An end of the year letter about Indian Country Today: Beautiful moments ahead

Vincent Schilling

"I'd no idea that I would be so involved with these beautiful moments ahead. And that they would happen so fast"

Article posted by Vincent Schilling

Mark Trahant

A year ago Indian Country Today was dark. Yet many readers did not stop looking for stories. Every day readers checked the website, hoping that somehow there would be “new” news posted. That said a lot about our readers. They really wanted a Native perspective on the events of the day. Readers want a voice. And context.

Yet the future for Indian Country Today was cloudy.

I wrote in my blog at the time: “It’s easy to examine any news organization and see how things could be different. We think: There are a hundred ways Indian Country Today could have made it. And that’s just as true when I look at my own failed media enterprises — and I have a checklist of those — and then I think, “if only.”

If only we had more money for creators. If only we had more funders. If only … never mind. There will be new media enterprises. And new failures. Along the way, there will be beautiful moments.”

I had no idea that I would be so involved with these beautiful moments that were ahead. And that they would happen so fast.

The owners at the time, the Oneida Nation, donated the assets of Indian Country Today to the National Congress of American Indians. And with that act, gave the digital publication a prospect for a new future. I agreed to join the enterprise.

There were two good things that came out of the hiatus of Indian Country Today. First, more Native journalists started writing for a variety of publications. And, second, Indian Country Today was given the freedom to reinvent itself. Unlike many news organizations, we did not have to go through the budget and figure out what to cut. We started with almost nothing and have been in a building mode ever since.

I remember thinking that one of the reasons to bring Indian Country Today back to life was to support the work of so many talented Native American journalists. Over the years, the newspaper, the magazine, and the digital publication had become a solid business partner for so many journalism professionals. Indian Country Today paid well. And the readership was solid.

But while Indian Country Today went silent … the journalism did not. Native writers simply found new outlets from High Country News to Reveal. There was good work getting done.

I was hired in May to edit Indian Country Today after a series of meetings with the National Congress of American Indians about what the digital publication would look like, how it would operate, and how we could make sure that it was self-sustaining and independent.

And we have had an amazing year. We are far ahead of schedule on rebuilding Indian Country Today as a digital news organization.

Where Indian Country Today readers are located in the United States.

Sometime in the next few days, Indian Country Today will become a not-for-profit, Limited, Liability Corporation. The primary role for NCAI is to initially appoint the editor and to work with Indian Country Today on its business and finances. NCAI also invested early money into this project and our grants — as well as your donations — flow through the nonprofit NCAI Fund.

The editorial process for Indian Country Today is independent of our ownership.

As a not-for-profit, Indian Country Today is looking for support from individuals, foundations, tribes, and companies.

Even before we launched, readers donated more than $50,000 (and we will be asking again, shortly). We received $40,000 from the Bay & Paul Foundations. And a major grant from the NoVo Foundation for $750,000 for three years. In addition, our advertising department is on track to exceed its expectations for our first year, adding money to our operations. Add it up and it’s an excellent start and it gives us a resource base to build a bigger enterprise.

I have three big ideas I am working on now:

  • I want to fund a political reporter (the next Mark Trahant) to write about everything from the next round of Native candidates to run to in-depth coverage of who’s running for president right now.
  • I am looking for money for a full-time climate justice reporter. We know Indian Country will be hit hard by climate change and I want tribal leaders and citizens to have as much information as possible.
  • And, third, and this may be the ambitious project, we are working to create a national video newscast. (Along the lines of our election report.) I think this will go a long way toward creating a national agenda for Indian Country — and give us a voice in ways that have not been possible before.

We have already had our practice run. Our election night broadcast was the first ever. (In case you missed it: Here is the midterm election next day results summary broadcast.)

It was a big night for candidates, but it was also a big win for Native journalism.

As I wrote to the staff the next morning: “If anyone in a news company ever, ever says, ‘I can’t find anyone’ when hiring … I will make them sit and watch all five hours. The talent from Indian Country is amazing.”

Not that everything has been perfect.

We still have far more stories to write than we have writers to pull them off. But I suppose that will always be true.

Fact is I want to raise a lot more money to pay writers. We ought to pay fairly, for both staff work and for freelance, so people will want to keep writing and telling their story. Right now, while we are in a building mode, the freelance budget is limited. But I expect it to grow. Significantly in the coming years, especially with your help.

