September 24, 2017; NPR, “Code Switch”
Founded in 1981, Indian Country Today announced earlier this month it was ceasing operations. According to publisher Ray Halbritter, the “Indian Country Today Media Network, publisher of Indian Country magazine and IndianCountryMediaNetwork.com, is taking a hiatus to consider alternative business models.” Its website, which Halbritter says had “more than a million readers each month,” will remain active until the end of January 2018.
In an interview this week with Leah Donnella for the NPR podcast Code Switch, Halbritter, publisher since 2011 and the CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, explained the decision to shut down came because its “costly” business model was “not functioning well.” He and his colleagues “are looking to find a way…to repurpose this publication in a way that’s viable, both journalistically and economically.”
The purpose of Indian Country Today has been to provide a forum for American Indians to tell more of their own stories. As Halbritter says:
In media, Native people are often looked at as relics or mascots. And there’s so much more complexity, so much more beauty. There’s struggle and nuance to the Native American experience in this country.… We are real people with real lives. All of that is sometimes not understood, or even talked about or represented in mainstream media.
There was such a great need [for Indian Country Today] because the perception and image of Native people was very many times inaccurately portrayed, and as a result, the truth about Native people was not always presented.
As with any media company, Indian Country Today is not without its critics, including publication founder Tim Giago, who sold the paper many years ago to the Oneida Tribe. Giago claims that the media company’s leadership restricted what topics writers could cover and managed the overall enterprise poorly.
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Nonetheless, whatever Indian Country Today’s shortcomings, there’s no doubt that this is a major loss. As former Indian Country Today journalist Mary Annette Pember writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Indian Country is a tough and complex beat. Meaningful coverage demands a depth of historical, legal, and social knowledge that reporters are seldom allowed the time necessary to acquire. [Indian Country Today Media Network] gave reporters that time.”
And its work was widely recognized. At the 2017 Native American Journalism Association conference, Indian Country Today dominated the awards for best large-scale online publication. In addition to taking home the award for best overall digital publication, Indian Country Today writers also won awards in column writing (placing second and third), environmental coverage (first, second, and third), news writing (second and third), feature writing (first, second, and third), editorial writing (first), elder coverage (first and third) and beat reporting (first). The article titles speak to the type of stories covered by the publication’s writers—and often missing from the mainstream press, such as a story on how “Two women warriors fight for Pacific Northwest salmon” or “What’s in a (clan) name? Tlingit tattoo artist takes on Facebook and his culture.”
Of course, the Dakota Access Pipeline got major coverage, but many other stories got covered that might be less familiar. For example, did you read about how Northwest tribes are affected by oil spills in North Dakota? Or, how about the mercury poisoning found in Alaskan seal meat? Or toxic chemicals poisoning the drinking water of residents in Navajo territory? These are some of the many stories that we only briefly read about in the mainstream press.
Here at Nonprofit Quarterly, we have often relied on writers at Indian Country Today to bring these stories to us, such as this story from 2016 on 50 faces in Indian Country or this article from this past May on a Jesuit order returning 525 acres of land to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
A Nieman Reports feature on the state of American Indian journalism last year noted that as of 2015 there were a total of 118 Native American journalists working at daily papers in the United States, a number that works out to 0.36 percent of the field. While other publications that might supplement this low presence, such as the Rapid City, South Dakota-based Native Sun News Today and Indianz.com, continue to publish, the American Indian press clearly has just taken a major hit.
As we have reported, philanthropy for journalism is on the rise. This includes the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the newly formed Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some philanthropists are in even more deeply as owners and funders, like Pierre Omidyar. Most recently, the Washington Post reported in April that “the Democracy Fund and First Look Media, both founded by [eBay founder Pierre] Omidyar…would award $12 million to news organizations including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica.”
In short, significant philanthropic resources to support independent journalism seem to be available. Yet mentions in the press of foundation support for American Indian journalism are conspicuous in their absence. Perhaps funders might want to consider investing more resources into making sure that American Indian voices can fully participate in the journalism field.—Steve Dubb