All the truth that’s fit to print
Searchlight New Mexico
“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