Launching A News Ecosystem Hub: Lessons From New Mexico
By Sarah Gustavus Lim
This is the first of a series of posts about launching a local news Ecosystem Hub. Part two highlights other hubs across the country. Part three shares how to move from collaboration to ecosystem building.
New Mexico is not what people expect from the outside.
Just a few years ago, journalists across the state were facing the same challenges as other places — layoffs at corporate owned newspapers, news deserts in rural areas and declining revenue for many local publications. The state is also mostly rural and media workers and attention are concentrated in the northern communities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The overall poverty rate is high, limiting both the disposable income of many residents and the philanthropic dollars available to support local news. But New Mexico also has a long history of collaboration and sharing resources, from the traditional water management systems to existing local journalism collaborations.
Those assets were what convinced me that an ecosystem hub was the right model to bring people together and pool financial investments in local news and information.
I founded the New Mexico Local News Fund (NMLNF) in late 2018 after more than 10 years working as a local journalist there. I had served as president of the local SPJ chapter and started bringing journalists together to collaborate on reporting projects. With the Fund, my aim was to bring together both existing journalism organizations and new community partners around the shared goal of ensuring all New Mexicans had access to quality local news that reflected their community and lived experiences.
As interest increases in the ecosystem model for finding solutions to address the challenges of local news, I wanted to capture some of the key steps we took that built the framework of what’s now a thriving organization.
1. Map the Ecosystem
In 2018, after some initial conversations about mapping the local media landscape, I was approached by a local funder who asked how I would identify specific areas of potential investment. I recommended focus groups with a trusted local partner, New Mexico First, that had extensive experience convening bipartisan conversations about important issues.
New Mexico First held four focus groups in different parts of the state with journalists and students. I asked them to create a report identifying not only what was wrong but what potential solutions might have the greatest impact. The report, Advancing Sustainable, Reliable Journalism in New Mexico, became my roadmap for building NMLNF.
This initial mapping confirmed some things I already knew: Newsroom leaders wanted to increase staff, recent graduates needed jobs and there was a need for investment in professional development. Those conversations were a window into what common challenges in journalism looked like in local newsrooms. The initial report hinted at greater needs in Southern New Mexico along the border, but more information was needed.
Reports are useful for grounding conversations about the big ideas of what your local ecosystem looks like now and what it could become through a shift in strategy. Also, engaging in ecosystem mapping with academics or non-journalism partners brings in new stakeholders who can offer different perspectives on what might improve the systems that support local news.
2. Find a Financial Home
NMLNF received initial support to launch from the Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation, and a national foundation, Democracy Fund. One of the first decisions I had to make was the financial structure of the new organization before getting the grants.
I opted to work with a fiscal sponsor because we started with one year of confirmed funding. I decided to focus on outreach around the idea of ecosystem building instead of investing the time and resources into setting up a new nonprofit.
The Santa Fe Community Foundation had experience as a fiscal sponsor and their team understood my vision for NMLNF. The foundation became NMLNF’s fiscal sponsor and handled our administrative needs, but is not involved in any decision-making about programming or selecting grant recipients. That independence is crucial for alignment with the values of local journalism organizations. The foundation has been a great partner and has supported the team in bringing together other potential funders to learn NMLNF programs.
Additionally, NMLNF has an Advisory Committee of community members who review applications for grants and approve expenses each month for the fund. The Advisory Committee also meets to discuss programming priorities and help the team make connections that will support the mission to improve access to news and information for all New Mexicans..
3. Set Core Priorities
In the first year of the New Mexico Local News Fund, I set three key areas of programming using the findings from the first ecosystem report:
Early Career Opportunities
The focus groups identified a set of highly aligned needs for both recent graduates and newsrooms in New Mexico. Early career journalists needed to gain the skills and have a chance to stay in the state after graduation and newsroom leaders wanted to add staff in their newsrooms.
Report for America was one option that many newsrooms were already pursuing. Since local outlets have to fundraise for half of the salary, NMLNF experimented in the first year with supporting newsrooms in securing that local match.
At the same time, I saw an opportunity to invest in a homegrown fellowship model. I wanted to test what would best meet the needs of our local ecosystem. We launched a fellowship in partnership with the University of New Mexico. Michael Marcotte, a professor in the communication and journalism department, managed the program and recruited both recent grads and newsrooms for the pilot. Unlike RFA, the fellowship recruits journalists graduating from universities in New Mexico. The program covers both a full-time stipend for the fellows and money for the newsroom to support the training and mentorship that they agreed to take on. We were clear that this wasn’t just about getting a reporter but about investing in local journalists who we hoped would stay in New Mexico.
The fellowship has been a great success. Nearly all of the 9 fellows that have completed the program in the first three years are working full-time in local newsrooms in New Mexico. Feedback from both fellows and newsrooms has been overwhelmingly positive.
There were already many examples of successful collaborations in New Mexico and the focus groups showed there was an interest in
In its first year, NMLNF invested in several collaborative projects: a podcast on state government that continued after its grant and later covered the impact of COVID on local residents, a podcast on the cannabis industry, a collaborative reporting project between a journalism nonprofit and theater group, and a collaborative between a statewide journalism nonprofit and a local paper to cover young families. We also brought together a group of stakeholders with deep experience in collaboration to talk about what they had learned over the years: Collaborative Journalism Roundtable.
Understanding Community Needs
Although the report from New Mexico First from focus groups with journalists was helpful, it was missing a key perspective: people who are looking for quality local news. In the first year of the Fund’s existence, NMLNF worked with New Mexico First again to convene another series of focus groups, this time with engaged community leaders. We heard that these residents believed that local news is an important part of the local ecosystem of civic life. Many already supported local outlets but they also believed that more could be done to strengthen local media and build more trust in communities.
NMLNF also continued to build relationships with community leaders by recruiting a diverse advisory board and engaging with nonprofit partners that work on issues like health and the arts.
The members of an advisory group can support an emerging ecosystem hub in many ways, from making introductions to new partners to reviewing applications for grants. Advisory groups aren’t quite like a board, so creating clear guidelines about the role of the group is important from the start.
4. Build a Team
When launching the New Mexico Local News Fund, I only budgeted a part-time salary for myself and continued to work my full-time job at the Solutions Journalism Network. I wanted more money to go toward programming, but quickly realized that I needed a team for NMLNF to reach its full potential.
Rashad Mahmood was the first to join me, as development director, and eventually became my co-director. His leadership and expertise as a former program manager for a local public radio station was indispensable in securing additional funding and engaging with community groups. We started to make plans in the first year to add a Southern New Mexico coordinator and were fortunate that Diana Alba Soular, a journalist in Las Cruces, joined us. And the Santa Fe Community Foundation continued to support our operations and grantmaking while we could focus on the programming, fundraising, and listening to communities across New Mexico.
5. Look to Others For Inspiration
Ecosystem Hubs are a relatively new concept, but there are others that inspired us in New Mexico. We eagerly took up the opportunity to meet and talk about our challenges and celebrate successes with other leaders from organizations like Colorado Media Project, Chicago Independent Media Alliance, North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and Oklahoma Media Center.
These organizations are engaged in a wide range of activities, including exploring state and local government support for news, direct support for reporting, technical assistance, training, fellowships and building communities of support for local journalists and news organizations.
The New Mexico Local News Fund is now led by Rashad Mahmood and continues to experiment with innovative ways to support the local news ecosystem. I now work with emerging ecosystem leaders across the country to develop strategies tailored to the needs of their local communities.
Sarah Gustavus Lim is the founder and former co-director of the New Mexico Local News Fund, of which Democracy Fund is a funder. Prior to launching NMLNF, she worked for more than 15 years in public radio and television in New Mexico and Washington State. She partners with Democracy Fund to support emerging ecosystem leaders.