WASHINGTON – Owning about 75 percent of Indian mass media, tribal governments are a key barrier to independent reporting in American Indian outlets, according to a new report from the Democracy Fund announced last month.
“It is time to flip the script and make independent media in Indian country normal rather than an exception,” says report author Jodi Rave, an award-winning journalist of Mandan, Hidatsa and Minneconjou Lakota descent.
She would know. Having both founded her own digital publication–Buffalo’s Fire–and held a top post in the Three Affiliated Tribes’ media department, she went on to become executive director of Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance.
The donor-supported non-profit aims at “creating a news system that can respond to the news gap of information in American Indian communities in the Great Plains.”
Indian-owned newspapers that are run as independent businesses, such as the Native Sun News Today based in Rapid City, are precious few, according to the report entitled “American Indian Media Today: Tribes Maintain Majority Ownership as Independent Journalists Seek Growth.”
Among the independent outlets the report spotlights are: the Teton Times based in McLaughlin, Native News Online headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Native Hoop, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Like other media sectors, Indian print media has had a significant downturn,” Rave writes. “Today, there are 54 urban and reservation newspapers and 24 newsletters, compared to 280 reservation newspapers and bulletins and 320 urban Indian publications in 1998.”
A classic illustration of vanishing independent indigenous print media is the previously private Indian Country Today, founded by Native Sun News Today owner Tim Giago, which went all-digital after he sold it to the Oneida Nation, and then became property of a consortium of tribes in 2018 through its new owner National Congress of American Indians.
More’s the pity, Rave notes: “In so much of mainstream media, American Indians are invisible as contemporary people or romanticized as relics of a bygone era. The invisibility affects how policymakers make decisions about native people whose lives are often struck by high rates of poverty, suicide, poor health care, and missing and murdered indigenous women,” she says.
“This has made Indian media a critical source not only to inform and engage our communities but also to lift up our stories in the broader culture.”
While print media is in decline, one bright spot for Native American media is that the number of radio stations has nearly doubled from 30 to 59 during the last 20 years, she found.
Native Sun News Today owner Giago strongly disagrees that print media, at least Indian print media, is in decline. “Our newspaper is as strong as ever and has maintained a steady growth since its inception 11 years ago. After I sold Indian Country Today and it went digital, I found that there was still a very powerful demand for the old-fashioned printed newspaper in Indian country.”
Rave’s report incorporates data provided by Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant, and the Native American Journalists Association.
The association’s Red Press Initiative provided preliminary survey results that 76 percent of tribal media indicate that their content is always, frequently, or sometimes determined by tribal government officials or interests, and 83 percent say tribal media journalists are always, frequently, or sometimes intimidated when covering tribal affairs.
The report recommends: Collaboration on stories between mainstream newspaper reporters and Indian journalists to bolster each other’s work; development of a multimedia platform for Indian journalists to share news stories with other journalists and media outlets; creation of fellowships for Indian journalists and students through foundation support and through collaboration with other newspapers.
It further recommends: Establishment of native-based journalism programs at the tribal college level or mainstream university; improvement of business models to increase revenue streams for large and small newsrooms so native-focused newsrooms no longer have to rely on tribes to fund their operations; philanthropy for general support of native media organizations and independent media outlets; implementation of training and updates on media technology.
Additionally, it calls for: Engagement with Indian communities on the meaning and importance of freedom of the press and freedom of information; taking steps to enshrine independent press acts in tribal constitutions. After more than 40 years in the business, Giago suggests that aspiring Indian journalists look to find jobs with the Indian media. “We are always looking for good people to train. Many of my former employees moved on to the mainstream media, radio, and television, or like my former managing editor Avis Little Eagle, started her own newspaper, the Teton Times.”
The report is the first in a series of reports commissioned by Democracy Fund to shine a spotlight on the important role of media by and for diverse communities in the United States.