Indigenous journalism: rich with stories but ‘extremely under-resourced’

Indigenous journalism: rich with stories but ‘extremely under-resourced’

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John Ahni Schertow
November 13, 2014
 

In an October 2013 interview with Mongabay, the freelance photojournalist Erik Hoffner observed that one of the biggest challenges working in the field of environmental journalism is that “It’s an extremely under-resourced and largely freelance endeavor.” The same is true for Indigenous journalism.

This past summer, a newly-founded non-indigenous bilingual publication known as Ricochet Media took Canada by storm when it managed to raise an impressive $82,945 on Indiegogo.

With the media concentration that we’re now witnessing in Canada, it’s great to see a new independent media project like Ricochet getting a chance to thrive.

It’s too bad Indigenous media never gets that same chance. The Two Row Times, a newly-launched free weekly news publication in Ontario, tried their best last October, turning to Indiegogo to raise $25,000 to expand and secure the new publication. After struggling for six weeks, they ended up with just $3,899. Another Indigenous media project, Reclaim Turtle Island, didn’t fare much better. After campaigning for twelve weeks, in March 2014, they had a grand total of $12,162. Not too shabby; but still not enough.

Having watched both campaigns by Reclaim Turtle Island and Two Row Times, Ricochet’s success was a breath of fresh air. While it is a non-indigenous publication, a big part of their campaign centered on the fact that they were allies who were going to cover Indigenous news. In the end, they even promised to create a dedicated Indigenous Reporting Fund. With more than 1500 people donating to the campaign, Ricochet’s resounding success felt like a signal that people wanted to be apprised of Indigenous struggles and were finally willing to help fund it.

In retrospect, it was probably wishful thinking, since IC Magazine was at the time preparing to launch its own campaign. Indeed, after many months of preparation, we were finally ready to raise the start up funds that we required to establish IC as a sustainable news provider solely dedicated to the Indigenous Peoples movement.

I really thought our campaign would be a cake walk. Even though IC’s proposed 2015 budget exceeded $150,000 I wanted to start off small, so we only tried to raise 6 percent of that.

Our fundraiser barely made it half way before the clock ran out. We raised $5,500 and change.

The almost-routine failure of indigenous media fundraisers wouldn’t be so bad if crowdfunding wasn’t so incredibly important for Indigenous media, especially those who do not wish to be hopelessly compromised by accepting funds from the likes of Cameco, Rio Tinto, Transcanada, Enbridge and Kinder Morgan; not to mention the Canadian government with its endless list of conditions and audits (and all those notoriously corrupt private foundations who are as bad as the World Bank when it comes to funding human rights and indigenous rights abusers).

In many cases, individual donations are the only source of funds for Indigenous media. When those donations don’t come in, some indigenous media projects die while others are never even born. Others still hang on for dear life.

IC Magazine: Ten Years on Life Support

I can’t speak Reclaim Turtle Island and Two Row Times, but I can say for certain that IC Magazine is prime example of a publication that refuses to die.

Out of the twenty or so fundraisers that we’ve run since I started the publication in 2004, only three ever met their intended goal. The opposite tends to be true for all non-indigenous publications in Canada. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen The Tyee or Rabble.ca lose out on a fundraiser.

If either of those publications had IC’s fundraising track record, they’d just pull the plug and move on–and they would be right to do that. If the work that we do wasn’t so important I’d pull the plug right now. As things stand though, with the role that IC plays in the international media ecosystem and with the original content we provide, shutting down is not an option.

I’ve spent the last three years trying to turn this funding crisis around so that IC has everything it needs to thrive as a publication.

First and foremost, I borrowed a page out of Briarpatch Magazine and the Media Coop‘s playbook. Both publications have sustainer programs that let readers donate monthly. It was a great idea for an independent publication like IC. Plus, I figured that, since IC had about 20,000 monthly readers at the time (now it’s closer to 40,000), there would surely be a dozen or two people who saw enough value in IC to sign on. As it turned out there were six. It’s not a heck of a lot, I know; but those six people have saved IC time and again. We may not be able to pay for much more than the bare cost of keeping the website running, but it’s better than what we were getting before!

And that brings me to my great big idea. As I noted at Canzine Central, we started printing our own magazines in 2012. The idea started out as a way to give something back to our unpaid contributors; but I was confident that, if the magazine was strong enough, people would definitely want to grab a copy. We could end up selling a couple thousand magazines a year! Knowing that a number of our readers were University professors I also thought that, in time, we could work something out to bring our publication into their classrooms. There’s certainly enough worthwhile material in People Land Truth to keep any University student busy for weeks.

There was great potential here. If everything went according to plan, IC would be on its way to becoming sustainable. And if things went above and beyond, we might never have to run another fundraiser! Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well. Over the last 3 years, we’ve only managed to sell about three dozen magazines and we have yet to find a single University professor to formally take the publication in.

Beyond magazine sales, monthly donations and the odd crowdfunding campaign, IC has no other source of funding.

Trying something completely new, I set out some 11 months ago to create a non-profit organization so that we can start applying for grant money from vetted foundations.

It’s been quite difficult finding board members and even tougher keeping them together for the sake of the publication. In any event, It’s an effort that I’m continuing. If IC is going to survive in 2015 it needs to meet its budget.

Results and Consequences

I could probably ask a lot of uncomfortable questions right now. For instance, why aren’t people helping Indigenous media creators? There are many other examples beyond the ones I’ve discussed here.

Everybody funds non-indigenous media without batting an eye while Indigenous media is forced to fend for scraps. Is it because people don’t care about Indigenous Peoples nearly as much as they claim?

If it was just IC and we pushing out an endless line of chaff it wouldn’t be a big deal. I would perfectly understand everyone’s reluctance to donate. But that’s not the case. Even though a lot of our contributors have been forced to pull back because they can no longer afford to work for free, we’re still pushing out exclusives. And IC continues to stand as one of the only online magazines in the world dedicated entirely to the struggles of the Mapuche, Cree, Palawan, Wixarika, Ngobe-Bugle, Tohono O’odham, Triqui, Naso, Dongria Kondh, Achuar, Dene and more than 500 other Indigenous Peoples and Nations.

In any case, it’s safe to say that this widespread lack of support has consequences.

Without essential funds, IC simply can’t pay the bills. As a result it is forced to cut services, discontinue its print publications and turn down important stories. Some of this has already come to pass. In time, we may be forced to take it even further.

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