July 1, 2020
Why Diana Alba-Soular is working on the wellbeing of New Mexico journalism
Ecosystems are made up of relationships, and relationships are made up of people. In New Mexico, those relationships stretch across the country’s fifth largest state, from Albuquerque to the Rocky Mountains to Santa Fe to the Great Plains to the bootheel, across more than 300 media outlets serving the state’s two million residents.
But the strength of the local news ecosystem depends not only on where the relationships are but also the understanding the people are rooted in. Diana Alba Soular has lived in New Mexico all her life, from growing up in rural communities in the bootheel to serving the state as a journalist at the Las Cruces Sun-News for the past 15 years. Earlier this year, the New Mexico Local News Fund welcomed longtime New Mexico resident Diana Alba-Soular as its southern coordinator. Diana will help New Mexico think bigger and deeper about its future for local journalism and connect outlets with resources the Fund develops with partners, like student fellowships and strategic revenue projects.
The Fund, led by Sarah Gustavus and Rashad Mahmood, was created by a group of local and national funders who believe in the power of local journalism, local stories, and local people to strengthen our democracy. It was established at the Santa Fe Community Foundation in 2018 by the Thornburg Foundation, a New Mexico-based foundation that invests in enduring solutions to help solve problems affecting people and our planet, and Democracy Fund, a foundation helping to ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Read more about the Fund and the state of New Mexico’s local news ecosystem here.
In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Diana explains how she has served New Mexicans as a local journalist and the need she sees for an initiative like the Local News Fund in southern New Mexico.
How would you describe the state of New Mexico’s local journalism today?
I started in journalism in New Mexico when I was a student at New Mexico State University. I worked for the student paper for a few semesters in the early 2000s. I graduated from New Mexico State University in 2004 and soon after got a job at the Las Cruces Sun-News which is the main newspaper in the state’s second largest city. Even though it’s the second largest city it’s still small compared to other cities across the country because New Mexico is a relatively small state, population wise. I was a daily reporter there, covering a couple beats. In that time I did have a sense of journalism in Las Cruces and reading colleagues’ work across the state.
I left the Sun-News last year to move onto other things after about 15 years of working there as a reporter. In that time I just noticed there are generally fewer reporters, newsrooms are smaller — not just at the Las Cruces Sun-News, that’s across the state. Right now, especially with coronavirus affecting newsrooms financially in addition to challenges that were ongoing, I have a sense of concern about the future of journalism in New Mexico and its sustainability, financially.
Often in journalism, people will move around to different cities or states or go where the next opportunity might take them. Was it important to you to stay in New Mexico?
I’ve always loved New Mexico. I’ve always appreciated it as a unique and beautiful state — the landscape, the people, the cuisine, the whole environment to me is pretty. It has its challenges, but I’ve always loved it and thought of it as home. A lot of people would leave the state — it’s just the thing you do when you’re young, to try something new. But a lot of my friends came back. I always liked the community, the fact that my family is in the region, and just the state as a whole.
When you were at the Las Cruces Sun News, what kind of work were you focused on there?
The longer my time went on in the Sun-News the more roles I had. I covered almost all the beats. I usually wasn’t involved in day to day sports coverage, but I did education, higher education, Spaceport America; I was the editor of the business section for a while and also the Healthy U magazine. Covering city and county government was a really big part of what I did. It was almost general assignment [reporting] just because of the range of things I covered. Water and agriculture is a big issue in New Mexico. A few occasions I went up to the state legislature to cover politics.
There were also a couple collaborative projects. One was a behavioral health project that involved NMPolitics.net, the local public radio/TV station, and a couple journalists within the Las Cruces Sun-News including myself. That was a rewarding project because behavioral health care in New Mexico had gone through an upheaval in the years leading up to our project. We were trying to take a comprehensive look at the challenges our state and city faced regarding mental health and the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. Our work ended up getting recognized by Mental Health America, which is a national nonprofit that seeks to improve behavioral healthcare across the nation. That did provide experience in the realm of working across different newsrooms.
In addition, you come to know your colleagues who work for other publications and sometimes they help you out with things from little to big. I did feel a sense of collaboration even among competitive publications from time to time just because there are so few publications in New Mexico that sometimes it’s just natural to collaborate to achieve more.
The Las Cruces Sun-News is part of the USA Today Network through Gannett ownership. In 2017 they had a collaborative project across border newsrooms within the company. Even though [there had been] collaboration within the company [up until then], [this] was on a different scale than we’d seen before. It was related to immigration and border security issues and the project ended up getting the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 2018. That was an exciting time for sure. The scale of the project was so large that it was more than any one of our small newsrooms could’ve done on our own. It involved reporters traveling to the border across multiple states. There was a helicopter that flew the whole length of the U.S.-Mexico border and videoed it. It was a very in-depth online piece that explained the border in a way that hadn’t really been done before, at least all in one place. Even though it was within the same company it was collaborative. I got a sense of working with colleagues across wide-ranging places to achieve a common goal.
How did you first hear of the New Mexico Local News Fund? What was your initial reaction?
I first heard of it when Sarah [Gustavus, the fund’s program manager] reached out to me to let me know she was working on this project. I had known her because she was the Society of Professional Journalists’ Rio Grande chapter president a couple years back. She had discussed what the New Mexico Local News Fund was trying to accomplish. They said they might be seeking to hire somebody in southern New Mexico to have a ground presence here and help with the different projects and work that’s going on across the state, emphasizing southern New Mexico in particular. Because of where I am now, helping to take care of a family member, it seemed like a good possible fit for those two things [caretaking and coordinating local journalism] to mesh together quite well.
