Columbus, New Mexico may not seem like a particularly newsy place. But in 2011, federal agents arrested the mayor and police chief in the border community of about 1,000 residents, accusing the officials of running guns for drug cartels.
And in recent years, the federal and state governments have plowed money into the town to improve infrastructure at the port of entry, where more and more commerce is flowing between the US and Mexico.
“The elected new mayor went on a tear firing people. There were some strange open meetings problems. Not much transparency about how money was being moved through the village,” says Algernon D’Ammassa, who has lived in nearby Deming for the last 14 years and spent much of that time covering Columbus along with the rest of Luna County for the local newspaper, The Deming Headlight.
But just a few years after D’Ammassa transferred to its sister newspaper down the highway, the Las Cruces Sun-News, The Headlight’s owner laid off the paper’s last employee.
That left no one to cover Columbus, Deming or anything else in Luna County, home to about 20,000 people. Change is in the air, with D’Ammassa returning to The Headlight as editor last month, following a change in ownership. But now, consider the Sun-News: Just three news reporters remain to cover the state’s second-biggest city—a community at the intersection of some of New Mexico’s most pressing stories, including immigration, a perennially close congressional race, drought and more.
Drive to nearby Alamogordo and Ruidoso and there are no reporters left at the local papers.
It’s not for lack of news.
Alamogordo made national headlines this year when a county commissioner refused to certify the results of the primary election and was subsequently disqualified from office under the Civil War-era constitutional provision barring insurrectionists from holding public posts. Further north, Ruidoso was hit by a wildfire in April that killed two people and destroyed 200 homes.
What all these dwindling newspapers have in common is that each has been part of one big chain—Gannett, a Virginia-based behemoth of a media company that is far and away the biggest publisher of newspapers in the country, with over 400 titles nationwide. In New Mexico, the company owns five newspapers covering counties with a combined population of nearly half a million people.
And this month, as Gannett slashes more jobs at its newspapers around the country in the latest round of cost-cutting measures that have become a source of routine dread among its staff, the company is furloughing the few journalists it has left in New Mexico for one week heading into the holidays. The company is also offering buyouts to some of its most seasoned journalists, getting them off the company’s payroll at the cost of losing decades of institutional memory and subject matter expertise that can be a key ingredient in deep, knowledgeable reporting.
All of this means even fewer journalists are on the beat than usual, watchdogging city halls and police departments around New Mexico, or telling the stories of a culturally rich and biologically diverse part of the country.
This is not a new story.
Newspaper employment has dropped 70% since 2005 as revenue has declined from $50 billion to $20 billion annually in that same time, according to a report from Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative.
As for Gannett, the late SFR co-founder and longtime editor Dick McCord wrote a whole book in the 1990s, Chain Gang, about the company’s destruction of local newspapers.
But a quarter century later, the stakes for local journalism and the sort of civic life it helps nourish are higher than ever, with American democracy teetering and confidence in government and the media cratering. Years of corporate consolidation in the newspaper industry, with big chains swallowing up small local papers, followed by wave after wave of staffing cuts have played an outsize role in fueling this crisis.
The result has been that some communities in New Mexico—even those with newspapers that boast long histories—have no local news coverage amid pivotal elections and a devastating pandemic.
As Gannett furloughs its journalists in New Mexico, SFR interviewed current and former employees to put into perspective just how disastrous years of layoffs and budget cuts have been at the newspapers this corporate giant has bought, then gutted in the state—not just for reporters but for the communities they serve. The stories that go unreported for lack of staffing and resources continue to worry Gannett employees and expats and should worry all of us. And what remains is a devastating portrait of what happens when so many communities are left to rely on one big, faraway company for a crucial public service.
Understanding how Gannett, perhaps best known for publishing USA TODAY, came to own small rural papers such as Ruidoso News is like unpacking a matryoshka of mergers and acquisitions over the last several decades.
Previously part owner of the newspapers with a investment-fund-owned corporate giant, MediaNews Group, Gannett became sole owner in 2015.
But perhaps the first thing to know about the company that owns all these newspapers is that it is not really a newspaper company at all, says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog PressThink.
“It’s more of a financial firm. It’s more in the category of a private equity company or a hedge fund than a newspaper company,” Rosen tells SFR.
New Media Investment Group, which already owned another sprawling chain of newspapers, purchased Gannett in 2019. New Media Investment Group is managed by a private equity firm that was in turn controlled by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
What would any of them want with a bunch of newspapers?
“They look at a dying asset like a daily newspaper and see an opportunity to milk the last years of profit,” says Rosen.
While perhaps not lucrative, newspapers at least have cash flow, he says. Papers sell advertising, subscriptions and obituaries. That gives investors cash, particularly if they are not concerned about how much money they might need to spend to cover the news.
“The business side of the operation is given these targets for how much profit they need to make to satisfy the owners and then they just cut people and resources until they can make that level of profit. They don’t insert into that process, ‘Well, what do we need to cover this community?’” Rosen explains.
A vicious cycle emerges, the professor adds. With fewer reporters, there is less news for subscribers to read. Papers lose subscribers and the advertising becomes less valuable, leading to yet more cuts.
At Gannett, those cuts keep coming. During the company’s latest earnings call, company officials said they slashed 468 employees in the third quarter alone, reducing Gannett’s workforce in the United States by 6.5%. The company eliminated about 400 open positions in the same quarter, too. That’s on top of the furloughs Gannett is rolling out this month.
Asked if the company intends to hire more reporters at its newspapers in New Mexico, Gannett Chief Communications Officer Lark-Marie Anton tells SFR: “Gannett is committed to covering the communities we serve.”
