Indian Country, the print magazine, is going on hiatus, according to Victor Rocha of Pechanga.Net. Image: Indian Country Media Network

Mark Trahant: Native media can't survive these days without deeper pockets

Indian Country Today had its beautiful moments

Expecting a new chapter
By Mark Trahant

Nearly every Native American journalist in the country can tell you what our national media ought to look like. We’ve all closed our eyes and dreamt the ideal news vehicle. We know what stories need to be told. And some of us have tried to make that dream so. Most of the time we are unsuccessful.

Yet there have been beautiful moments.

One of those moments was the 1970s-era American Indian Press Association. It was a news service based in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, N.M. Its reports were typewritten, photocopied, and mailed to tribal newspapers across the country. The press service produced remarkable journalism. Then AIPA’s first news director, Richard LaCourse, Yakama, set high standards for craft.

Charles Trimble wrote about AIPA for Indian Country Today: We “wrestled with the concept of objectivity and truth, when those ideals might come in conflict with what may be seen as Indian interest or just cause. The issue came to a head during the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 when some of the ideologically-motivated colleagues in AIPA were said to have abused AIPA press cards for other than reportorial purposes. AIPA was quick to issue a policy statement to its members. That document had the solid gold ring to it of Dick LaCourse’s ethics and strong writing.” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and its first executive director.

But the journalism, the stories, are only a part of the enterprise. There is also the business. How do you pay for what you do? Or better, how do you pay for what you want to do?

AIPA had no clear path in that regard. It was not a non-profit, so it could not raise serious money from foundations. And neither tribes nor tribal newspapers could support its operations. It closed its doors in 1975.

One of the great AIPA scoops came after its demise. LaCourse had gone to work as editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal in 1976. But his Washington sources were still deep and he uncovered a memo from the Office of Management and Budget laying out a strategy to “work the federal government out of the Indian business.” The idea of the memo, written by Harold Borgstrom, was that self-determination should “lead to the eventual cessation of special Federal Indian programs.”

There was a roar from Indian Country. The memo was shelved. LaCourse (and journalism) had a beautiful moment.

But LaCourse, like so many of us, always wanted that next great Indian vehicle for news. He was back in Washington in the early 1980s working to raise money for a serious publication sponsored by the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. He told me that he wanted something like The Wall Street Journal with deep reporting about economics and energy issues. The CERT Report was published, and did some good work, but it never reached LaCourse’s lofty ideas.

Along the way several national publications have come and gone. I published a magazine “Indian Youth.” Then there was “NATIONS,” which billed itself as a news weekly. I think there were three issues. Or my favorite, the beautiful magazine, “Native Americas,” that was published by Cornell in the 1990s.

But the intractable problem is that a newspaper, magazine, or digital web site needs millions of dollars and time. It’s hard to get both, at least at the same time. The successful enterprise requires defying gravity.

Indian Country Today became a national publication in 1981. Tim Giago rebranding his very successful Lakota Times and began hiring freelancers, opened a Washington Bureau, and at one point, had editions printed across the country. (Giago is being honored this year for his legacy by the Native American Journalists Association.) Then in 1998 Giago sold his paper to the Oneida Nation of New York.

This was interesting because Giago had championed private ownership of the media. Giago’s career has been defined by his independence.

But I suspect his thinking was a tribal owner would have deeper pockets and could transcend the problem of money and time. And with Indian Country Today you can make that case. There was a lot of excellent reporting done over the years.

But the money and time paradox did not go away. In 2011 Indian Country Today became Indian Country Today Media Network, a digital publication. Then, not long ago, Indian Country tried another direction, returning to print with a magazine. I’ll admit: I immediately subscribed hoping that it would work.

But print in any form is a tough business. I can only imagine how much it cost. So it’s not a surprise to learn that Indian Country is moving into hiatus status this week (a scoop by Victor Rocha’s Pechanga.Net) while it looks for a buyer. That’s not likely when you’re not publishing because the value drops the instant you stop creating. Hard truth.

Indian Country still has remarkable talent and media outlets. Rocha’s is a digital peek at the day. Indianz is a must read for breaking news. And there is Native News Online.

The problem is that none of these vehicles have deep pockets. That means there is little or no money for the writers, photographers, and artists, who create content. And that’s what we need: Money for ideas. A fund that values writers no matter where their content surfaces.

It’s great that social media broadcasts what we write to a larger audience. But articles that are researched, vetted, edited, get the same traction as pieces that are invented. We need to support serious work — and Indian Country Today for all its faults did just that.

Then, one survivor in the Native media world is News From Indian Country. It’s private. Independent. It’s profitable. (Disclosure: I own a few shares and I serve on the board.) And, it’s small. News From Indian Country works because it keeps expenses in check. It still serves print readers (although much fewer than a few years ago) has an online presence and uses YouTube and other social media to get its stories out in new forms.

If time and money are the two big challenges, there is a now a third one, change. The media world is changing so fast that it is nearly impossible to develop and execute a strategy. Media companies all around the world are trying to figure that one out. And if and when they do … the landscape changes again.

I’ve seen this firsthand with Trahant Reports. My content is free so it can be used by any media. My goal is to get serious public policy discussions in front of tribal citizens and I figure the best way to that is to let every publication have access. (So even competitors run the same story.) But I am only one person so it’s not a lot of material compared to a news organization.

It’s easy to examine any news organization and see how things could be different. We think: There are a hundred ways Indian Country Today could have made it. And that’s just as true when I look at my own failed media enterprises — and I have a check list of those — and then I think “if only.”

If only we had more money for creators. If only we had more funders. If only … never mind. There will be new media enterprises. And new failures. Along the way there will be beautiful moments.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Find him on Twitter @TrahantReports

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