Local news has similarities the world over. That’s the lesson of a recent conversation between journalists from Latvia and Santa Fe.
As it has done for years, the Santa Fe Council for International Relations hosts foreign journalists and others who are visiting the United States. In 2019, the local group brought in 400 foreign visitors. With the pandemic, those visits are now via Zoom for the time being.
Instead of journalists sitting around a table when they visit The New Mexican, or being able to walk around the Plaza, go shopping or eat New Mexican food, the conversation is virtual.
Last week, the group of Latvian journalists wanted to learn more about how local reporters operate in New Mexico and at The New Mexican in particular. The visit was titled the 21st Century ChangeMakers: Supporting Independent Regional Media: Ethical and Accountable Reporting and Sustainable Business Models. It’s part of the International Visitor Leadership Program, sponsored by the State Department.
The conversation was fascinating. As with media organizations in the United States, Latvian journalists are battling misinformation spreading on social media — especially concerning vaccinations and the coronavirus pandemic. They can’t just report the news, they have to untangle what is false and misleading so they can tell the real story.
Amid the pandemic’s toll, journalists also go about reporting on events in their neighborhood; the bread-and-butter stories newspapers have covered since their beginnings. Development in historic cities in Latvia can be controversial, just as in Santa Fe. One journalist spoke about how the community came together to stop an out-of-place development, preserving her town’s historic nature. That resonates in Santa Fe.
Another reporter spoke with emotion about his visit to a hospital where COVID-19 patients were being treated. The hospital was crowded. Many patients admitted for treatment were young. Health care workers were exhausted. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Latvian journalists in some areas of their country must figure out how to reach Russian-speaking readers — on a budget without money for translations and small staffs busy with other tasks. Yet if some communities go without fact-based news reports, they will find out what’s going on from Facebook or Twitter. We’ve seen how that is a problem in the United States, as individuals who obtain news from conspiracy news sites leave reality behind.
From Riga, Latvia, to Santa Fe is more than 5,400 miles. Latvia, located adjacent to the Baltic Sea, is nine hours ahead of us. So much is different, but much is the same, especially when it comes to the challenges of local journalism. In the United States, more than a quarter of newspapers have gone out of business since 2004 — a sustainable business model is essential for journalism here and abroad.
The challenges are familiar: Keeping readers. Delivering the newspaper, whether in print or online. Sharing news stories via social media and on web sites. Making enough profit to keep the lights on and the staff paid. And doing it all with a slimmed-down staff because of the changing media landscape, effects of the 2008 recession and now, a worldwide pandemic.
After the 90-minute discussion, it was clear local journalists, regardless of their locales, will go all out to serve their communities.
When local journalism can’t function, citizens lose. They will lack factual, reliable information, whether about an impending storm or the candidates for local office.
Such journalism matters in New Mexico and in Latvia, where local reporters stay on top of the story, no matter the obstacles.