outlets, as well as community organizations, social media, and more.
New Mexico’s media needs are as diverse as its population, and part of the fund’s mission is to better understand those needs so it can dedicate resources where and how they’re needed most.
The New Mexico Local News Fund was established at the Santa Fe Community Foundation in 2018 by Democracy Fund, a foundation helping to ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people, and the Thornburg Foundation, a New Mexico-based foundation that invests in enduring solutions to help solve problems affecting people and the planet. In 2020, the organization provided grants of $10,000-$25,000 to support collaborative reporting on climate change, state government, the cannabis industry, and economic opportunities for young adults.
Through its New Mexico Local News Matching Campaign, the organization helped news organizations raise thousands of dollars between November 30 (#GivingNewsDay) and December 31, 2021. The fund has also awarded tens of thousands of dollars in grants to support both local news collaboration projects and COVID-19-related physical and mental health needs among the state’s journalists.
The New Mexico Local News Fund also provides grants through its New Mexico Local News Accelerator, which gives newsrooms $5,000 to pay for the implementation of a news technology platform like Newspack or Indiegraf. Organizations are also eligible for $3,000 in matching funds as part of a December local news fundraising campaign.
The accelerator is led by Mark Glaser, founder of MediaShift and the New Mexico Local News Fund’s Innovation Consultant. The accelerator’s first cohort in 2021 included 10 news organizations from across New Mexico. A few of the highlights from the cohort include:
- Camino Real Media, a Spanish-language newspaper in Southern New Mexico, added distribution locations that increased circulation by 12.5% and created a Spanish version of the League of Women Voters election guide.
- Columbus NM News, an online news startup, started collecting emails on its website to launch a newsletter and received funding for a series of photo essays on child welfare in collaboration with the Center for Sustainable Journalism.
- KTAL, a community radio station in Las Cruces, partnered with New Mexico State University’s Center for Community Analysis to produce audio reports called “Data Deets” based on data points about Doña Ana County and planned a hybrid online/on-air fundraiser.
The cohort also led to several collaborative news projects, including:
- The Sierra County Sun and Columbus NM News both began sharing content from Searchlight New Mexico, an independent investigative news outlet.
- Reporters from Searchlight New Mexico and Columbus NM News appeared on KATL radio to discuss their work.
- The Santa Fe New Mexican helped produce an online panel for Downtown Albuquerque News related to the stadium vote in Albuquerque.
Beyond its financial impact, the New Mexico Local News Fund has helped the state’s residents and stakeholders gain a better understanding of its local news ecosystem and what additional resources are needed to best serve the state’s residents. It created an assessment of the news and information ecosystem in southern New Mexico, a report on how to advance sustainable journalism in the state, and hosted a roundtable on collaborative journalism in New Mexico.
How it Happened
The New Mexico Local News Fund is modeled after the Democracy Fund and the Colorado Media Project, which creates and supports opportunities to expand and reimagine local news in Colorado. It officially launched in March 2019 after two years of research and collaboration to study the news ecosystem in New Mexico. Founder Sarah Gustavus Lim worked with the public policy organization New Mexico First and the Society of Professional Journalists to survey journalists, students, and educators about the challenges and opportunities associated with being a journalist in the state.
Some of the challenges identified included:
- Providing relevant local news and information in rural communities
- Cultivating interest in local news among journalism students
- A lack of transparency from state and local government agencies and a lack of government understanding among reporters
- Corporate media ownership hindering local reporting
- A lack of media literacy among news consumers
This work led to the Advancing Sustainable, Reliable Journalism in New Mexico report and additional funding from the Democracy Fund and the Thornburg Foundation to hire additional staff and expand programming to include fellowships, training, and other activities.
Rashad Mahmood joined the organization in 2019 and now serves as its executive director. He previously worked in audience and community engagement at KUNM, where he managed a grant-funded project on public health. That experience taught Mahmood about the disconnect between newsrooms and funders — something the New Mexico Local News Fund aims to bridge by helping shine a light on the crisis facing local news.
“Journalism can be a little bit opaque to outsiders … we really try to be that advocate that makes the whole system less opaque,” Mahmood said. “Since we’ve started, there are several funders that have not funded journalism in the past, or done so very sporadically, that are thinking about how to make it more a core part of their work and recognizing how important it is.”
