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December 10, 2019

Collaboration is Key in New Mexico Local News Ecosystem

This post on the New Mexico local news ecosystem is part of a series on the future of local news, and how funders, civic leaders and everyday people can get involved. You’ll learn about the work of ecosystem builders, whose stories can inspire your use of our new Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem.

The New Mexico local news ecosystem has a valuable resource: a culture of collaboration
(Roberto Nickson / Unsplash)

by Kip Dooley

We’re a culture where people need to work together. It goes all the way back to how we manage water in New Mexico.

Ecosystem Builder Sarah Gustavus

As a former TV reporter and producer in New Mexico, Sarah Gustavus is keenly aware of the problems that face her state. It routinely lands near the bottom of national rankings for education, healthcare and economic opportunity. These problems are often the bread-and-butter of local news reports in New Mexico that leave local audiences feeling like journalism is only interested in what’s wrong with their communities.

But New Mexico’s local news ecosystem also has a unique and valuable resource: a culture of collaboration. Because of the state’s scarce resources, “we’re a culture where people need to work together. It goes all the way back to how we manage water in New Mexico,” she says.

Assessing your local news ecosystem can surface strengths, like a culture of collaboration

As manager of the New Mexico Local News Fund at the Santa Fe Community Foundation, which the Democracy Fund contributes to along with the Thornburg Foundation, Guastavus says she hopes to tap into existing norms and systems of collaboration to help strengthen the news ecosystem, and support journalism that reflects the wants and needs of local communities. Gustavus is also the Mountain West regional manager for the Solutions Journalism Network.

Gustavus, in both her previous and current roles, acts as a vital Ecosystem Builder for New Mexico and the Mountain West. She brings her expertise at collaboration and connecting people, groups, media and ideas to the region. We define Ecosystem Builders as people in a community who are designing new models for local news. They are innovative, connected deeply to communities, and hold many relationships across their ecosystem. These Ecosystem Builders, and the connecting work they lead, are vital to the future of local news ecosystems. (Read more about them here).

The recently published Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem outlines how important it is to find partners like Gustavus in your ecosystem. It shares questions you can ask to find them, like which organizations and people have demonstrated a knack for collaboration, and what roles could they play? And, are they best equipped to use an investment of money, or to play a leadership role in ecosystem building?

The rural-urban divide

Small towns like Las Cruces have little to no information about essential political and economic processes happening in their own state.

Advancing Reliable, Sustainable Journalism in New Mexico, a report from New Mexico First.

Gustavus contributed to a local news ecosystem assessment funded in part by the Democracy Fund, which was then used to develop focus groups run by the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande Chapter and New Mexico First, a public policy organization. The report found that in addition to news deserts and inadequate staffing of newspapers, New Mexico’s news ecosystem is particularly challenged by a shortage of reporters from rural areas, Spanish-speaking and Native American reporters, and a sense of disconnection between rural areas and the political and economic centers of Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

New Mexico’s rural-urban divide was already evident to Gustavus.

“I knew something was up with southern New Mexico,” she says of her experience producing New Mexico in Focus, a weekly show for KNME/PBS in Santa Fe. “I knew that people outside Santa Fe felt very distant from power centers of the state.”

But she wasn’t sure exactly why – or what, as a journalist, she could do about it. While conducting interviews for the New Mexico First report in Las Cruces, a town near the shared border with Texas and Mexico, she learned that part of the problem was structural: Nielsen, which determines the boundaries of media markets for many companies, classifies Las Cruces as part of the El Paso, Texas market. As a result, local news in Las Cruces comes from Texas, not New Mexico. Doña Ana County, where Las Cruces sits, is one of 80 or so counties across the nation that media researchers are calling “orphan counties.”

“The programming communities receive is largely determined by Nielsen, which focuses on peoples’ consumer markets rather than their news needs,” the report says, leaving local news ecosystems like Las Cruces with little to no information about essential political and economic processes happening in their own state.

Orphan counties are a problem in the New Mexico local news ecosystem. Learn how to identify them in your own region through our new guide.
Section 3 of our new guide can help you identify ‘orphan counties’ in your ecosystem

Collaborating across divides

Gustavus believes that newsroom collaborations can be a major force for bridging gaps like the urban-rural divide, a belief that stems from her own experience working in the New Mexico local news ecosystem.

