The publication Indian Country Today, founded in 1981, will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year. That might be an unremarkable fact, except for one detail—it very nearly failed to get there. Indeed, on September 4, 2017, the publication shut down, seemingly for good.
Today, the story couldn’t be more different. As Sara Shahriari of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) noted at the organization’s annual conference last week, the publication now attracts over 400,000 readers a month, while broadcasting on television to two dozen stations. Speaking at the INN conference, editor Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, told how the publication has come roaring back.
The first step, Trahant notes, was the willingness of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to step in and accept the donation of the publication from its previous owner, the Oneida Nation. At the time, Trahant was a professor of journalism with an endowed chair at the University of North Dakota. Trahant had been an editor before, at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but did he really want to exit academia to lead a revived Indian Country Today?
Trahant admits he faced an “extraordinarily big decision,” adding that journalistic independence was a key concern. In a series of many meetings with NCAI, he indicated that “if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to operate it independently. You can’t have politicians decide what’s news.”
At the outset, Trahant’s small team made two key business model decisions: First, the publication would be mobile-centric to reach younger readers; second, there would be no paywalls. This meant the publication would rely on member support, advertising, and foundation and corporate donations. A third decision that shortly followed was that the publication would opt for higher salaries for fewer staff, rather than rely on lower salaries as a way of being able to keep more people on staff.
By June 2018, the publication was up and running with four employees. A couple of foundations provided the publication with “a little room to breathe.” It has since grown extraordinarily rapidly. Today, it has 18 full-time staff (and a total of 26 people, including broadcast partners). It had 5.5 million web visitors last year and aims to reach 12 million by 2022. About three-quarters of its readers access its articles on phones or tablets, and its leading audience segment comprises people between the ages of 25 and 34. The publication gets nearly half its income from advertising and small donors, with the rest from large donors and foundations. In 2020, it had a breakeven budget of roughly $2.1 million.
Along the way, partnerships have played a big role. Particularly critical have been partnerships with the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and with Alaska Pacific University. As a result, the publication, which initially only had a bureau in Washington, DC, now has its main bureau in Arizona and another regional bureau in Anchorage.
Another important partnership has been with the Associated Press (AP). In October 2019, AP distributed an Indian Country Today story, the first time it had ever distributed a story originating from any Native-led publication. The partnership has a rather unusual origin story. As Trahant explains, “AP had an editor that I really wanted to hire. I wanted her to be our managing editor. She said no. I went back to her and asked, ‘What if we borrow you for a year?’ AP and the editor agreed, and she came to work for us a year, and since has gone back to AP, helping build our systems internally and creating a process for our stories to be shared on AP.”
Serendipity has also aided the publication’s growth. Trahant notes that the publication had been hoping to broadcast on television once a week, but the pandemic reduced travel costs and freed up funds for more regular broadcasts. It also made the use of Zoom and other lower-cost technologies like cellphone video more acceptable. This in turn made it easier to produce broadcasts.
And, as it turns out, interest was high, with the Arizona public television station picking up the broadcast within a week. “It started to grow,” Trahant observes. “We realized there was a market for a daily news show.” The daily newscast is now in several states. Trahant adds, “We’re in Australia every day. We have a large audience in Winnipeg.”
Indian Country Today’s latest change has been to gain its independence. As of March 2021, Indian Country Today now owns itself under the aegis of a newly formed Arizona nonprofit, IndiJ Public Media. It was a friendly transfer, with NCAI president Fawn Sharp endorsing the shift in ownership.
“We are in a new era,” Trahant says—one where a 12,000-plus word article on the history of a pipe once gifted by George Washington to Chief Cornplanter (Gaiänt’wakê) of the Seneca Nation is among the publication’s most read articles, and one where a 2,500-word story by Trahant on a tribal vote 50 years ago that ended federal efforts to “terminate” its relationships with Native nations is distributed nationally by AP.
The vital role played by the Indigenous press is obvious. Without it, Trahant notes, many stories would likely “go untold or not be told accurately.” When asked how non-Indigenous writers can best cover Native American issues, Trahant noted that “the big challenge is: don’t be in a hurry. Our community has stories that go back 100 years, or 10,000 years. It’s not about what happened 10 minutes ago. It is how it fits together.”