Year one of Source New Mexico
The capacity for surprise, responsibility to community, radical imagination and getting out from behind the desk
Vegetation starting to sprout along burn scars in early June, like this growth off NM Highway 518 overlooking the Mora Valley. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
We have these meetings when our network is welcoming a new editor-in-chief who’s in the early days of pulling together a staff and planning for the launch of a news outlet in their state. The other EICs offer brief advice.
Mine is always: Hire people you enjoy talking with, because you’re going to have to talk to each other. A lot.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of Source New Mexico, I did what I’ve been lucky to do just about every day for the last 365: I called the crew. This time, though, I interviewed the reporters, asking what it’s been like to work at a news organization from the very first day of publication on Aug. 31, 2021.
The chance to help build a brand-new outlet drew Reporter Patrick Lohmann back home from New York. It gave him an opportunity to write about his home state, he said, which he missed and cared about deeply. “This place is familiar and foreign at the same time,” Lohmann said. “So rediscovering my home through reporting has been really rewarding.”
And there’s just something about being involved in making this thing from scratch.
“Having come from these kind of rigid institutions that have been around for a century to be working on something that is defining itself every day has been just really invigorating,” he said.
That resonated. So far, Source New Mexico’s had a big-picture sense of what it does and what it’s for. There are guiding instincts and signals, like streetlights coming on at night, one after the other, illuminating the stretch in front of us. Sometimes there’s uncertainty, sure. But then another light comes on.
“The best part of this job is being surprised,” Lohmann said. “And New Mexico will always surprise you.”
That’s become part of his practice. “Always keeping open the capacity to be surprised is a very important skill that I learned in New Mexico and one that I apply every day.”
Not everything is the same, of course, as when he left years ago. “There’s new levels of opulence for the rich,” Lohmann observed, “and the bottom has just fallen way out. That feels different.”
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Where he lived in upstate New York felt like a climate refuge in some ways, too. There’s just so much freshwater there, he said, and there aren’t a bunch of national disasters on your doorstep. He returned to a region that’s face-to-face with the consequences of climate change.
And when what you’re facing is the biggest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, “the stakes just seem immediately very high.”
The interaction between the people and governments here and the feds was a bright thread through much of Lohmann’s work this year.
Historically, New Mexico hasn’t always seemed valued by the U.S., and the consequences are keenly felt. The government set off the first atomic bomb in the world here without warning the people who lived nearby. Abandoned uranium mines are still open like sores. Officials bury nuclear waste in a desert salt bed, a vestige of when this was ocean.
And yeah, just months ago, the United States Forest Service lit a prescribed burn and lost control of it.
Lohmann hit New Mexico’s highways to bring us the story of that fire in its early days, along with 19 others burning simultaneously around the state. As Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak grew, eventually scorching more than 340,000 acres, he spent weeks digging into how it started. He also paid close attention to the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
After one story Lohmann wrote about a family that was likely the first to lose their home to that wildfire, FEMA reversed course in dismissing their claim and gave them the maximum amount possible for damage.
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Arguably, his stories about evictions delayed the conclusion of the state’s moratorium. He took a trip to Clovis, N.M., and highlighted the lack of awareness about rental assistance dollars available from the federal government. When he interviewed a state Supreme Court justice about why the end of the eviction moratorium was being pushed out some weeks, she pointed to rural areas not knowing about the emergency aid.
“So I think our story really informed policy in a very direct way, because New Mexico is kind of a small place, and because we did something that was in the community where we drove all the way out there and we talked to all the people being evicted.”
Potentially hundreds of tenants were impacted and had a few more weeks to figure out rent and back-rent, maybe using those housing funds. “It’s hard to get your head around what that could have meant for some people,” Lohmann said. “So even if we contributed in a small way, that’s the reason we do this, right?”
Senior Reporter Shaun Griswold said part of his motivation this year was bringing people who may have given up on news back to it.
“We really cared about just making this something that really is responsible to community to New Mexicans at large, to people that aren’t reading the news anymore but are affected by all the stuff that we’re covering when it comes to government policies and elections,” he said, “and the decisions made by local county commissioners, state representatives — all of these individuals that are making choices for all of us.”
And that starts with a different process from the jump, a reprieve after years of telling stories in micromanaged work environments that seek quantity and speed.
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“We came in with this idea about what news should be like that we’ve all developed working in so many different newsrooms, just pounding our head against the desk and grinding the daily burn-and-turns and thinking, ‘It can be better, it can be different,’” he said.
In the proto-days, as I wrote copy for the splash page announcing a future Source New Mexico, one of the promises I made was that we were going to “center the lived experiences and expertise of the people of New Mexico.” We would write about what policy looks like beyond the halls of government, and we would head out all over the state to find those stories.
