In 2005, I found a lifeboat. At the time, I was the news director for KNFT. The radio station wasn’t in the best financial shape — in fact, a trustee had been appointed to manage the day-to-day operations. When I learned of an opening for a staff writer at the Daily Press, I arranged an interview with Publisher Tina Ely and Editor Dean Thompson. I began my two-year stint at the Press that July, and within months KNFT was bought out and fully automated.
The operation at the Daily Press was about as old-school as you could get in 2005. While we weren’t still setting type by hand, we were printing on site, which was unusual for a small-town newspaper. Looking back, I should have been amazed at the size of the editorial operation: there was one part-time reporter (old-school newsman Jim Owen), two full-time staff writers (myself and Mary Alice Murphy, who now runs Grant County Beat), a sports writer (with occasional backup from Dean and myself) and our copyeditor Tauna Gallagher.
I never went to journalism school — I’d edited the student newspaper at WNMU prior to taking the job at KNFT, so all of my “education” was hands-on. And boy did I learn while at the Press: Mary Alice and I talked shop about photography, and Jim Owen could write a tighter story than me in his sleep. I learned to cherish the thrill of a packed gymnasium on Friday night when Cliff hosted a basketball game, and the incredible courtesy those fans extended to me. Tauna was the rock against which my writing would break: even after the AP made it’s big change, I can’t imagine using “over” instead of “more than” without somehow dishonoring her legacy.
My “education” wasn’t limited to reporting and photography. The dynamics of small-town society were frequent lessons, and I soaked up everything I could about wildfire and water rights and labor unions and so on…
The Rise of Big Media and the Downfall of Smalltown News
But if there was a common lesson to be learned during my journalism career in Silver City, it was the impossibility of running a local media outlet in the age of media consolidation.
It saddens me to look at the parallels between the demise of KNFT and the end of the Daily Press. Both were local stalwarts with long histories in the area. And both were ultimately brought down by the same outside corporate business model pioneered by Wal-Mart (which likely played a part in killing off the radio station and the paper in Silver City, since it’s arrival in town jammed up so many small businesses that were advertisers for both).
KSCQ arrived on the scene while I was still in high school (possibly even middle school), and was welcomed by a lot of residents. It’s more contemporary pop/rock mix appealed to people who couldn’t find that on the local radio dial. But stations are supported by ads, and as you increase the number of stations you split the overall ad-revenue pie into smaller pieces. For the newcomer, it’s a lot easier to get by on those smaller slices if you have a bunch of them spread throughout a region.
For the Daily Press, competition arrived in the form of the Sun-News, an offshoot of a Las Cruces paper that was itself part of a larger media conglomerate (the Texas-New Mexico Partnership). At the time of this writing, the Silver City Sun-News has a half-dozen local (as in, based in Silver City) employees. I haven’t picked up the print newspaper in a long time, but it was usually a smattering of local content spliced into a version of the Las Cruces mothership edition.
The benefit was pronounced: the smaller satellite offering could rely on the conglomerate’s resources for national and state news, and chip away at the local paper’s ad revenue. You could pay six people to produce a product that was comparable to the Daily Press, which employed at least 3x that number. It was the same process that killed KNFT, which is now owned by SkyWest Media. SkyWest Media also owns, you guessed it, KSCQ. The Sun-News is partly owned by Gannett, which had revenues of $5.1 billion last year. It’s the same company that owns USAToday, 600 other magazines and newspapers, and 23 television stations.
The Local Failure
That’s not to say that there weren’t internal issues at both the Daily Press and KNFT. Neither Tina Ely or Matt Runnels were perfect business owners. But the effects of their mistakes were amplified by the presence of an out-of-town competitor that could always undercut them. Any personal squabble some advertiser had with Tina could find an outlet at the Sun-News.
It’s likely that, in this day of Spotify and internet outlets like the Grant County Beat, the Daily Press and KNFT were doomed anyway. Tina selected a digital edition in 2006 that was already outdated when it premiered, and she never adjusted her online strategy. And Matt probably took too large a gamble on an expansion (in Carlsbad if I recall). They each have personalities that could clash with local business owners and advertisers.
But both operations saw competition from skeleton crews and, in Matt’s case, automation. That competition was backed by outside media companies that could afford to wait out the locals. It’s possible that Silver City and Grant County residents could have rallied around their hometown businesses by refusing to advertise with the newcomers, but that sort of “buy local” spirit didn’t exist and SkyWest Media and the Texas-New Mexico Partnership were able to get a foothold into the area.
I don’t know what will happen to news production in my hometown. There was once great radio news reporting from KSIL and KNFT, and I hope the Gila / Mimbres Community Radio project comes to fruition and continues that legacy of local news broadcasting. And I hope that the Sun-News maintains its local operation, however small it might be. Mary Alice continues with the Grant County Beat and I continue to hope for its success. And Desert Exposure is still going strong, though its focus is different than a daily newspaper.
We’ve definitely lost an icon of local media in Southwest New Mexico. The Daily Press, for all its flaws, was a product of love and passion for many of its employees. And, like its namesake, it was independent. But facing the juggernaut that is Gannet and the Texas-New Mexico Partnership, I’m surprised it lasted this long.