New Mexico Compass / Opinion

Year With a Compass

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By Marisa Demarco

— Today our online news outlet turns one year old.

This post is number 195.

The bulk of that number is feature-length, original news content written by new and veteran reporters. It includes thoughtful, creative op-ed columns from some of my favorite local writers. Not to mention coverage of municipal political bodies, thoughtful arts writing, photo essays and a podcast or two.

All that content was generated for free. We did it because we’re inspired by this place. We did it because we believe journalism is a tool for an informed public. We did it because we want to shape the next wave of digital truth-tellers.

I could not be more proud of what the Compass became this year.

At the beginning of 2013, my unstated but urgent goal was to publish something five or six mornings a week. We did so for half a year while also tending bar, painting houses, selling chicken eggs, moving heavy furniture, serving food and all manner of odd labor jobs. The content was solid, and we were happy, if a little tired and short on cash.

I woke up one morning and thought to myself, “I can’t keep asking people to work this hard for free.” Compass co-founder Margaret Wright and I decided to take all of that enthusiasm and energy for journalism and put it into learning about business. Our readers likely noticed a dip in our post frequency.

We began evaluating whether we should go a for-profit or nonprofit route. We took business classes online and at the New Mexico Business Development Center and met with an adviser at WESST. We read and read. We debated the merits of business models and considered what’s worked and what’s failed for both online and in-print media. In particular, we asked the question: Is it possible to create media that’s truly free from restraint and censorship by funders or advertisers?

The answer, we’re pretty sure, is yes. But let’s amend that: Yes, if we do this thing right.

If the principles of independent journalism are built into the Compass at a fundamental level, if it’s clear to sponsors and funders that we prize such work above all else, and if we can find enough people who are proud to support that ideology, yes.

Wright and I also did some inky soul-searching. We asked ourselves, What are the problems with media as we see it today? What’s being lost in humanity’s great digital transition? What makes the Compass stand out in the media landscape of Albuquerque? We came to the hard realization that “We’re going to do great journalism, in-depth reporting and excellent storytelling” is not good enough. It’s a start, but it can’t be the end.

From the outset, this was my favorite part of the Compass mission: “We’re committed to educating the public to create citizen journalists in communities around the state.” I’ve long thought of journalism as a trade, the kind of thing you learn by doing and by apprenticing with experienced reporters and editors.

We can boost the skills of our neighbors who have been ignored by media and help them become journalists. The Compass will not simply promise to cover marginalized populations; we can help train people within those communities to develop those stories themselves. We can help folks parse IPRA requests, interview techniques, ethics, and how to use technology to tell stories and reach an audience.

It’s my suspicion that, in turn, these new journalists will inject our flagging trade with fresh ideas.

We made a decision: The Compass will seek nonprofit status. But our goal is not journalism—it’s the education of a new generation of digital storytellers.

The fuel for the Compass is shared curiosity. On a personal level, I’ve been motivated and sustained by the editors and contributors, particularly Wright and the inspiring Carolyn Carlson. Together, a year ago today, we dove in headfirst.

I’ve known for the last decade that I love an antiquated, crumbling industry—newspapers—and the people who love it are choking on the dust. For the first time, I have hope that it doesn’t have to go down that way.

4 thoughts on “Year With a Compass

  1. Thanks for sharing so fully about your search for the right road, and congratulations on the vision and direction you’ve set before yourself, and us. Yes to spreading tools and mindset of journalism and story-telling of/for our times! Just perchance, this was the last page I looked at before opening your email:
    http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/12/building-on-the-snowden-effect/
    “If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”

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