CUSTER, S.D. - As a faculty member, watching young people from across the nation learn more about the field of journalism, it was clear students are looking for direction on how to negotiate career paths.
Many Native American students attending the second annual Native Newspaper Career Conference at the Crazy Horse Memorial were just starting to explore the possibilities to pursue a passion for writing, photography and graphics.
At the same time Native American newspaper professionals and those in the mainstream, recognizing a need to heighten recruitment of minorities in the newsroom for broader perspectives along with richer and fairer news coverage, have watched minority interest in the field decline.
The more than 112 students from 25 tribes representing 12 high schools and seven colleges who attended the April 23-25 conference were given a chance to experience some of the realities of a career in journalism working on photos, graphics and news stories - under deadline.
A recently released newsroom study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors shows the percentage of minority journalists in daily newspaper newsrooms fell in 2000 for the first time in the 23 years. The survey noted the number of Native American journalists in U.S. daily newspaper newsrooms declined from 292 to 249, out of more than 56,000 journalists nationwide.
Even though the number of Native American journalists decreased during the past year, 40 more budding journalists attended the 2001 conference. There were 24 mentors from 11 states and the District of Columbia, many of them Native Americans from at least 10 tribes.
"Native Americans are woefully underrepresented in America's newspaper newsrooms. We want Indians to see journalism as a potential career choice," said Jack Marsh, director of The Freedom Forum Neuharth Center at the University of South Dakota, a conference sponsor.
"Improving diversity in America's newsrooms is a priority of The Freedom Forum. News coverage will be fairer and richer with the addition of these new voices," Marsh said.
"The newspaper industry has a lot of work to do in providing opportunities for Native journalists," said Arnold Garson, chairman of the Minority Affairs Committee of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, a co-sponsor.
"This conference is one of the bright spots in that effort as we seek to introduce young Native Americans to the excitement and possibilities of careers in newspaper journalism," Garson said.
Students came from great distances to attend the conference. Students from Eastern Oklahoma State College drove 1,115 miles and 20 hours from Wilburton, Okla., to Custer. Nearly 80 percent of the two-year college's journalism department are Native Americans, mostly Choctaw, Chickasaw or Cherokee.
Students from the Heart Butte School District on the Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana drove 880 miles and 15 hours to attend the conference.
Indian Country Today sent me as a faculty member to mentor a team of four South Dakota high school students at the conference. I was assigned to help four students with a writing assignment. At least two who signed up for the conference said they were really more interested in photography rather than writing. One came to learn about honing her craft as a writer and negotiating her way through newsrooms. Another student was undecided about what she might choose as a career, but wanted to explore a news career as an option.
Mentors guided students through a series of assignments in graphics, photography and writing. My students experienced what happens in a newsroom when an assignment changes and a writer must come up with an idea for an enterprise piece. Our original assignment was a basic story about the conference itself, but another mentor desperately wanted that assignment, so we shifted gears and came up with another idea.
Within minutes we decided on a quick survey of students at the conference to find out how many of them knew their native language. This is an issue that regularly crops up when tribal colleges talk about how to improve programs and tribal elders push to preserve native language.
I wrote several questions on a large board for students to ask and instructed them each to find at least five students to interview - no easy task when everyone is working on an assignment or listening to lectures. But the eager students went off to do their interviews.
To my surprise, much of the interviewing was finished by early afternoon and we were ready to sit down and compose a story. They had heard a lecture by Derrick Henry, a Navajo writer for The Associated Press. He talked about how his ability to speak his native language made the difference in covering a news events - interviewing people at the scene - and giving his story a richer, deeper understanding of the event.
Interviewing students after hearing Henry's tale of coverage in a reservation setting for a mainstream media outlet brought home the advantage Native American journalists have when they can overcome a language barrier others in the field face.
Only two of a dozen tribal students spoke their native languages. Erika Rivers, a 17-year-old junior at Tiospaye Topa High School, can speak the Lakota language and understand it well if elders speaks slowly, she said.
"My language means a lot to me. It starts to bring back the Native culture. People who don't think it is important to learn their language are fools because it is the main key that unlocks who we are," Rivers said.
Sylvia Tucker of Keshena, Wis., speaks her native language. The 17-year-old Menominee said she understands it better than she is able to speak it. Tucker came from a tribe that was terminated so recapturing her culture is important to her.
Students found the majority of their subjects understood only phrases or specific words, but few could speak their native language fluently. What they found the students had in common was that they desired to learn their native language and the reason so few spoke it was because they weren't exposed to it enough in the home.
Organizers separated the newsroom operations into graphics, photography and writing. Since two of my students were interested in photography and one nearly withdrew his interest because there weren't enough photo instructors to go around, I decided to make the assignment more interesting by adding photography to our piece. My work calls upon me to do both and many smaller newspapers across the nation need journalists who can do both.
The story and the photos were finished by the end of the day. What made a difference for 15-year-old John Bruce of White River was getting the chance to shoot photos. He used a digital camera I routinely carry on assignment. Bruce, who nearly withdrew from the group, found himself interested in becoming a photographer and understood that writing was a necessary part of the skills even if he plans to "just take pictures."
Makyla Lone Wolf, 17, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member, who lives in Lincoln, Neb., wants to become a photographer. Lone Wolf said she enjoyed the assignment, learning how writing and photography come together in a news piece. Because of her intense interest in photography, I was surprised to see her embrace the writing assignment with equal enthusiasm.
Misty Friday, whose tribal background is diverse, said she came to the conference to learn more about the craft of writing. The 17-year-old from Busby, Mont., attends school at Flandreau Indian School. Her tribal heritage includes Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho and Ho-Chunk. Friday previously worked on school publications.
Marie High Bear, 17, of Eagle Butte, came to explore the field, to find out if she would like doing the work. She came with her twin sister.
By the end of the conference, students were moving a little slower and were tired from working on deadline. Most said they learned much in two days and would attend a similar conference if given the chance. For some, the event fueled their interest in journalism and writing stories giving tribal communities a voice in the media.
"Journalism offers you, whether you're in high school or already on a college campus, a chance to make a difference," said USA Today founder Al Neuharth.
Neuharth told students attending the second annual Native American Newspaper Career Conference at the Crazy Horse Memorial.
There is a serious lack of Indian staffers in American newspapers, said Neuharth, the retired head of the Gannett newspaper company.
Among the 56,000 journalists who are at work on daily newspapers in the United States, only 249 are American Indians, he said.
Indian journalists can find many opportunities, particularly on small and medium-sized newspapers. "They just need a little training and a little willingness to leave their home area."
The conference was sponsored by the South Dakota Newspaper Association, The Freedom Forum Neuharth Center at the University of South Dakota, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the South Dakota State University Journalism Department.