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July 12, 2023, 2 p.m.
Business Models

Government-funded journalism fellowships are taking off in three states (and counting)

Though the fellowship in New Mexico is short — just nine months — the majority of alumni are currently working full-time in newsrooms across the state.

In New Mexico, recent college grads are matched with newsrooms to complete 9-month fellowships. In California, 40 fellows will work for two years in newsrooms that operate in underserved communities around the state. And the legislature in Washington State just allocated $2.4 million to start its own two-year program to boost local journalism.

The most established — but least expensive — of these state-funded fellowship programs is in New Mexico, where lawmakers recently approved $125,000 from the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions to effectively double the number of fellows. (The California program, in contrast, was allotted $25 million over three years.) New Mexico’s comparatively tiny program has an outsized impact in their local news scene; the 31 newsrooms that applied this year to host fellows or interns represent the vast majority of news organizations in the state.

Since 2019, the initiative in New Mexico has placed 16 journalists in newsrooms. The new funding will allow the program to expand to seven fellows and eight summer interns for the coming year alone.

Nearly three-quarters of the fellows and interns selected have been journalists of color and more than half are women, according to the New Mexico Local News Fund. Though the fellowship itself is short, the majority of fellowship alumni are currently working full-time in New Mexico newsrooms.

Fellows are selected by a committee including representatives from the New Mexico Press and Broadcasters Associations as well as faculty from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, and Eastern New Mexico University. Rashad Mahmood, executive director of the New Mexico Local News Fund, said the idea came from researching the local news ecosystem and seeing that — even if they wanted to stay — many aspiring journalists found they had to move out of state to get their first jobs in news.

There are no restrictions on the type, size, or tax status of host newsrooms and fellows have been placed with weekly and daily print newspapers, TV, public radio, and digital news orgs over the years. New Mexico has a relatively robust statewide nonprofit news scene including Searchlight NM, New Mexico In Depth, New Mexico Political Report, and Source NM, noted Mark Glaser, who serves as New Mexico Local News Fund’s director of business and program development. Public media includes KUNM and NM PBS in Albuquerque and KRWG out of Las Cruces. The alt-weeklies Santa Fe Reporter and The Paper in Albuquerque (whose owner, Ctrl+P Publishing, also owns a handful of small newspapers outside the city) are also standing strong, Glaser added.

“However, we also have news deserts in many small towns, mostly in southern New Mexico, ‘served’ by anemic Gannett newspapers or none at all,” Glaser said. “One big weakness we would like to address is the very large Spanish-speaking population in the state, with nearly no Spanish language local news outlets to serve them.”

Unlike a similar local journalism initiative underway in Canada, there are no formal mandates on what journalistic work the fellows can produce. That said, the fellowship was designed with the goal of boosting civic-minded coverage, said Gwyneth Doland, who helps run the program from the University of New Mexico.

“We don’t have written restrictions on what work the fellows can do, although we strongly prefer applications from newsrooms focused on ‘iron core’ news coverage of local government,” Doland said. “We branched out a bit last year placing a fellow at the Santa Fe New Mexican doing photojournalism and he produced outstanding coverage of the state legislature, so we placed another aspiring photog as an intern with them this summer.”

Fellows are paid $26,000 for nine months of work, equivalent to an annual salary of $34,000/year before taxes. The news fund calls this pay “competitive” and the compensation is — unfortunately — roughly in line with New Mexico averages.

The fellowship administrators have bumped the salary up over the past five years and hope to increase payment further. But even the current rate has posed a headache given the state of salaries in the local news industry.

“Rightsizing this has been a concern and a challenge for us,” acknowledged Doland. “After the first year, a legacy news org told us that it was a problem for them that our fellow’s salary was more than some of their reporters who had been there a couple of years were making.”

At another newsroom, an editor initially balked at the fellowship salary because it was more than what she paying herself as the newsroom’s only full-time editorial staffer. (At the end of the fellowship, the editor wound up offering the fellow a full-time job at the same wage, Doland said. “She said she had learned it was worth it.”)

Some participating newsrooms pay fellows more than what the fund provides and even in locations with higher costs of living — like Taos and Santa Fe — the fellowship administrators describe the stipend as a living wage. More difficult for fellows, said Mike Marcotte, who helps administer the program from the University of New Mexico, is finding convenient housing for just nine months in those places. In the future, the group hopes to build a support fund to offset housing and travel related costs, and expand the fellowship duration to 12 months to line up better with traditional rental agreements.

Photo of hot air balloons in Albuquerque, New Mexico by Kyle Hinkson on Unsplash.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     July 12, 2023, 2 p.m.
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