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Journalists make gains in time of industry peril

WASHINGTON – At a time of intense decline in the print journalism industry, American Indians appear to be making modest gains.

The findings come from a new study by the American Society of News Editors, which has conducted a census of newsrooms since 1978 primarily as a means of measuring minority employment.

Overall, the ASNE report found that the percentage of minorities in newsrooms stood at 13.41 percent, a decline of .11 percentage points from a year ago. The overall job loss, including non-minorities, was the largest one-year decline in employment in the history of the census.

But Native American journalists did not stick to the trend. In 2009, according to the ASNE data, they actually saw a 3.17 percent increase in their numbers. In this decade, there has been a net increase of Native American, Latino and Asian journalists and a net decline of African-American journalists.

Despite the year-over-year percentage increase, Native Americans comprised only .63 percent of the total journalism work force, according to the census. Approximately 66 percent of all U.S. daily newspapers responded to the survey.

Ronnie Washines, the Yakama president of the Native American Journalists Association, said the positive numbers should make him feel somewhat relieved.

But in a conference call with members of minority journalist organizations reflecting on the statistics, he said the small proportion of Natives in the industry is still a problem. And he noted that since 2006, Native numbers appear to be down overall.

Rhonda LeValdo, the Acoma Pueblo vice president of NAJA, said later that all is not rosy for Native journalists. For instance, she noted that longtime newspaper man Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, was recently laid off from his editorial director position with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The paper became online-only in March due to financial losses associated with the print publication.

Respected Mandan-Hidatsa journalist, Jodi Rave, who has long written a column for Lee Enterprises newspapers, announced her resignation on April 29. She said she plans to write a book about Elouise Cobell and the federal government’s management of trust lands in Indian country.

Despite these high-profile losses, Trahant himself offered some positive assessments about the overall state of Native Americans in journalism. He said that diversity programs, such as those offered by the Freedom Forum journalism organization and RezNet have helped Native journalists get jobs even at a time of overall decline in the industry.

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He said the Montana-based RezNet, an online mentorship news outlet, is still giving Indian journalists access, feedback and great clips to gain future employment.

Denny McAuliffe, the Osage director and founder of RezNet, said that to date the program has only had one layoff casualty in the past year. He said the laid-off Native reporter, who was trained on RezNet, was promptly hired by the Osage News tribal newspaper.

“Mainstream’s loss, our gain,” McAuliffe said.

Jack Marsh, vice president of the Freedom Forum and Diversity Institute, said the modest increase of Native journalists, as measured by the ASNE census, is a positive trend in an otherwise troubling employment report.

“The evidence suggests that even in these challenging times, progress is possible if champions of newsroom diversity and good journalism are persistent and if the industry is supportive,” Marsh said.

He added that the collective work of the Freedom Forum and other organizations committed to Native diversity appears to be paying off, albeit slowly.

“It’s about time,” Marsh said. “The need for more Native journalists is great. Natives have been and still are the most underrepresented group among the ranks of mainstream journalists.”

A coordinated effort to develop Native journalists for mainstream newsrooms began modestly nine years ago when the South Dakota Newspaper Association started the annual Native American Journalism Career Conference.

The Freedom Forum soon followed with creation of the American Indian Journalism Institute, which is an academic, scholarship and internship program based at the University of South Dakota.

Later, the University of Montana launched RezNet to mentor and train Native college students, most of whom attend schools elsewhere.

Marsh noted that the diversity programs have worked in tandem, with support from NAJA, editors, publishers, news organizations and a few foundations.