The Southern Star
A conversation with Heath Haussamen, New Mexico’s online political journalist
By Jim Scarantino
Albuquerque does not look southward enough. It frequently takes an intrastate college sports rivalry or a flamboyant British billionaire promoting space travel to draw our attention to Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second largest city and one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.
Heath Haussamen is determined to amplify the heartbeat of Las Cruces so it will be clearly heard throughout New Mexico. Last year he left his job reporting for the Las Cruces Sun-Times to launch an innovative online political journal. His reach now extends from Las Cruces to covering politics in Albuquerque and the Roundhouse.
At age 28, he’s also building something traditional media in this state hasn’t quite attempted. He’s combined the features of a completely free weblog with original, independent news and investigative reporting, a variety of columnists, a town hall meeting and a research tool to dig further into the state’s political life. As a result, his website, Heath Haussamen on New Mexico Politics (found at nmpolitics.net) is now experiencing the same explosive growth as the city he’s chosen for his base of operations.
What are you hoping to achieve with your online journal and independent political reporting?
My goal is to make a difference. Our political system has a lot of problems—the biggest being the influence of corporate money—and journalists should play a key role in keeping the system honest.
On a more tangible level, I started this site as a blog in March 2006, and within a year it had grown to be more than a blog. In addition to my reporting and analysis, there are four regular columnists and frequent guest columnists contributing to the site. My goal is to create a site that comprehensively covers New Mexico politics from the Las Cruces perspective that’s often ignored in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
I also hope to raise the bar for political websites. Blogs are still in their infancy. They usually lack ethical standards and policies that ensure consistency. My site has such standards and policies posted for anyone to read. That helps hold me accountable and lets readers know the ground rules. I don’t claim to be unbiased, but I do my best to be nonpartisan, fair and accurate.
What advantages do you enjoy with your online journal over political reporting by traditional print and television media?
The benefits of the online format are immediacy, depth and multimedia opportunities. I can publish articles that don’t run in newspapers until the next day. I can have a written article accompanied by photos, video, comments, links to other sites that contain more information, etc. The possibilities are nearly endless. And the only space constriction is the attention span of the readers. So there’s more opportunity for exploring the complexities of issues than in print or on television.
Who are your columnists?
Carter Bundy of AFSCME fame. Whitney Cheshire (known in the blogosphere as “The Wednesday Morning Quarterback”), Michael Swickard, a former radio talk show host in Las Cruces, and Jim Kadlecek, a former Colorado state lawmaker and economic development expert.
Many political websites are of a uniform political stripe. Anyone who weighs in with a different opinion is derided as a “troll.” Do these columnists provide any real diversity of opinion?
They absolutely bring diversity to the site. Carter is unabashedly liberal. Whitney works on GOP campaigns. Michael has quite a conservative streak, which, interestingly, doesn’t always lead him to the Republican viewpoint. Jim takes a moderate approach to most issues.
I am a true independent—one who refuses to declare membership in a party not just because I’m a journalist, but because my beliefs don’t come close to lining up with any party’s platform and I have a lot of philosophical issues with our partisan system. So these columnists bring viewpoints I can’t.
That’s different than the state’s longest-running political blog, New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan, which doesn’t run differing viewpoints or permit comments. You permit not only comments, but anonymous comments. Why?
I decided early on that one of the advantages of the online format is the potential for interaction. Comments are a critical component of my site. I do regulate them. There is a posted comments policy and I screen all comments, approving those that comply and rejecting those that don’t. The guidelines are generally simple: Be factual and contribute to constructive discussion. I don’t allow personal attacks or lies.
I decided that as long as people comply with the comments policy, there is no reason not to allow them to remain anonymous. Politics is, unfortunately, so much like junior high school that many will only say what they really think if their name isn’t attached to it.
Has it been rough leaving behind a salary with the Las Cruces Sun-Times, then competing with your former employer and the Albuquerque Journal at the same time?
It’s been great. I was a newspaper reporter and copy editor for several years, both in Las Cruces and, for a time, Santa Fe. I grew tired of seeing the focus become increasingly, throughout the newspaper industry, on why circulation numbers were dropping and how to keep them propped up, instead of realizing the inevitability of more and more people gathering their news online instead of in print. Instead of being part of a culture that wanted to slow the shift—when I myself was getting all my news online—I wanted to help figure it out and define the shift.
Because I was known as a newspaper reporter, for the most part I haven’t had trouble with those I’ve interviewed taking me seriously. I already had relationships with a number of sources in Las Cruces and state government in Santa Fe. I started the site intentionally in March 2006, because it was an election year and the primary season had just begun. I assumed that would mean plenty of politics news and advertising to carry me all the way to November of last year. The site has been growing stronger ever since.
What is your readership after one year of publishing?
Heath Haussamen on New Politics made its debut on March 20, 2006, with 88 unique visitors and 157 page views. A year later, in March 2007, the site had almost 10,000 unique visitors and 33,000 page views. The site consistently has more than 550 unique visitors and 1,050 page views each weekday.
Why did you choose Las Cruces as your base, and how do you see your chosen city fitting into the future of this state?
Doña Ana County is growing rapidly. The state is building a spaceport that could make Las Cruces the center of the commercial space industry. The Verde Group is trying to build a series of cross-border manufacturing cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, with Santa Teresa being the hub. That could reshape the manufacturing industry in North America.
In several decades, if both projects are successful, Doña Ana County could rival Bernalillo County in terms of population and influence. It’s a really interesting time to be a journalist in southern New Mexico.
I came to Las Cruces to attend NMSU and ended up staying. There’s a huge divide between Doña Ana County and the rest of the state, largely due to the fact that Las Cruces is in the El Paso television market and the Journal pays little attention to Las Cruces. People who live here are generally disconnected from state government. I’m trying to create a way for that connection to be made—so people in Doña Ana County can know more about what’s going on in state government and politicos from around the state can know more about what’s happening in our second-largest city.
You’re already reaching around the state. I see you’re closely covering the contest to determine which Democrat challenges Heather Wilson, developments in Richardson’s presidential campaign and early jostling to replace him. Are you headed to being a genuine statewide online political journal?
Several people have suggested adding a reporter in Albuquerque and possibly one in Santa Fe. At this point, I’ve added two weekly columnists who are based in Albuquerque. The site has grown more quickly than I could have imagined when I started. I have a number of dreams and plans for it. At this point, I’m trying to keep up with the growth, and learning a lot as I go. Creating a truly statewide online political publication is certainly something I’ve thought about. All I know right now is that the future is exciting.
Speaking of the future, as one of the state’s leading political observers, are you willing to share any predictions, or point out any forces working under the surface of the headlines of which we should be aware?
As for coming trends, certainly the rising prominence of southern New Mexico is one of them. So is the 2010 gubernatorial race. Look for the GOP to put all its resources into that election because, if it doesn’t control the governor’s office, there will be no check on Democrats when redistricting comes along in the first part of the next decade.
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