1. Making the most of Zoom
At the beginning of the pandemic, Mahmood said the organization worried about how it would deliver training and provide connection opportunities for its members from a distance. However, he said online programming worked out much better than expected and that the organization is reworking its long-term plans to include fewer in-person gatherings.
The Local News Accelerator held all of its cohort meetings virtually, and the fund’s team held an online training session for the #supportNMnews campaign, among other activities over the past two years.
Mahmood said. New Mexico’s size makes it difficult to travel, especially when budgets are tight. Well-planned and well-executed online training and events can still deliver important information and create a sense of community without the time and financial burdens associated with traveling.
“If we want to be inclusive of organizations in the different parts of Mexico, I think focusing a lot of our work virtually is a net benefit, actually,” Mahmood said.
2. Making a match with fellows
The New Mexico Local News Fund Local News Fellowship Program began in 2019 as a collaboration with the University of New Mexico; in 2021, it expanded to include New Mexico State University and Eastern New Mexico University.
Fellows rank their top choices for news organizations and are placed accordingly. The fellowship runs for nine months; fellows are paid $28,500, and newsrooms receive an additional stipend to help with the costs of onboarding and supporting a new reporter.
The 2021 reporter cohort completed fellowships at Taos News, Carlsbad Current-Argus, Gallup Independent, and the Santa Fe Reporter. The 2020 cohort’s fellowship locations included the Silver City Press, New Mexico PBS, and the Las Cruces Sun-News.
Mahmood said the fellowship has helped newsrooms across New Mexico recruit and retain local talent, which is important for building trust with audiences and creating opportunities for deeper community engagement.
“New Mexico’s kind of a special place … it’s not like everywhere else,” Mahmood said. “And so, being from New Mexico and having deep-rooted community knowledge is super valuable in journalism here.”
3. The power of collective fundraising
Finally, the New Mexico Local News Fund led the first-ever statewide giving campaign for local news in December 2021 — #supportNMnews. The fund matched every dollar raised by 11 participating news organizations through subscriptions, donations, or memberships. The fund’s team led a virtual training session on fundraising and provided promotional language outlets could use in their campaigns. Participants also had access to consulting from the News Revenue Hub on how to create a lasting fundraising infrastructure.
The #supportNMnews campaign showed that a little bit of funding can make a big difference at a small news outlet, especially when it’s matched by a larger organization. The campaign’s structure and limited time window gave newsrooms the incentive they needed to implement subscription and membership drives that are easy to push off to the future when more urgent priorities arise.
“These matching funds from the NMLNF will pay our volunteer writers and allow us to hire a full-time, bilingual staff reporter for in-depth coverage of local news and events,” Lou McCall, editor of the Questa Del Rio News, said in a press release about the campaign.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Funding sustainable, not short-term projects
Over time the fund moved away from supporting individual collaborations and toward larger-scale projects that will have a lasting impact beyond a single news report. Mahmood said that while one-off projects are important, the limited scope makes it difficult to work toward a better news ecosystem.
“If you know that the collaboration has a start and end date, it just, I don’t know, it limits your upside a little bit,” Mahmood said. “Whereas if you build communities with a goal of really lasting for the long term as a body, then you get I think you get people to invest more and like being engaged more, right, because these are relationships that we’ll be relying on for the long term.”
2. Reducing the reporting burden
Mahmood said the fund has also evolved its application and reporting processes to address the fact that newsroom leaders are already juggling a lot of responsibilities and might not have time to complete lengthy written applications or project status updates.
“We’ve tried to really make our applications short and sweet, knowing that we can always ask follow-up questions if we need more information,” Mahmood said. “And we’ve made reporting as easy as possible, where we’ll just schedule check-ins with people to talk about how things are going instead of asking for written reports.”
What Else You Should Know
The New Mexico Local News Fund is launching a journalism project in southern New Mexico in 2022. The Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative will employ a solutions-based approach to reporting and its team will include a bilingual community engagement editor. For more on the region’s news landscape, read the New Mexico Local News Fund’s Southern New Mexico News and Information Ecosystem Assessment, published in July 2021.
Mahmood and Stefanie Murray of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University shared their experience building statewide local news ecosystems in a Local That Works webinar in February 2022. Watch the recording.
To connect with Rashad Mahmood at the New Mexico Local News Fund, email firstname.lastname@example.org.