I’m so pleased to be able to say that those words weren’t just aspirational. As we look back at the year, there are a lot of weeks where staff hit the road, uncertain of what they would find but knowing they would find it. And when you show up to a community in you don’t quite know yet, you’ve got to spend the time just meeting people — with the recorder off.
Source reporters spent days — weeks, even, in total — in the fire zone up north. When Griswold got to Mora County the first time, he couldn’t drive in to where he needed to go because of how the roads were blocked off. So he had to seek rides from different people, he said, who were more than happy to help him out.
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In the cabin of their car or truck, “We just talked. It wasn’t an interview, it wasn’t, you know, ‘Let me go on the record, and you tell me about everything going on here.’ It was just them sharing concerns about this fire that’s affecting them, and this idea that they have to keep moving and pushing despite the circumstances.”
It’s a quality Griswold relates to as a journalist, that despite everything journalism is facing — budget cuts every year, people distrusting news, politicians blocking access, the dangers that come with the job, and it simply getting harder to report all the time — we still push.
“And that’s something that we can all share with everybody here, because I think that’s ultimately what we’re all trying to do, regardless of your profession.”
The instinct — to work no matter what, to think about this job around the clock, to toss it around in your dreams — it’s why, every once in a while, the assignment is something other than a story. Griswold laughed about it.
“There’s been times where you have assigned me to go take a hike for the day.”
He teased me a little, but he gets it. To keep going, there have to be breaks.
I’ve also assigned Source Reporter Austin Fisher to go on walks. And it’s never because anyone is doing anything wrong. It’s because right before I started this gig, I did the kind of heavy reporting work they do, and I know it can start to wear on a person deep down. And if you can’t convince a reporter to take a break for their own sake, you can usually convince them that they’ll be better able to carry the responsibility of this work if they do.
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But on the flip, this job will put you in conversation with someone you never would have met otherwise. “It’s almost daily,” Fisher said. And some of those interviews will hang with you for life.
Fisher’s never too worn out to report on systemic abuses, especially in the carceral systems at work in New Mexico. I asked him about moments in the past year on the job that stuck with him. He thought immediately of Santana Serrano and Michael Armendariz, two people he interviewed who are in the middle of life sentences in New Mexico prisons.
In talking with them, both separately told him that regardless of how the stories came out, they were grateful for a most basic thing: being listened to and understood. “That’s something that really solidified how much I love this work and how important it is to me, is that sort of feedback from a person in a situation that I cannot even begin to imagine.”
There’s a power in storytelling, he said, and part of it is pushing on walls and limitations until they start to give a little, and peeking through the cracks to something more. “We as Source New Mexico, in the first year, rather than approaching each problem as ‘What is possible for us to do in this instance?” or ‘What is practical?’ right, we’ve done the kind of journalism that allows our sources and our readers to imagine a better world.”
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It doesn’t have to be some grand statement, he said. It can be a process. “It’s not just words,” Fisher said. “It’s not just a mission statement on our website. It’s everybody that’s involved.” It’s daily practice.
The questions Fisher’s asking lately are: How do communities inform themselves and each other? And how do they view themselves?
“We are doing journalism that is accountable to a lot of different people,” he said. “And I think that’s healthy.”
Reporting Fellow Megan Gleason started a couple of months ago in June, but for me, it’s as if she’s been here the whole time. Similarly, she said Source seems older than it is. “It doesn’t feel like it’s only been alive for a year,” she said. “Honestly, it feels like the outlet has been going for so long.”
She started her first reporting gig with us after college as the massive fires were burning in the state. She jumped on reporting on the Black Fire down south, which wasn’t getting nearly as much coverage because fewer people were impacted, even though it, too, burned over 320,000 acres. Whole ecosystems were damaged. “The Gila’s going to feel the impact for years,” she said.
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After she went on her first field assignment and traveled to southern New Mexico to meet people and see the burn scars firsthand, she got back and couldn’t sleep because she was thinking about how to tell the story. She said this during a news meeting, and the rest of us could relate. We all still get like that.
She’d driven all over the Gila that day with ranchers as they kept an eye on the storm clouds rolling in. “So it was maybe 9 a.m. I was like, ‘OK, at noon, we’ve got to cut this off, because there’s a chance that I’m just going to get stuck in the Gila for the night,’ because the flood risks are so bad, and they still are.”
Going out and seeing the burned forest and meeting the people she was reporting about eliminated a feeling of being somehow removed from what was happening. It was different than trying to get a sense of the story from behind a desk, she said, which can soften the reality and drain the humanity out of the work.
“Even the smallest of stories,” she said, “can mean the world to one person.”
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