The front page of the May 21, 1828, edition of The Cherokee Phoenix. Image: Cherokee Phoenix

Mark Trahant: We need a 'vehicle of Indian intelligence' for Indian Country news

Memo to the publisher

We need a ‘vehicle of Indian intelligence’
By Mark Trahant

A memo to the publisher (either to the next owner of Indian Country or to any news operation that’s going to serve that readership now.)

First question you have got to ask yourself is “Why?” Why are you doing this?” Odds are you will lose (or my word, invest) a lot of money. There are good reasons, but they have nothing to do with the financial enterprise. Those reasons might range from providing a real service to Indian Country to creating jobs. Howard Rock, the legendary founder and editor of The Tundra Times, once called it “an unselfish venture.”

Yet this is an essential venture. There is no chance that stories important to Indian Country are going to be covered by mainstream media. Oh, perhaps, once in awhile. But nothing systemic. It comes down to this: No one has to explain to an editor of a Native publication why it’s a story. That can only happen in a medium that serves American Indian and Alaska Native readers.

But money has to be part of the equation because it gives you independence. And independence is critical to your success. And, yes, the business model has changed — and will change again. Right now the best business model out there is a hybrid nonprofit, profit operation. I think of the Tyee in Vancouver. It’s web site is well organized. It delivers news through a variety of channels. The first thing you see on its page is a pitch: “Canada needs more independent journalism. Become a Tyee builder.” These days journalism needs people who are willing to write a check for no other reason than the good work you will do. Give them a reason.

My other favorite thing about the Tyee. It has a fellowship for writers. So in addition to paying people for stories, it gives a fellowship through its nonprofit arm for writers to work on a longer story. A few months, a year? No problem. Time to investigate. Time to write. Best of all, time to think.

There are three things a news organization must do to serve readers better.

First, there has to be a visible editor. There is a reason the hiring of an editor at The Washington Post or The New York Times is a front page story. Editors bring their personality (even their quirks) into a newsroom. They set standards. An editor is an evangelist for the mission.

A Cherokee editor, John Rollin Ridge was the founder of The Sacramento Bee. He divided newspaper editors into “true editors” and “apologies for editors.” True editors, he said, must know “everything” and must carry a vast “fund of general information, for there is not a subject which engages men’s minds, in whatever range of science or literature, upon which he is not peremptorily called to write.” Ridge was also clear about what that meant. The Bee should be independent instead of a paper where the editors were “nothing more than the sneaking apologists of scoundrels who pay them for the trouble of lying.”

Another version of that story was told by Ora Eddleman, whose family owned The Twin Territories and the Muskogee Daily Times where she later worked as a wire editor: “There’s nothing like a newspaper newsroom to give you a well-rounded education.” She was a true editor.

Second, tell us what’s important. Every story is not the same. There should be a method for determining what’s important. And the medium then tells its readers. Yes, it’s easy to post stories that get a lot of clicks. But that’s not news. News is something that informs and once in a while, inspires. We are better citizens when we are informed. Elias Boudinot had the best phrase when he was editing The Cherokee Phoenix. He called it “a vehicle of Indian intelligence.” Exactly.

Third, set high standards and be transparent. Hire talented people and then trust them to do their jobs. Be open. No news organization can effectively do its job when its operations are invisible. Make clear who does what with a masthead. Perhaps publish a monthly, or at least an annual report, including numbers. Where does the money come from? What are the costs of business? What’s the overall health?

I have buried (or been around a burial of) many news organizations in my time. And most died without warning. I found out about the Seattle P-I on a ferry; a TV station broke the story. Let people know what’s going on, and, surprise, surprise, they will help.

One more thing: About that why.

This is a moment in history where the free flow of information is critical. Indian Country needs a vehicle of Indian intelligence. As Elias Boudinot wrote in 1832 (as he was losing his editorship of The Cherokee Phoenix) “I do conscientiously believe it to be the duty of every citizen to reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people— our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

That is why.

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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