Jessica "Jess" Onsurez, news director of the Carlsbad Current-Argus, Alamogordo Daily News and Ruidoso News, has been involved in the world of journalism since junior high school, where she helped run newspapers and newsletters. She did the same in high school before joining the news team for The Chase during her time as a student at Eastern New Mexico University.
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from ENMU in 2007 and a master's degree in digital communication and media/multimedia from American University in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
Jess discusses her journey from student journalist to news director:
Why did you choose ENMU?
Eastern New Mexico University-Portales chose me. I was offered an academic scholarship just before graduating from Loving High School. I was very familiar with ENMU as my older sister attended and graduated before me, and I shared summers with her there. As it happens, even my younger sisters attended and graduated from ENMU. It was an easy choice to say yes. The communications program was promising, and the campus was welcoming. I think I chose well: I enjoyed every minute of my time there.
How did you choose your field of study?
As a young girl, I visited the newsroom of the Carlsbad Current-Argus (where I am currently news director) to get my photo taken as Student of the Month. It was an exciting – almost chaotic- atmosphere. I think I was hooked from there. When I found out that a degree in journalism meant I could play with words all day long and that I could tell stories - really important stories - I knew that's what I wanted to pursue. And I did it with passion. I helped run newspapers and newsletters in my junior high and high school and joined The Chase when I got to ENMU.
Which activities were you involved in at ENMU?
I am extremely proud to say I worked for The Chase, was an RA and director at Eddy and the old Bernalillo Hall. But I am most especially proud to have been a member of APO- Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity.
Discuss your experience at ENMU.
I discovered and got to explore my love of photography at ENMU. After taking the beginner's course – when we still worked with film and in a dark room – photography has become a central passion of mine. I spent a summer stacking government documents at Golden Library, where I would pass the time reading those documents and becoming familiar with them. It would come in handy much later as public documents are central to a journalist's work.
Everyone at ENMU knows Doc Elder – he was a light in the Communications Department and always made me smile. The most memorable class for me was Media Law and Ethics. I've never had a more challenging or rewarding subject to pursue, and to this day, remember that feeling of accomplishment when I mastered it.
I was very privileged to have made friends at ENMU that, to this day, play a big role in life. Fellow RA's at Eddy whom I still speak to regularly; fellow students in the Comm. Department who have become successful within New Mexico and in other areas and whose careers it has been a pleasure to watch; my brothers and sisters of APO who help foster a love of service. And of course, the most memorable moments – Dawg Days – for which I still have every t-shirt. That's where I learned the ENMU anthem and first became a Greyhound.
What is your job title? What inspired you to work in that role?
My job title is news director. I am the news director, essentially managing editor, of the Carlsbad Current-Argus, Alamogordo Daily News and Ruidoso News. Each of these newspapers are within the USA Today network and serve thousands of readers in southeast New Mexico. I fell into that role after years of working as a reporter and editor at the Current-Argus. Local journalism is struggling through some tough times, but it is a resilient industry that plays an extremely important role in today's society. When I was asked to step into a leadership position, I understood that it would mean helping to maintain the high standards and ethics of journalism in a way that still served our communities but with an eye to business. My everyday inspiration comes from knowing that we as journalists still play a vital role in our communities and that we are working to serve that reader who is making a difference in our homes, schools, communities and local government.
What are your job duties?
I do everything from edit news to plunge toilets. But seriously, my days are filled with helping reporters flush out stories, editing content and managing publication. I also lead our social platforms, sharing content there and engaging with readers on that content. As we begin to embrace digital journalism, it's my role to make sure we are producing content that is consumable in various forms – photos, videos, articles. But I think my most important job is still journalism basics – are we telling an accurate and fair story? And are we promoting change and invigorating our community with our reporting? I oversee a staff of seven reporters across three newsrooms.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The people. Hands down the people that we meet every day, from the warden of the local detention center to the mother fighting to get her autistic child help, it is the people of our community that make this job worthwhile. I think in small newspapers, when you can have lunch with the mayor and chronicle the fight to get a school bond passed, that journalism can still be fun and fresh. I enjoy watching my reporters in every community I work, Carlsbad, Alamogordo and Ruidoso, find their footing among the people who we write about and work with.
My first job was at the front desk of Bernalillo Hall on the midnight shift. I transitioned to RA there and then to director of Eddy Hall. I spent summers at Golden Library and serving beer and ribs at the Rib Crib in Clovis. I took internships at the Washington, D.C. office of Sen. Pete Domenici, and ultimately transitioned to an administrative assistant and later to assistant to the chief of staff, Stephen Bell. When the Senator retired, I was his assistant at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., while working on my master's degree.
After graduation, I joined the Peace Corps as an economic development volunteer in Peru. There I worked with women and youth in northern Peru, in the Village of Vice in Sechura province, teaching business skills and English.
