The Sierra County Sun is a leading provider of fact-based, credibly sourced, independent, original reporting on local government and public affairs in Sierra County, New Mexico.
The Sun’s primary objective is to ensure that the people of Sierra County are well informed about government activity so they can more effectively hold officials accountable for their actions and more successfully advocate for public policies to address Sierra County’s needs.
Certified by the State of New Mexico as a nonprofit corporation, the Sierra County Sun will fulfill its mission by these means:
• Establish and maintain a website (www.sierracountysun.org) for the dissemination of accurate, fair, nonpartisan reporting in the public interest.
• Make the news, analysis, commentary and narratives published on www.sierracountysun.org available to all readers free of charge
• Enhance community awareness and appreciation of public-interest journalism by engaging Sun readers and donors in regular dialogue about the relevance, balance and usefulness of its editorial content.
• Encourage and mentor citizen-journalists to undertake reporting, writing and graphics projects and publish their work, if suitable, in order to strengthen community engagement with the Sun and augment the coverage provided by its small professional staff.
• Fund and sustain the Sierra County Sun’s free-to-all reportage by proactively and transparently seeking financial contributions from local citizens, businesses and corporations, in addition to applying for appropriate philanthropic grants.
• Demonstrate how an online news organization serving a rural borderlands county with an aging, low-income population of fewer than 11,000 residents in southern New Mexico can marshal the skills and resources to fulfill journalism’s traditional watchdog role and provide citizens with the free flow of reliable information about governmental and public affairs that underpins a functioning democratic society.
The Sierra County Sun was founded in October 2019 by veteran reporter Kathleen Sloan as an online, journalist-owned, hyperlocal publication covering government and the arts. These were her beats when she wrote for the weekly Herald newspaper in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, from 2006 to 2013.
Sloan moved on to reporting jobs in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and the Herald closed after 90 years of service in December 2018. She returned to Truth or Consequences in the spring of 2019, with the embryonic idea of doing something to fill the gaps in local watchdog journalism.
Fill the gaps she did. With the help of editor Susan Christie and webmaster Bill Brown, every week for nearly a year, she reported and published four or five enterprising stories that, as a charter Sun subscriber described it, “lift[ed] the veil about what is going on in local government.” There was little time to focus on selling subscriptions, however, and Sloan found herself facing a seemingly insurmountable revenue shortfall. In April 2020 she reluctantly announced that the Sun would cease publication at the end of August.
Unwilling to stand by as Sierra County lost an asset as critical to its well-being as its hospital or schools, a group of concerned citizens stepped forward to devise and lead the Campaign to Save the Sun. Within 3 months, the Campaign had raised enough money to keep Kathleen Sloan on her government beat for 12 additional months.
After taking a well-deserved break in September, Sloan resumed her practice of “pencil-in-the-eye” journalism, as a person familiar with the discomfort of the Sun’s scrutiny vividly put it. Her ongoing role is to ask challenging questions, dig into public records and explain the intricacies of state and local laws so that the citizens of Sierra County have the information they need to hold local representatives accountable for their actions or inaction.
The Campaign’s plan to secure the future of the Sierra County Sun included restructuring the enterprise as a not-for-profit civic news organization; redesigning the Sun’s website and automating its back-office functions; assembling a volunteer editorial team to carry out the gradual expansion of the Sun’s coverage; and devising fundraising strategies to support ongoing operations and make readership free to all. When the Sun was relaunched on October 16, 2020, all these objectives had been accomplished.
Not-for-profit Public-Interest Journalism
Sierra County, New Mexico, has firsthand experience with the proliferation of local “news deserts” in every corner of America. In December 2018, the Herald, a weekly newspaper that had covered the county seat of Truth or Consequences since 1928, stopped publication.
Nearly 2,100 newspapers, most of them weeklies like the Herald, closed between 2004 and 2018. According to a 2019 study of the collapse of local news conducted by PEN America, a free speech advocacy association, most were victims of print’s losing competition with digital media for advertising and subscriptions. During roughly the same time frame, the number of newsroom jobs in the country decreased by nearly half. In a special report titled “The Future without the Front Page” published in August 2019, the New York Times estimated that about 1,300 communities across America now lack local news sources. Thousands more are inadequately served by surviving local newspapers struggling to provide their traditional soup-to-nuts coverage.
The free flow of reliable information is the lifeblood of a well-functioning democratic society. “Robust local news,” the PEN America study, entitled “Losing the News,” stated, “drives voter turnout, holds officials and corporate leaders accountable, makes people aware of nearby opportunities and dangers, and, perhaps most importantly, works against the now-widespread breakdown in social cohesion by narrating the life of a place and its inhabitants, telling the daily stories that form the basis for shared communal experience.” Without local journalism watchdogs, the study concluded, “government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked.”
The Washington Post describes the consequences more bluntly on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.”
A countertrend gives hope that reporting in the public interest will not entirely disappear and may indeed rebound. About a decade ago, newspaper reporters and editors who had lost their jobs began creating small news operations, usually publishing online and usually making their coverage free to all. They specialized in local news or investigative journalism or in-depth reporting on state and national issues. Structured as not-for-profit civic news organizations, they won philanthropic support from foundations concerned about the preservation of a vibrant free press.
Today, more than 250 such news organizations are hard at work, informing civic discourse, combating disinformation and enabling citizen engagement in public life. According to Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab, nearly two thirds of them focus on local and state reporting.
The Sierra County Sun is proud to join their ranks in providing fact-based, credibly sourced, independent, original reporting on local government and public affairs.
The Sun shares content and collaborates with Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the interest of New Mexico residents.