“We continually align our resources to best deliver trusted news to our audiences while advancing the longevity of local news for current and future readers,” Anton writes in an email.
But she declines to discuss specifics about personnel.
In some respects, New Mexico is still better off than most when it comes to local journalism.
The state’s two biggest daily newspapers—The Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Journal—are locally owned, employing reporting staffs that have shrunken over the last couple decades but are still larger than the state’s Gannett newspapers. And the state has a long list of smaller, locally owned newspapers that are hanging on. (SFR has been owned since 1998 by two business partners who live in Oregon and also own Willamette Week.)
Meanwhile, nonprofit news organizations powered by big grants and small donors are helping fill the void left by shrinking newsrooms.
Source New Mexico, Searchlight New Mexico and New Mexico In Depth have all encouraged local newspapers to reprint their reporters’ work. Organizations like the New Mexico Local News Fund are paying to put reporters in newsrooms around the state.
This approach has brought depth and breadth to smaller newspapers.
But these trends reveal a divide.
In its annual report, Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative noted the footprint of digital-only news organizations remains small and largely a big-city phenomenon. Meanwhile, lack of access to the internet means some communities cannot easily or regularly get to news from digital-only newsrooms.
“What’s being lost is the voice of the very local—your local news, which may seem insignificant, but everything is local,” says Doris Cherry, who wrote for Lincoln County News off and on from 1978 until the paper closed last year after the death of its publisher, Peter Aguilar.
The newspaper based in Carrizozo was not part of Gannett’s empire; it was independently owned. And with its closure, the only paper left in Lincoln County is Gannett’s Ruidoso News.
But the paper does not have a reporter based in the community or in neighboring Otero County. That means the company that owns the region’s two newspapers has no one covering an area the size of Vermont that is home to White Sands Missile Range, White Sands National Park, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, resort communities and the Lincoln National Forest.
There are similar, massive coverage gaps in Las Cruces now, too.
The Sun-News serves the biggest population center in New Mexico’s Congressional District 2, one of the most closely contested in the nation, but its daily paper has no dedicated politics reporter. It sits near the the Permian Basin and the Rio Grande and has an agricultural industry grappling with drought but has no dedicated environment reporter. It sits near the US-Mexico border but has no border or immigration reporter.
Cherry doesn’t romanticize the work of running a small-town paper. She started writing for Lincoln County News when a professor and classmate at New Mexico State University bought it in the 1970s. And there were days she put 100 miles on her car driving the county’s mountain roads.
“It was basically a public service,” Cherry says.
In its last years, the paper struggled with high printing costs that are taking a bite out of publishers across the country.
Where a big corporate chain and its shareholders might see a waste of money, Cherry sees a community with news that needs covering.
And she offers a warning.
“If you get corrupt officials in your local government, then confidence goes out the window on everything. You’ve got to watch them,” Cherry says.
Back in Columbus, watchdogging local government meant going to village council meetings, where officials sit at folding tables and there is no webcast. But as in Ruidoso and Alamogordo, for a time at least, there was no one doing this work.
“Here I was driving to report on news in Las Cruces and my own community didn’t have people reporting on their news,” D’Ammassa says. “I would have people coming to me in the grocery store asking, ‘What is going on?’”
Gannett didn’t tell subscribers when the last reporter was gone or explain its vision for a newspaper that was founded in 1881, when Deming was little more than a junction on the railroad, D’Ammassa says. Readers noticed because they stopped getting local news and instead got stories from the company’s other newspapers.
“You’re in Deming. You open your paper and you’re reading stories about Las Cruces. Or Carlsbad. You’re not reading stories about Deming,” he says.
But Deming is showing that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Gannett sold The Deming Headlight and Silver City Sun-News in October to the owner of Silver City Daily Press.
The new owners closed the Silver City rival, which Gannett had not staffed with any reporters for years, and resolved to put journalists back on the beat at The Headlight, hiring D’Ammassa as editor.
The paper has hired back longtime writer Bill Armendariz and the brightly redesigned pages feature local stories. One recent edition featured the news that the Deming City Council launched an audit of utility bills and fired the town’s community services director after he accused the municipal government of overbilling customers. On the next page, the paper featured an interview with two new county commissioners. Other stories highlighted the shortage of referees for school sports and the annual Turkey Trot raising money for the local food bank.
It may not make headlines in Santa Fe but for Deming, it means something.
“There’s important news going on out here,” D’Ammassa tells SFR. “There’s city news. There’s agricultural news. And for a while, there was no one out here covering it. And the community noticed. And they minded.”
Rosen, the journalism professor, says this kind of local ownership adds a new factor to the equation of running such a newspaper—one that doesn’t emphasize cuts at all costs.
“These owners want to live in this place,” he says. “When you have a different set of priorities like that, you’re not trying to cut your way to the future. You’re trying to get to a future where you can add reporters because you want the community to have a good newspaper.”
D’Ammassa says he eventually wants to hire another reporter.
And while Gannett has emphasized a “digital first” approach, leaving the physical newspaper as something of an afterthought, D’Ammassa says The Headlight is proudly “print first,” focusing on the newspaper’s many readers who still want to read by holding it in their hands.
He acknowledges it’s a tough business. But he doesn’t believe newspapers like his are necessarily unsustainable to the point they have to be completely gutted.
“Used book stores find a way to stay open. Small newspapers find a way to stay open,” he says. “It’s a struggle with that kind of business model but it’s an essential service, so we find people keep wanting to support it.”
Andrew Oxford previously worked for two years at The Arizona Republic, a Gannett newspaper.