All the truth that’s fit to print

Search­light New Mex­ico

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

“WE’RE SEND­ING out an amaz­ing story this af­ter­noon about Filipino teach­ers who are be­ing hired to teach in New Mex­ico,” Sara Solovitch said. “They’re be­ing re­cruited by pri­vate agen­cies and it’s a gold mine. In the Philip­pines, a mid­dle-class fam­ily’s in­come is around $9,000, and they’re charg­ing them $15,000 for their pa­pers to be able to come and teach here. They think they’ll be mak­ing $36,000 here, but they don’t un­der­stand that the cost of liv­ing is so much more, so it’s re­ally a form of in­den­tured servi­tude.”

Sara Solovitch is ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of Search­light New Mex­ico, a non­par­ti­san, non­profit news or­ga­ni­za­tion that is ded­i­cated to in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism that em­pow­ers the elec­torate. She speaks on the global theme of hon­esty at 9 a.m. Fri­day, Oct. 26, at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum. The free cof­fee­and-bagels talk and net­work­ing event is hosted by CreativeMorn­ings, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that fa­cil­i­tates Fri­day-morn­ing lec­tures in cities around the world.

Search­light New Mex­ico, which is head­quar­tered in Santa Fe, sends each of its sto­ries to 35 me­dia part­ners. They in­clude the Santa Fe New Mex­i­can, the Taos News, the Al­bu­querque Jour­nal, KOAT-TV, the Las Cruces Sun-News, and more than 20 other news­pa­pers and ra­dio and tele­vi­sion sta­tions. MEGA Ra­dio, a Span­ish-speak­ing ra­dio sta­tion in Ci­u­dad Juárez, Mex­ico, is a new ad­di­tion to the part­ner­ship. MEGA broad­casts into south­ern Texas and New Mex­ico as well as north­ern Mex­ico. “Ev­ery week we send out a pack­age — story, pho­tos, charts and graphs, an oc­ca­sional video,” Solovitch said. “Our part­ners can choose whether or not to pub­lish what­ever we send along.” Search­light is funded by grants and in­di­vid­ual dona­tions, and all of the con­tent is free to its me­dia part­ners.

Rob Dean, Search­light’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and for­mer edi­tor of The New Mex­i­can, said that this net­work of pub­lish­ing part­ners gives Search­light a reach be­yond its size: six em­ploy­ees, one of them a re­porter sta­tioned in Las Cruces, and pho­tog­ra­pher and au­thor Don Us­ner, who is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor. The Search­light board chair is Ray Rivera, deputy manag­ing edi­tor for in­ves­ti­ga­tions and en­ter­prise at the Seat­tle Times.

Search­light was founded by Rivera, who was edi­tor of The New Mex­i­can at the time; Scott Arm­strong, an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and a for­mer staff writer for the Wash­ing­ton Post; and au­thor and con­ser­va­tion­ist Wil­liam deBuys. “Bill had the vi­sion of an 18-month project to fo­cus in­tensely on child well-be­ing is­sues, the thought be­ing to re­ally drill down on an is­sue that’s one of the pil­lars of so­ci­ety, to ex­am­ine those is­sues, ex­plore so­lu­tions, and present all of that ma­te­rial through this po­lit­i­cal year with the hope that it could rise near the top of the po­lit­i­cal agenda,” Dean said. Sev­eral re­cent Search­light sto­ries cho­sen for pub­li­ca­tion in The New Mex­i­can have ad­dressed chil­dren’s well-be­ing and the state of the schools, as well as state fund­ing for child and school is­sues.

“This non­profit jour­nal­ism model emerged just be­fore the re­ces­sion, when it was clear that tra­di­tional me­dia had chal­lenges around rev­enue and au­di­ence, the econ­omy, and the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion,” Dean said. Nine years ago, 27 non­profit news or­ga­ni­za­tions formed the In­ves­tiga­tive News Net­work. To­day, the INN, since re­named the In­sti­tute for Non­profit News, has more than 180 mem­ber non­profit me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions. “As they de­vel­oped, I put them in three pools,” Dean said. “Some were started by a rich per­son, some were be­gun by dis­cour­aged jour­nal­ists who wanted to con­tinue to prac­tice their craft, and then there was the or­ga­ni­za­tion like ours that was de­signed to be, while small in size, am­bi­tious in foot­print. We travel around the state and think of sto­ries from the point of view of what’s im­por­tant statewide.”

Solovitch said their or­ga­ni­za­tion has had a high de­gree of suc­cess en­gag­ing in sto­ries with na­tional con­text. “For in­stance, we wrote about grand­par­ents rais­ing their grand­chil­dren be­cause of the opi­oid epi­demic and be­cause so many of the par­ents are no longer com­pe­tent. Our re­porter dis­cov­ered that not only are they sav­ing the state $20,000 per child, be­cause that’s what fos­ter care costs in this state, but the grand­par­ents are be­ing de­nied ba­sic ben­e­fits like TANF [Tem­po­rary As­sis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies] that’s sup­posed to fol­low the child, not the care­taker.”