In 2018, she set out to produce a New Mexico in Focus series about an oil boom in the small southeastern town of Carlsbad. She assumed the story would focus on natural resources and the environment, but before heading to Carlsbad with her film crew, she first reached out to Jessica Onsurez, editor of the Carlsbad Current-Argus. She pitched Onsurez on a partnership that would “not just connect them with sources in the community, but also guide them on what was important,” says Onsurez. Gustavus also offered video content, which the Current-Argus typically can’t afford, to be co-published on their website.

Through talking with Onsurez, Gustavus learned that the most urgent issue in Carlsbad was not the oil boom itself, but a housing crisis it had caused: so many new workers had come to the area that there was literally no place to live. Their shared reporting plan focused instead on the housing crisis, which had until then gone unreported in state and national outlets. When the pieces were published locally and aired statewide, “the reach was huge for us,” says Onsurez. “Locally, people understood we were doing something differently,” and she received multiple calls from people in Santa Fe and Albuquerque who said the story helped them understand the housing crisis in a more holistic way.

The New Mexico local news ecosystem is strengthened by collaboration, like this Carlsbad Current Argus story
Screenshot of the Carlsbad Current-Argus website. Video from a collaboration with KNME/PBS (Santa Fe) lent the story greater reach and impact. Access the full Current-Argus story here.

Onsurez says the video Gustavus provided deepened the impact of the reporting beyond what the Current-Argus could normally do. One video profiled a woman in her 30’s who in spite of a healthy salary could still not afford to move out of her parents’ home. “We got to see exactly what she was talking about, and get a feel for what it’s like to have to make these choices.”

Beyond parachute reporting

Take the time before any reporting happens to pause a moment, join the community…Report with an eye to the whole story, not just the story of the moment.

Carlsbad Current-Argus Editor Jessica Onsurez

The New Mexico In Focus series was the first time Onsurez had collaborated with an urban newsroom.

Parachute reporting is one of our biggest pet peeves,” she says. Reporters who stop through Carlsbad are oftentimes “people who are interested in a topic just for the moment.”

Their coverage tends to focus only on problems and sensationalist stories that don’t accurately represent the town. Onsurez hopes more out-of-town reporters learn to take Gustavus’ approach: “Take the time before any reporting happens to pause a moment, join the community, understand what the local paper is reporting about and get background information beforehand. Report with an eye to the whole story, not just the story of the moment.”

Gustavus later published a short piece in the Current-Argus explaining their reporting process and asking for residents’ input on how to solve the housing crisis. The collaboration enhanced both KNME/PBS and the Current-Argus’ coverage of the housing crisis, and helped shed light on a rural issue that easily could have gone unnoticed by lawmakers in Santa Fe.

Gustavus hopes the New Mexico Local News Fund can make such collaborations last beyond single projects.

“We’ve never stepped back and said ‘why are we doing this? How can we achieve better collaboration?’” she says.

Research on the New Mexico local news ecosystem has been put into action. Learn how you can do this in your region with our new guide.
Section 4 of our new guide shows you how to put insights into action

The Fund convened newsroom leaders in July 2019 to evaluate their experiences with collaboration, and to develop ideas for how to ensure collaborations are equitable.

“Both small newsrooms and ethnic media are sometimes brought into collaborations because they have access to audiences that some mainstream or traditional outlets aren’t currently reaching,” Gustavus says. “It’s important to me that we talk about how to ensure that those outlets have an equal voice in planning of projects.”

A 2018 report from the American Press Institute outlines the unique role ethnic media play in an ecosystem, and advocates for creating “true partnerships that go beyond a fixer relationship.”

Collaboration is key in the New Mexico local news ecosystem. Learn how you can foster collaboration in your own region with our new guide.
Section 3 of the Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem shows you how to identify the role of ethnic media in your region

Gustavus says that leaders at the summit are producing a guide based on their discussions, to encourage more collaborations in the New Mexico local news ecosystem that broaden reach, deepen impact and connect newsrooms and citizens across traditional divides.

Learn More About This Work:

About the Author

Public Square Intern Kip Dooley wrote this report on the New Mexico local news ecosystem

Kip Dooley was the Public Square Program’s Summer 2019 graduate intern. This project was originally completed for his MA in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University and was edited for the Local News Lab. You can learn more about Kip and his work here on his personal website.