When I completed my Peace Corps service, I took a job at the Current-Argus as a reporter. I covered crime, education, courts, breaking news, politics and local government. From there, I transitioned to editor of the Current-Argus and, in 2019, became news director of the three legacy papers.
How did ENMU prepare you for your career?
I think college prepares you as much as it can for the rigors of a full-time job. When it comes to a career, the biggest take away from ENMU was an understanding of the base knowledge in my industry. Everything from AP style to the proper use of statistics that I use every day, I was first introduced to at ENMU. Probably the most important way that ENMU prepared me for a career was breaking me out of a small-town-girl shell and making it okay to engage with others of different cultures, races and experiences.
What advice would you give to a student interested in working in your career field?
Journalism today requires a practitioner skilled in more than just writing. Today journalists have to be photographers, videographers, researchers, social media gurus and community organizers. My advice: find an internship that will help you build any one of those skills and squeeze every inch of learning you can from it. Find a mentor who can help you navigate those areas and really focus on building digital reporting skills.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
I am pretty happy working in community journalism. I'd be happy to retire as a journalist who helped local journalism survive the dark days of funding and personnel cuts. I grew up in southeast New Mexico and, at this point, would like to make my career flourish here.
Are you involved with any organizations or causes?
Oh boy, this is going to be a long answer. I do a number of volunteer activities and participate in maybe way too many organizations. I am the president-elect of the Carlsbad Rotary Club; we do a number of volunteer activities, but our biggest is Pancake Day, which happened on Feb. 1, which raises funds for local scholarships; I am a Chamber ambassador at the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce helping to welcome local businesses to town; I also am on the Chamber's education committee which organizes our annual 40 Under 40 and Leadership Eddy County cohorts.
I am on the board of the Carlsbad Community Foundation, a nonprofit which manages charitable funds. I am on the board of New Mexico In Depth, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization in New Mexico; and secretary of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and most recently was honored by being chosen as a board member of New Mexico Free and Open Government (FOG).
I teach confirmation and pre-confirmation students at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Loving every Sunday. I also captain a Relay for Life team every year. You can occasionally catch me selling tacos at the fiestas hosted by my church, or even picking up trash at a community hosted clean-up day. And every year for the last three, I've lent a hand at the New Mexico Press Association's High School Journalism workshop at UNM.
Tell us about your family and background.
I come from two old families of farmers and ranchers in Eddy County, the Lopez and Onsurez families. My mother, Margaret, is a homemaker, my father, Raul, is a retired welder/miner/farmer and, according to him, forever Marine. I have three sisters and one brother. Julie, my eldest sister, is a community organizer with the Carlsbad Anti-Gang/Drug Coalition. She and her husband, Tony, have two girls, Evolet and Alessandra. My brother Raul is a master welder; he and my sister-in-law Ashley are parents to Calista, Carolina, Carlene and Raul III. My younger sister Janell is a banker; she and her partner Matt are parents to three goats, two horses and too many dogs to count. Her twin, Jana Onsurez, is a range specialist with the Bureau of Land Management; she has a daughter Emory with husband Andrew, and also too many farm animals to count.
I am the proud parent of three dogs and two miniature donkeys, and a new homeowner.
Who influences you? Who is your role model?
I get my work ethic from my parents. I understood from them that sacrifice and hard work can lead to great rewards and also how important family is. Though he may not know it, one of the early influences on my career was Bob Moore, former editor of the El Paso Times, and now freelancer and journalist for some major newspapers. He's off doing amazing coverage for his community every day that has a real impact.
Which awards have you received?
Several journalism awards from the New Mexico Press Association for breaking news, photography and digital news. Journalism awards from Top of the Rockies for economic reporting. I was a Poynter Diverse Voices workshop selectee and am in the Gannet Emerging Leader 2019-2020 cohort.
I am a big fan of the outdoors. I hike Guadalupe Mountains National Park regularly. I kayak with friends down the Pecos River and camp every chance I get in New Mexico's great outdoors. I am an avid reader – my library is too big to fit in my new house. I enjoy wine and black and white movies. And, though it may seem old fashioned, handcrafts like sewing, quilting and crocheting. I've discovered a love for gardening recently. And while I used to run small marathons before some knee injuries, now I get by with weight lifting. I collect old cameras. My current joy is a 35 mm Minolta. I tinker around with watercolors and acrylics.
What are some interesting facts about you?
I speak English and Spanish and got my toes dipped into French by taking courses at ENMU. I've traveled to more foreign countries than U.S. states. I have an oddball collection of pins – like lapel pins. There are probably multi-dozen poems I can recite from memory.
A summer kayak trip on the Pecos River in Carlsbad near the mouth of Brantley Dam.