If, in the interest of autumnal similes, New Mexico's daily papers may be described as great oak trees, then journalists are falling like so many yellowed leaves.
The Albuquerque Journal and The Santa Fe New Mexican each have undergone several rounds of layoffs this year. That's after The Albuquerque Tribune, a major player in daily news, was felled in early 2008, forcing 38 editorial employees out of work.
As grim as the media landscape may seem, New Mexico's online and nonprofit media—mere bean sprouts by comparison—are actually expanding. Still, it's too earlier to tell if they will grow large enough to support this tree house we call democracy.
Political reporter Heath Haussamen recently restructured his blog, nmpolitics.net, to serve as a full-fledged news site with paid stringers. The online New Mexico Independent, nmindependent.com, is preparing to plow fresh ground under new leadership. Meanwhile, the Rio Grande Foundation, a fiscally conservative advocacy organization, is funding a new investigative journalism website.
While few expect newsroom staffing to return to the levels seen in decades past, and the online jobs emerging are either low-paying or part-time, reporters are adapting.
"I think it's difficult to make a living online, or in a lot of media anymore," Haussamen says. "Things are becoming so stretched that a lot of people are doing more than one thing."
Haussamen recently took on blogger, KKOB 770 AM reporter and public-relations consultant Peter St. Cyr as a part-time, paid contributor. Haussamen, in turn, supplements his advertising and donation income by sharing reporting and content with the Independent, a nonprofit news site operated by the DC-based Center for Independent Media.
The Independent, currently staffed with four writers and an editor, also is undergoing change. Former Santa Fe Reporter Special Sections Editor and food critic Gwyneth Doland recently took the reins as editor after the departure of David Alire Garcia (a former SFR staff writer), who transferred to the Center for Independent Media's Michigan news site, the Michigan Messenger.
Now a year and a half old, the Independent has not filled the hole left by the Tribune, as some readers had hoped, but it has clearly filled a niche, Doland says.
"It's been a learning experience for all of us, especially those of us who wrote for print [media]," Doland says. "When you're writing for a newspaper, you have time to ease into your story…We maybe have one or two sentences, and if we don't have people clicking, well, the paper isn't going to accidentally fall open to a story."
According to Doland, in August 2009, the site raked in nearly 89,000 unique visitors per month. Compete.com rates abqjournal.com at somewhere around 130,000 unique visitors per month.
Former Journal and Weekly Alibi columnist Jim Scarantino hopes to further fill the news vacuum with the Rio Grande Foundation's new investigative journalism website, modeled after texaswatchdog.org, which regularly publishes campaign-finance analysis and investigations into the Houston airport system. Newmexico.watchdog.org will go live in October.
"We're not in competition with other media," Scarantino says. "We're here to be a resource and to step into the breach. Realistically, all newspapers everywhere are pulling back on investigative reporting. That's our theory, that's our approach and we'll see how it goes."
New Mexico Watchdog will offer its work for free to print newspapers and plans to hire a Roundhouse reporter.
Limited coverage may be one of the weaknesses of New Mexico online journalism: Doland, Haussamen and Scarantino's sites are or will be largely aimed at policy makers, political wonks and activists, rather than the community.
"I think that's the biggest danger," Haussamen says. "Internet media doesn't cover small towns. In a few years, the situation could be [there are some] small New Mexican towns that the TV doesn't pay attention to, no daily news coverage, no internet reporters. That's scary for democracy."