Why did it matter to you? What need did you see for the fund and the work the fund is doing in the New Mexico ecosystem?
I have noticed a need for almost — I don’t know if advocacy is the right word, but someone who is trying to improve the overall health and wellbeing of journalism in New Mexico. I could see there is a need for some sort of big picture thinking and creative ideas and work to look for ways to help make journalism, not just in New Mexico but across the country, sustainable in the long-term.
It seems like there are so many challenges and pressures facing journalism at this time in history that it will take proactive thinking to overcome those challenges, and, obviously, a big challenge is the finances of the industry. Advertising and subscriptions for print newspapers have been the way to finance the work of journalists [but generational change and online innovation has upended the traditional model, with encouraging readers to pay for news still an ongoing process.] …
Another is the political atmosphere in our country. Some people just have a “shoot the messenger” mentality, unfortunately, where it’s that the news is [supposedly] evil or bad just because it’s news. That’s not a healthy thing either and it makes the job even harder for the people who are out there trying to do professional work. Even in the best of times whenever there was much advertising revenue and perhaps the political climate was less charged, particularly against journalists, the job was hard, but it has become that much harder with each of these challenges that have come our way. With COVID-19 that’s just one more challenge. It has felt like there is a need for some sort of work that is trying to help newsrooms overcome these challenges.
You started in April, a couple months ago. How do you explain what being the southern coordinator of the New Mexico Local News Fund is? How do those challenges translate into the work?
The Fund has projects going on different fronts to address a variety of different challenges. For instance, they have a newsroom fellowship program to help recently graduated college students get experience in the newsroom, to give them a better platform to start their career and maybe hopefully stay here in New Mexico and continue working. The Fund is also hoping to increase diversity in newsrooms. New Mexico has a high Hispanic/Latino population and also a Native American population that’s substantial, particularly in northern New Mexico. It would be great to have more journalists from those communities be reporting the stories that matter.
I’ll be helping carry out different projects that hopefully work to achieve those goals. For instance, with the newsroom fellowship, I’ll be in touch with the local newsrooms that have fellows and make sure things are going okay. I’ll be making contact with as many newsrooms as possible across southern New Mexico, even outside my immediate area, to establish a rapport and keep tabs on the overall wellbeing of the news organizations. Another goal we’re trying to promote is to find ways to collaborate more with different news organizations. In an environment where there are fewer people altogether, it is possible to achieve more in-depth projects or maybe tackle projects that affect a larger region or even the whole state if you’ve got multiple newsrooms working together toward the same goal. With each newsroom becoming more strained and stressed with fewer personnel and still the same amount of news to be covered as there always has been, collaboration is one way to possibly counter that challenge.
Coronavirus caused the [New Mexico Local News Fund] to pivot a little bit. They’ve been working with SPJ to create a fund to help with finances of journalists who have been negatively affected by COVID-19 such as by losing their jobs or having their hours cut or being placed on furlough. I’ve been trying to spread the word to journalists who have been affected by coronavirus-related economic conditions around southern New Mexico. Secondly, in relation to that, the News Fund recently set up the Local News Revenue Initiative. Newsrooms were able to apply across the state to seek emergency financial assistance to stay afloat during COVID [and strategically evaluate new sources of revenue]. I was notifying newsrooms about this, encouraging them to apply, and answering any questions they had.
What sort of reception have you gotten from journalists as you’ve been reaching out about the fund?
I’ve been hearing positive reactions so far from colleagues. I’ve even met new journalists that I hadn’t known before. It seems like journalists are glad there is somebody on their side, so to speak, when there are so many people that you know trying to tear down journalists or can’t understand the situations that they’re going through.
Especially with coronavirus, some of the newsrooms have seemed very grateful for the opportunity of help with the Local News Revenue Initiative. It is one source that can help them stay afloat and weather this storm to get through this year. It’s not the entire solution to their issues, but it’s a piece of it and every piece helps in today’s era.
I spoke with an editor from a small town newspaper who seems very aware of the overall challenges that journalism is facing. She was excited for the News Fund to be looking at these issues and to be working with us further in exploring new ideas with the Fund. I don’t think we’re saying that we have all the answers, but we’re interested in exploring the answers and hope people will come on board to explore possible solutions with us. She was really excited about that message and had the same perspective. She didn’t think things could continue as they are because the forecast doesn’t look too great. She’s excited to be on board with looking for possible ways to make journalism sustainable. It seems like the people I’ve spoken with so far are excited about the possibilities for what can happen.
We talked about some of the challenges that journalists across New Mexico and the country are facing. What gives you hope about local news in New Mexico going forward?
What has given me hope about journalism is that I personally know so many colleagues who are just very passionate about journalism. They’re also passionate about New Mexico. They love the state and want to see the state do better. In spite of all these pressures and all these difficulties, they believe they have a meaningful role to play in the democracy here and creating a better future for New Mexico. Journalism plays an important role in that. They have that sense too, that their work is important beyond just having a job.
I saw a quote the other day that had the concept of: In times of challenge, it might be easy to focus on how bad things are, but it’s always been that, whenever challenges present themselves, you can also think of challenges as opportunities: to innovative, to learn, to do things better than you were doing before. I think at least some folks have that mentality: that even though there are many difficulties, it is an opportunity, as well. We can choose to take the opportunity.
Read more about efforts to support New Mexico’s local news ecosystem: