Sustaining the Local News Ecosystem
by L. Rashad Mahmood
June 16, 2021
This interview with L.Rashad Mahmood, co-director of the New Mexico Local News Fund, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Rashad | I came to journalism in a really roundabout way. I studied international relations and Middle East politics in college. I then got a master's in middle east politics.
I ended up living in Cairo, working for the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt as a business analyst. I then worked for the United States Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank. I worked for them in Iraq. I went back to Egypt with my wife, and when I was looking for a job my old boss at the American Chamber of Commerce offered me work as a journalist for their business magazine, and I took him up on the offer, journalism had always been in the back of my mind as something that I was interested in. I just think journalism is so critical. The desire to be informed about what is going on in the world around you is just this basic need all humans have.
Eventually, my wife got a job at the University of New Mexico as a professor and I got a job at the local public radio station here, KUNM. After five years at KUNM, I was looking for other opportunities when my now co-director Sarah Gustavus founded the New Mexico Local News Fund and invited me to join her.
frank | Can you tell us more about the New Mexico Local News Fund?
We started in 2019. We were founded by Sarah Gustavus, an experienced journalist in New Mexico who had worked for a number of newsrooms here.
We think of the local news media landscape as not just several individual stations -- but a local news ecosystem that needs support. Sarah conducted assessments through meetings with the public and with journalists about what needed to happen to support that ecosystem. She then secured funding from the Democracy Fund, our major funder, and created our initial programming. Our goal is to support the local news and information needs of New Mexicans — whether that means working with existing media organizations, community organizations, the creation of new forms of media, or new organizations.
We don't want to turn a blind eye to the many communities in New Mexico, and across the country, that feel that mainstream media hasn't served their news and information needs well. Lower-income communities, communities of color, rural communities, often have no one to report on what is going on.
So, our work is sort of two-handed: we support the existing media infrastructure and support new initiatives to address gaps in the ecosystem.
What does specific programming look like?
Our programming came directly out of the needs articulated in the assessments.
The first thing every news organization said was that they need more resources to do their jobs. And that is true all over the country. Revenue has declined for all sorts of news.
We also spoke with recent graduates who wanted to be journalists here in New Mexico, but because of a lack of resources, there are no entry-level journalism jobs. That means people from New Mexico, who know the community best, that want to be a journalist, are leaving for Texas or Arizona or Colorado.
We created a fellowship program based at the University of New Mexico that funds the first year out of college for three or four recent graduates. They get placed in newsrooms around the state and grow as journalists and the newsroom gets an extra, much-needed staff person. Many of the fellows have gone on to have successful journalism jobs here in New Mexico afterward, which really validates our vision.
Another important thing is that, even though there is a majority of people of color in New Mexico, the media landscape doesn't look like that. Our universities do, though. One of the priorities for the fellowship was to provide opportunities for diverse New Mexicans to get into journalism. We've been succeeding in that as well.
We also support collaboration between newsrooms. We see it as a tool for strengthening the ecosystem as a whole. If you're a small newspaper in rural New Mexico, there's just no way that you're going to be able to accurately and fully report on what's going on during the legislative session. But, if you can create networks of newsrooms working together, then you can inform your audience through those larger reporting networks, and provide a better service to your community. We did a series of collaborative grants to newsrooms and newsrooms and community groups working together. That was really successful.
New Mexico is not a wealthy state compared to a lot of other places. There's limited capacity for funding for philanthropy. One of our priorities is to try to encourage funders to invest in journalism in New Mexico. And obviously, The Democracy Fund has done that in a big way.
Are you philanthropically funded?
Yes. The Democracy Fund’s founder is Pierre Omidyar, who started eBay. The Democracy Fund supports a number of areas, and local journalism is one of their top priorities.
It is obvious that the business model of local news has been eviscerated. Is the future philanthropy, is there a role for government, or do you think there is another way to make money?
I was talking with my co-director about this just before this.