The driving force is readership. And we are building a significant readership, roughly 300,000 page views a month, or 1,622,955 for our first six months. My goal is to average 500,000 page views a month with spikes that top 1 million. What do we need for that to happen? We need people to peek in every day. To see what’s new on our site. And to share breaking news with their friends on social media.

To that end, we are working on improving our structure for story placement. Our goal is to have new stories posted every day by 7 a.m. Eastern. Then I’d like a second round at 11 a.m., and another round at 3 p.m. We are not there yet.

We are also exploring a print option for the weekly newsletter. Our thinking is what if we could have the weekly newsletter printed just for those readers who like to read the printed word? Is that possible? And, if so, how would that work? We’ll let you know soon.

We would also like to have one new op-ed -- a voice from Indian Country -- every day. Eventually, I could see that being several a day as well. Right now our categories are limited: News, Opinion, Press Pool (and Classified Advertising). But as our content grows I think we can soon add Entertainment and Sports as standing sections as well.

I should say something about Native voices. There is this idea in the media that people will not consume long stories. It’s sure not true for us. One of the most read stories this year was a historical piece by Suzan Harjo, “If you don’t know treaties and sovereignty, you don’t know history.”

Readership of that single piece topped 150,000 (both from our piece, and from social media links). And get this: People spent 8 minutes and 12 seconds reading every one of the 5,400 words. We had similar results with a story by Crystal Echo Hawk with her piece “Changing Elizabeth Warren's story to one about Native America.”

A few more stats on readership. (all numbers are June 1st through December 1st).

Most people read our work on their mobile device -- nearly 65 percent on the phone and another 5 percent on tablets (about 30 percent read us on a personal computer.) And, in case you are interested, the number one device is the Apple iPhone (at 35 percent of all page views).

Our readership is young. Our number one demographic by age is 25 to 34; nearly 25 percent of our readership. Next are the ages of 35-44 (21 percent) and 45-54 (18 percent).

Our readership is more female than male -- 57 percent to 43 percent.

A few other innovations.

We want partnerships. We want tribal media to post our stories and vice versa. Our policy is that we are a news “service.” So all of our content is free. Tribal media can republish any of our stories at their discretion. We also want to publish more stories from tribal media, giving it national exposure. We also want to bring tribal media journalists to Washington and have them work with us for a month or so -- and then return to their home publication or radio station with new skills and insight about how Washington works.

This year we also partnered with Investigate West for a story on abandoned oil and gas wells across Indian Country. The story “Poison air at sheep camp” was reported and written by Rebecca Claren, and edited by Indian Country Today.

We regularly post the work of High Country News, the Cronkite School, the Conversation, and on occasion, Kaiser Health News.

We are also working on a new stylebook.

For example: Our style is to cite tribal identification as a clause after a name. Our thinking is tribal citizenship is not parenthetical. We are eager to destroy bureaucratic languages, such as the overuse of capitalization and acronyms.

Another Indian Country Today service is to post press releases as soon as we can. We receive dozens a day and Lisa J. Ellwood, a Lenape & Nanticoke, edits and moves them on to our pages. Our thinking is that people want to know what tribes are saying and there is no need for a filter. We publish this in a section we call the “Press Pool.”

There are several serious challenges remaining. One big one is technical. The former site, then called Indian Country Today Media Network, used a proprietary web architecture. When we converted to our new site, the Maven, we were unable to translate our archives. We have not given up on solving this problem, and we have backed up the material, but it’s been a thorny issue. In the future, one of our thoughts, is we should support multiple archive sites so that we are not dependent on any one technology.

I also want to say something about our ownership, the National Congress of American Indians. Under our new charter, NCAI’s role is primarily to appoint the editor and to help with the financial side of the operation. The advertising department reports to NCAI leadership, independently of the editor. This is as it should be. NCAI is not involved in any of the journalistic decisions. This has been a learning exercise for both institutions.

In any story that mentions NCAI, we add this disclaimer: (The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.) In addition, reporters and editors refrain from participating in NCAI meetings where strategy is discussed, or messaging, and any other activity that would undercut our role as journalists.

Thank you for being a Founding Donor. We really could not have come this far without you. And thank you to Vincent Schilling, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Frank Hopper, Lisa Ellwood, Kolby Kicking Woman, Jamie Gomez, and Heather Donovan, and so many, many others, for building this new Indian Country Today.

Mark Trahant, editor.

Suggested amounts (any amount welcome) Online. Or mail to Indian Country Today, 1516 P Street NW, Washington, DC 20005

Individual donor: $50.00

Premium donor: $500.00

Sustaining donor: $1,000 (and up)