Journalism community mourns loss of brilliant news leader

The tight-knit journalism community in New Mexico lost a luminescent figure on Tuesday. Hannah Colton, the news director at KUNM and a pillar of the press corps in the state, died at the age of 29 on Nov. 10.

The sense of loss was tremendous as the news of Colton's passing was announced on KUNM on Wednesday night.

"The KUNM community is heartbroken to say that news director Hannah Colton died earlier this week at age 29," KUNM reporter and producer Marisa Demarco said. "She has been a brilliant news leader during the pandemic, guiding the team and editing stories about the virus, the calls to stop racist policing and the 2020 election."

An award-winning reporter and radio host with a sharp sense for news geared toward racial justice, equality and compassion, Colton was a staunch advocate for telling the stories of people who were too often overlooked in a society gripped by the vice of late capitalism and oppression.

"She well-understood the urgency of this moment, and she gave it her whole heart, working around the clock to cover equity and education, the dangers of the virus for people who are incarcerated, protests and the pandemic's impacts on people without shelter," Demarco said. "She was committed to this region and told me she wanted to stay here, doing this work — even though after this pandemic is over, she could have gone anywhere she wanted as a reporter or newsroom leader."

Colton covered public health during the age of the coronavirus, public education and local politics — among many other beats — for KUNM during a four-year career for the University of New Mexico's public radio station.

She took over as interim news director at KUNM in February 2020, and her passing leaves an immeasurable void in the sphere of New Mexico news.

"She had such a way of going after people trying to effect change," Justin Garcia, the former editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo, said. "It felt like she was just doing her own thing way better than what the rest of us were doing. I don't think I've met anyone who was as fearless a journalist as she was."

Colton was born in 1991 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and began her radio career with KDLG in Bristol Bay, Alaska. She joined KUNM in 2016 as a substitute news host, with stints as a freelance reporter and host for KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio and National Native News before joining KUNM full time in 2018. She was also a volunteer editorial director for Two Way Street, an independent, community-based street newspaper in Albuquerque.

The ties between Colton and the Daily Lobo staff ran deep, as do all connections between journalists covering the same community and reporting on difficult topics. Bonded by an invisible force, from covering protests and public meetings to community events and social movements, Colton's approach to reporting resonated with Daily Lobo journalists and their shared passions for Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico.

"I had the privilege of covering multiple protests with Hannah," Liam DeBonis, the Daily Lobo's photo editor, said. "I would see her with her headphones on and her microphone ready, often standing in the middle of the fray with the (resolve) of a true journalist — committed to seeing her story through to the end. I always took comfort in the sight of her resolve at the most chaotic of times."

Daily Lobo data editor Joe Rull said he met Colton for the first time over the summer during Black Lives Matter protests in Albuquerque following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. He described her as a role model for young journalists.

"She was always there, always available and always supportive," Rull said. "A picture of poise, professionalism and compassion even in the most uncertain situations. Hannah, in many ways, represented exactly what many of us at the Daily Lobo have always aspired to become."

Bella Davis, a senior reporter for the Daily Lobo who worked alongside Colton and Rull during the summer, echoed Rull's picture of Colton as a journalistic professional in every sense.

"She was incredibly kind, supportive and dedicated to every story she covered, often staying on the ground for hours and hours to make sure nothing was missed," Davis said. "She was one of the first people to make me feel welcome and accepted in the tight-knit, local journalism community."

Remembrances of Colton's contributions to the world of journalism and her memory were as free-flowing as the grief permeating the New Mexico air on Wednesday. The reverberations from her unexpected passing came in waves as powerful as the stories she wrote during her too-brief tenure in the Albuquerque community.

"Hannah was everything I strove to be — calm, thoughtful, skilled and an excellent communicator," Lissa Knudsen, the news editor at the Daily Lobo and a former colleague of Colton's at KUNM, said. "She was better than I could ever dream of being, and she fought hard to make the New Mexico journalism community more equitable."

Colton's own understanding of trauma and the community's response to injustice rang especially true in her writing, with her prose reflecting immeasurable creativity and wit.

In April 2019, Colton wrote a story for KUNM entitled "Hands-On Therapy Helps Students Rebuild Self-Esteem After Trauma," in which she spoke passionately about the necessity for healing and the value of human connection in a polarized society.

"The older I get and more work I do, the more convinced I am that most or all of us are traumatized to some degree by this messed up, unjust, patriarchal, white supremacist society," Colton wrote. "Healing is possible, but we cannot heal alone."

Colton is survived by her partner Keegan Kloer, her parents Kathy and Brad Colton, her brother Tim and her niece Anya, according to KUNM. Memorials and celebrations of Colton's life are planned for a later date.

If you are in crisis, please call the SHAC after-hours crisis lines at (277-3136, press option 3) and at AGORA at 277-3013. In addition, you can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Andrew Gunn is a senior reporter and the copy editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @agunnwrites