Asked about the con­ser­va­tive an­tag­o­nism re­gard­ing pub­lic-as­sis­tance pro­grams, she re­sponded, “Some of the sto­ries we’ve tack­led and con­tinue to look at tack­ling are ones that ac­tu­ally ad­dress the con­ser­va­tive con­cerns, like why is child well-be­ing im­por­tant? Not only, or nec­es­sar­ily, be­cause it’s the moral thing to do,

be­cause we kind of all agree that chil­dren should be healthy and well and ed­u­cated, but be­cause it’s good for busi­ness and the econ­omy. You’re never go­ing to be able to at­tract busi­nesses to New Mex­ico if you have a poor ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. We have a re­porter who just left for Gallup for a month or so to write about the lack of in­fra­struc­ture — for ex­am­ple, bad roads and ac­cess prob­lems for school buses and am­bu­lances and fire trucks — on the Navajo Na­tion and its im­pact on child well-be­ing.”

Hon­esty, the topic of her Fri­day-morn­ing talk, has al­ways been an im­por­tant stan­dard in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism. It is es­pe­cially high­lighted to­day be­cause of Pres­i­dent Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric. “Hon­esty is an im­por­tant topic, but one of the things I’ve thought about for years is it’s one thing to talk about hon­esty, but that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the truth,” Solovitch said. “If you have two re­porters at the same event, they hear things dif­fer­ently. What in­ter­ests them and the quotes they write down, the things they even think to write down, can be very dif­fer­ent.”

The On­tario na­tive gave as an ex­am­ple the story she did in the 1990s about the rise of killer bees com­ing north from Brazil. She read a lot about bees, spent time in the canyons of Mex­ico with sci­en­tists study­ing the prob­lem, and then wrote the story. But she also got into bee­keep­ing and did that in Santa Cruz, Cal­i­for­nia, for a few years. She won­ders how many re­porters would have re­sponded to the story in that fash­ion.

Solovitch was fo­cused on mu­sic and books early in her life and later be­came in­ter­ested in science and, af­ter mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia, in mush­room-hunt­ing. “I got com­fort­able with about six va­ri­eties that I was will­ing to take a chance and cook.” She did many sto­ries over the years about health and science, but her love of fungi was never sat­is­fied with an im­mer­sive story. “I al­ways wanted to write about mush­rooms, but there was not much of an ap­petite for it. I mean, that’s why I was so glad to have this job, be­cause all the sto­ries I got in­ter­ested in and tried to sell were re­ally hard to find a home for as a free­lancer. I’d have all these fan­tas­tic ideas and pro­pose them, but I could never get ed­i­tors to be in­ter­ested.”

As an edi­tor, Solovitch has con­trol over the sto­ries Search­light New Mex­ico pur­sues — and over their pre­sen­ta­tion. “One of the things we are re­ally most proud of is a care­ful­ness that hon­esty de­mands: be­ing re­ally thought­ful and very re­source­ful in the way you ap­proach ev­ery story. The fact that we haven’t had one cor­rec­tion since we launched in Jan­uary I think is an enor­mous trib­ute to my re­porters and the kind of fact-check­ing they con­stantly put them­selves un­der. Be­cause in this day and age, if you make the most mi­nor mis­take, like spelling some­one’s name wrong, it’s seized upon by peo­ple who think we do ‘fake news’ as just one more ex­am­ple. You lose all your trust with an au­di­ence and a read­er­ship if some­body can seize on that and say, ‘They can’t even get her name right.’”

“Fake news” charges aimed at so many dis­parate me­dia sto­ries nat­u­rally dis­rupt, or at least con­fuse, the pub­lic trust in jour­nal­ists. They also tend to in­flame pride on both sides — the de­fend­ers of the Fourth Es­tate as nec­es­sary to democ­racy and its crit­ics, the dis­be­liev­ers in the value of that par­tic­u­lar es­tab­lish­ment. The di­vide has widened to the point that pun­dits are re­fer­ring to a ris­ing “trib­al­ism” in the United States. “We can’t put ev­ery­thing right,” Dean said. “As jour­nal­ists, what we can do is the very best job we can to pro­vide the very best in­for­ma­tion. We’re not go­ing to waste our time try­ing to con­vince some­body that our in­for­ma­tion is right. Enough peo­ple will know it. I trust the de­ci­sions of peo­ple who are in­formed. What I fear is that more and more peo­ple are com­fort­able not be­ing in­formed.”

“But I have enor­mous hope for what we’re do­ing at Search­light,” Solovitch said. “I think we’re go­ing to change the state, all 120,000 square miles of it. That’s our purview, and I be­lieve we’re on track to make an im­pact. If I didn’t, I don’t think I could come to work ev­ery day.”

“As jour­nal­ists, what we do is the very best job we can to pro­vide the best in­for­ma­tion. We’re not go­ing to waste our time try­ing to con­vice some­body that our in­for­ma­tion is right. Enough peo­ple will know it. I trust the de­ci­sions of the peo­ple who are in­formed. What I fear is that more and more peo­ple are com­fort­able not be­ing in­formed.” — Search­light New Mex­ico ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Rob Dean

Right to left, Sara Solovitch; Solovitch and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Rob Dean; Dean; Solovitch and pho­tog­ra­pher Don Us­ner; pho­tos Gabriela Cam­pos/The

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