I do think there is potentially a role for the government in funding local news. Personally, I'm more comfortable advocating for government funding of civic engagement rather than a direct investment in journalism. That is something that I have evolved on overtime.
At first, I thought the potential conflict of interests was too immense. If you want local journalism to be holding the government accountable, how can that be done with government funding? But, increasingly there are models that I think have a lot of promise. New Jersey just launched the first round of grants from their state-funded civic information consortium. Some parts of the country are experimenting with investment zones.
I think there is a role for government, but I think more important and more promising is the shift towards nonprofit and field philanthropic funded news. There are huge swaths of our society that we just accept are funded by philanthropy: food banks and homeless shelters, and we're not like those homeless shelters need to find a better business model. I think I have come to accept that, especially in smaller communities, journalism needs support and investment from philanthropic sources. As a society, we have to decide that journalism is important enough and worthy of support.
Do you find that philanthropies have any hangups about investing in local news?
A lot of funders are used to very concrete outputs. For example, with this grant, I will feed 200 meals to homeless people. You can't really do that with journalism. The outputs aren't as well defined. For a lot of funders, it is outside of the framework that they're used to thinking about.
A lot of my work is talking with local funders here in New Mexico and convincing them that journalism is worth their support and that it does fit into their funding framework.
Right. I feel like there can be just as many concerns about the influence that comes with philanthropic funding, as there is with government funding.
That can be tricky: finding a funder that is willing to relinquish control. It is possible but it is hard.
I'm curious if either anecdotally or empirically, you can speak to what local journalism leaves behind?
There are several effects from the lack of access to news and information in communities. It's hard to quantify obviously, but there was one study that showed when the local newspaper closes the city's lending rate goes up because as a lender if there's less accountability you are more worried.
In a qualitative sense, there are definitely effects on lack of accountability and local government. Here in New Mexico, it shows. We have had so many cases of corruption in the sheriff's department, in the mayors’ offices, or in city councils in smaller towns where abuse of power can run rampant until it gets so bad that it gets out to a larger audience or a larger publication. Often these things have been going on for years and had there been local reporting, picking at the story, it could have been exposed much earlier.
Another thing that is lost is just the sense of community. We are working with a new startup in Columbus, New Mexico, which is a town of fewer than 2000 people right on the border of Mexico. Until recently, they had no source of local news. The closest town that has its own paper is a 40-minute drive from them — a newspaper that is already understaffed.
The startup, Columbus News, was telling me that the town has three Facebook groups just devoted to town news. I think that's great, personally.
People have this innate drive to stay informed about what's going on in their communities.
So they would form one Facebook group and apparently it would get so politically divisive that someone would break off and start a new Facebook group. And then someone broke off from the second group to start a third group.
CNN, MSNBC, Fox News…
There's so much demand for it. People really have this innate need to know. I think we're realizing that. For a long time, people wrote off smaller publications. There was this attitude that the march of technology is just going to inevitably make them obsolete and technology will solve all our problems and we'll live in this information tech utopia. Over time, we've come to realize that's not how people work. We need real local sources of information.
I feel like we hear over and over again that algorithms give us exactly what we want, and we can never go back. But I wonder if we want more and if we are smarter than we give ourselves credit for, in a way.
I think we're in this weird phase of adjustment as a society right now — not just here in the US, but all over the world. If you think about it, the internet and all the things that come with it, Facebook and social media, are basically brand new. I am not THAT old, but I grew up completely without the internet. I just think it's inevitable that it's going to take us a generation or two to figure these things out and come to a more stable place. I think as a society we are coming to acknowledge that we need more.
Right. What else do you feel is important for people to know?
Well, while there is this trend towards more philanthropy and funding for local journalism in general, I think the focus really needs to be on rural and lower-income communities. So much money ends up going to these institutions in big cities, which have big communities that could support themselves. The real need is with communities that can't support local journalism themselves.
This is emerging as a priority for us as an organization, and for me as an individual. I think it is really crucial to be an advocate for these small newsrooms that don't have access to funding networks.
That makes sense. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk!