LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO — In the spring of 2006, Heath Haussamen was working for the Las Cruces Sun-News in southern New Mexico, an ambitious young reporter covering courts, crime, and local politics amid one of the quieter media markets in the country. Las Cruces is part of New Mexico’s second congressional district, which is home to just over 600,000 people living in an area the size of Pennsylvania. The city gets its television from nearby El Paso, Texas rather than the Albuquerque stations which play throughout the rest of the state; and New Mexico’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, has very little penetration in the market.
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With little going on in Las Cruces media, and even less going on in coverage of state politics online, Haussamen’s editor encouraged him to start a blog. Perhaps it was this same calm in the market that made the editor think there wouldn’t be much harm in letting Haussamen keep ownership of the blog’s content, which would be reported and written on his own time.
Thus, what would eventually be known as NMPolitics.net launched in March 2006, amid numerous state and local primary races leading up to the November elections. Within a week a candidate called wanting to advertise on the blog; two more called soon after. Haussamen asked his editor if he could accept the ads, but the editor said no, he couldn’t have his own reporter competing with the newspaper for advertising dollars. It was this rather understandable directive that led Haussamen to upend his career.
“In some ways it was a difficult choice,” says Haussamen, who has worked on the site full-time ever since, and remains its editor, publisher, reporter, and lone employee. “I gave up a paycheck for the promise of two or three ads that were only going to bring in a few hundred dollars in revenue a month, and possibly only for a couple of months through the June primary.” On the other hand, he continues, “Starting a website is cheap. The worst case scenario was that my wife and I had some more debt on our credit cards from my experiment and I’d have to go get a job.”
That the site continued for those six months and beyond is due in large part to a unique role Haussamen has managed to fill in New Mexico’s media landscape: that of an authoritative voice that can explain southern New Mexico to the far-away centers of political and media power in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, while also translating state politics to southern New Mexicans, many of whom remain untouched by statewide media.
In its early months, the blog focused largely on coverage of politics in southern New Mexico, but Haussamen quickly began pumping local sources for stories of statewide impact. In early 2007, a series of scoops on corruption within New Mexico’s state housing authority and its former Region III director, Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos, brought the site statewide attention. Since then, Haussamen’s coverage has expanded to include electoral politics and governance throughout the state.
Stories are analytic, conscientious, and often lengthy. They range from a recent deconstruction of polling numbers in the race for New Mexico’s soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat to staid opinion columns on issues such as civil liberties to a recent eulogy for a fellow member of the New Mexico blog scene.
As his coverage base has expanded, Haussamen has kept an eye on southern New Mexico, and has even continued to cover municipal issues in Las Cruces. He says he doesn’t have a particular balance of local versus state coverage in mind, a fittingly laidback philosophy for a state in which a popular bumper sticker reads: “Carpe Mañana.”
“It kind of depends on what else is going on,” he explains. “I’m one person and I can only do so many articles and focus on so many issues, so it just depends on what’s happening at the time.”
According to a reader survey conducted by Haussamen last year, NMPolitics.net receives 35 percent of its visitors from the Las Cruces area and 31 percent from the Albuquerque area; smaller totals from around the state and Washington, D.C. round out the readership.
Though in the past Haussamen has supplemented his income through freelance work with the New Mexico Independent and the now-defunct Albuquerque Tribune, among others, he’s been able to focus exclusively on his own site since 2010, when he began to actively seek donations from readers.
The site reached its $10,000 fundraising goal in 2010. In 2011, it reached its $12,000 target. The site is incorporated as a for-profit and donations are not tax deductible, but Haussamen has found readers willing to support his work. As an added perk for donors, he saves a juicy bit of political analysis for a monthly newsletter that is only available to readers who give upwards of $120 annually.
Currently, Haussamen receives about a third of his revenue from donations. The remaining two-thirds comes from display advertising from politicians as well as advocacy groups. He frequently solicits ads himself.
Somewhat lamentably, in Haussamen’s view, anyway, the business side of the operation has grown to monopolize about 40 percent of his time. There’s more to business than selling ads, after all.
“I have books to balance,” he says. “The donations actually take a lot of time just because they come in every month, one at a time, and ten and twenty dollars at a time and it all has to be recorded and transferred from pay pal to the bank.”
The fact that Haussamen is a one-man show has also led him increasingly to aggregation and third-party content. There’s a dearth of smart aggregation of New Mexico news, and the aggregated content is certainly a service in its own right, but time spent on business, time spent on aggregating, and time spent editing the site’s burgeoning opinion section, which publishes op-eds by New Mexico political players and citizens alike, all lead to less time spent reporting.
Haussamen would like to expand the site to include reporting help as well as a business staff, but is unsure whether New Mexico can support even a modest-sized for-profit online news venture. In many ways, the sparse media landscape that has allowed the site to gain influence in the first place hampers its potential for growth.
“It’s hard to make money off the Internet, especially in a state with such a limited readership,” he says. “I look at sites like this in some bigger states and they do have multiple staffers, and I have to remind myself that California has fifteen times the population New Mexico has.”
On the other hand, it’s pretty remarkable that a state like New Mexico, which has just over two million residents and consistently reports some of the highest poverty levels in the nation, can have something like NMPolitics.net. The site is an example of what is perhaps the one knowable truth of local Internet journalism: Not every market can support an Internet startup on a grand scale, but the right reporter in the right place can create something no single journalist ever could have previously, and give his community a small gift in an age when small gifts matter.
City: Las CrucesMichael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.