Finding a Path with Partners: The Importance of Community

A dry sandy path winds through a grassy area with desert plants, with green and brown mountains in the distance, on a sunny day in New Mexico.
A path through the foothills of the Sandia Mountains | Photo provided by Sarah Gustavus Lim

By Sarah Gustavus Lim

This is part two of a three-part series about Local News Ecosystem Hubs, including lessons from starting a hub and how a growing network of organizations are trying out new ideas sharing lessons across the United States.

Starting something new is never easy.

Before I launched what is now the New Mexico Local News Fund, I’d worked as a public radio and TV producer for nearly a decade in Albuquerque and had collaborated with other journalists across the state on past projects. I could have created a new outlet to produce news stories, but I had a different idea in 2018. I’d heard about the idea of starting an organization that would instead serve as a center of gravity for strengthening the local news ecosystem.

We weren’t the first hub, but the idea was new enough that I spent most of the first year explaining why this type of organization should even exist. Not everyone I met with was on board with the idea of investing in both existing local media outlets and non-traditional strategies for meeting the news and information needs of New Mexicans. Some were willing to have a conversation but didn’t know what it would look like our first year as we launched an early career fellowship and funded collaborative reporting.

In the first year, I was the only person working on the New Mexico Local News Fund and I wasn’t even doing that full-time. I wanted the maximum dollars to go to support journalism in New Mexico, so I kept my full-time job and worked on NMLNF in every spare hour, from my lunch breaks to nights and weekends.

There were so many things that I had to figure out, from finding a fiscal sponsor to setting priorities for programming and, yes, eventually hiring a team. What helped me the most was the support of other Ecosystem Leaders who were doing the same thing in other places.

Ecosystem building should look different in each community, state or region. It must be responsive to the unique history and needs of that place. At the same time, some of the shared challenges are the same — identifying the most high impact investments, creating a new team, and finding funding to sustain an ecosystem hub. Now, four years after launching NMLNF, there is a group of peers that compare notes and offer camaraderie every other month or so in our regular calls as Ecosystem Leaders. Here are some examples:

  • When I was getting NMLNF off the ground, another group just a few hours to the north was already several steps ahead. The early research conducted for what is now the Colorado Media Project (CMP) informed my thinking about how we should map needs and opportunities in New Mexico. More recently, the Colorado News Mapping Project provides a model that others can replicate for tracking news deserts and local news partners.
  • On the other side of the country, the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund (NCLNL) invests in “diverse range of teams serving communities marginalized by race, class, and geography.” I’ve learned a great deal from conversations with Lizzy Hazeltine about partnerships and inviting in the right people to engage in industry-shifting work that increases access to local news. Lizzy’s insights on relationship-building and equity in funding helped me see our work in New Mexico in a broader national context.
  • I continue to learn new things every time the Ecosystem Leaders get together. Like how the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA) fundraises as a collective and how they replicated a successful program from New York City that ended in an executive order committing at least half of the city of Chicago’s annual departmental advertising spending to community media outlets.

Last year, I worked with emerging leaders in Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Missouri who are engaging with their local communities to build new ecosystem hubs. It was thrilling to watch people from different places share what they’ve learned and find connections that can help someone else start a new idea with insights tested from another place.

Just as ecosystems need a diverse set of local partners to thrive, building relationships with ecosystem leaders across the U.S is crucial for helping those of us who are leading Local Ecosystem Hubs.

This is the second of three posts on ecosystem building. Read more in part one and part three.  If you want to talk about ecosystem building or starting a hub, fill out this form.

Sarah Gustavus Lim is the founder and former co-director of the New Mexico Local News Fund. Prior to launching NMLNF, she worked for more than 15 years in public radio and television in New Mexico and Washington State.