From the earliest days of her childhood, Olivia Benally was taught that k’é comes first.
“Family comes first,” she said. “Everyone here, I think of as my family.”
As she sat in her office at the Navajo Times after a Tuesday deadline, Benally, the finance director, spoke of family, advancing culture for staffers and readers, and what lies ahead for the paper’s new leadership.
Benally will become the CEO of the Navajo Times Publishing Co. and the publisher of the Navajo Times on May 9. Her ascension comes after the Navajo Times board voted in favor of the move during a meeting on Feb. 17.
Current CEO/Publisher Tom Arviso Jr. officially announced Jan. 27 that he would be retiring, catapulting Benally to a historic position as the paper’s first female CEO/publisher, a milestone in its 62-year history.
She is from Kinłichí’í, Arizona. She is Tábąąhá and was born for Tódích’íi’nii. Her maternal grandfather is Bitáá’chii’nii (Táchii’nii), and her paternal grandfather is Tséńjíkiní.
Benally embodies the future of the Navajo Times, one of the few newspaper companies still printing and delivering to stores at a time when the industry is struggling.
She doesn’t expect there to be a flurry of change.
When she takes the helm, she’ll continue the newspaper’s mission and values, serve readers and Diné society, ensure the continued strength of Diné journalism and business, and foster a healthy Navajo Times culture.
To prepare for the role, Benally served in three positions at the Times: senior accountant, controller, and finance director – jobs responsible for the company’s long-term financial health and growth.
While the flexibility of working from home has been a game-changer for some Times staff, Benally’s biggest challenge would be calling those workers back to office culture, emphasizing the need for in-person interaction and easy collaboration.
“And to use the space we have here,” Benally said. “That would make sense regarding a full staff here.
“That way we could all learn how to develop better organization and better teamwork,” she said. “And that open communication and bring forth the younger generation who could take us in a different direction.”
Committed to the Times
Benally started as a senior accountant at the paper nearly 20 years ago, when the Navajo Times was a large-circulation newspaper and had a big newsroom.
Today, the Times newsroom has seven journalists.
Like her predecessor, Arviso, Benally will oversee all aspects of the company’s news, editorial, and business operations.
This means she’ll become a crucial steward of Diné journalism at a time of widespread mistrust in the media and readers increasingly turning to online news sources.
“I’ve always been behind Mr. Arviso,” she said. “Now that I’m going to the forefront, I’m very concerned about how much longer the newspaper will be in full force.”
While the Navajo Times’ coverage helps people understand Diné Bikéyah well beyond news and politics, Arviso often reminds her that the Times storytelling reaches beyond the written word, sets the standard for Diné storytelling excellence, and reveals a dynamic view of Navajoland and its people.
“We’ve seen the decline in the subscribers and in the readership,” Benally said. “But I’m always reminded that we are a unique newspaper that touches a lot of different people.”
From a high of 24,000 in circulation in 2012, the newspaper is steady at 11,500 today.
But how can the Navajo Times hold on to its unique journalistic traditions while evolving to meet the needs of its readers and finding new ways to tell stories?
While the question will be her focus in her role as publisher, Benally would like to learn more about how Diné journalism helps people navigate a complex world and how the Times reporters shine a light on the truth, insight, and context to the most pressing issues in Navajoland.
“I’ve always been behind the scenes working in the business aspect – the finance and the numbers,” she said. “That’s something that I’d like to take a hands-on approach.”
Benally said this means also learning other parts of the company, including technology, and getting to know sources.
As the leader of the largest Native American-owned newspaper, Benally might often find herself facing off with the male executives in the industry. But she knows it’ll take strength to be an empathetic leader as it’ll be a tricky line to walk.
“It just puts more pressure on me,” she said. “It’s intimidating because Mr. Arviso did a really good job. I have big shoes to fill.
“He’s (Arviso) the brand of the Navajo Times and everybody identifies him as ‘Mr. Navajo Times,’” she said. “It’s going to be hard.”
Benally said she’s reminded of the strong Diné women wielding power in their families and in the workplace and those who wear the crown, literal or not.
They are the ones who’ll give her hope for the future, signal progress, and representation for Diné.
While she’s working on improving her Diné language skills, she knows the time will come when she’ll need someone on staff to speak on behalf of the paper Dinék’ehjígo.
“But it’s a humbling experience,” she said. “We’re all going to stick together during this new transition and continue to make a success of our Navajo Times because we’ve (staff) all been here long enough to know that this is our baby.
“We need to continue to take care of it and take care of one another in that sense,” she added. “We’ve all done a great job looking out for one another. We have that flexibility.”
A look back – and ahead
Benally is known to her colleagues – and those close to her – of a Dallas Cowboys fanatic.
She gushed: “That’s how everyone knows me. I’m a big Cowboys fan and a big (Oklahoma) Sooners fan.”
She started at the Navajo Times nearly two decades ago. She learned how the newspaper operates and how it will continue to search for important stories with curiosity, courage, and empathy for years to come.
“It’s kind of like a big machine well-oiled,” she said. “Everybody here is successful in establishing and maintaining the brand of the Navajo Times.”
She highlights the fact that she’s bringing the Navajo Times to a position of relative financial strength. The company now prioritizes wants, needs, and added benefits separately on her watch. And needs always come first.
“I’ve done a little bit of chopping here and there,” she said. “Maybe later on we can add when we’re better situated.”
In the meantime, Benally isn’t moving to the bigger office. She’ll stay in her office, holding the Times to the highest standards of independence, rigor, and fairness without fear and favor, steering the paper through the coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, and societal shifts.
Benally said she appreciates the approval of the Times board and Arviso’s mentorship.
“He (Arviso) has been very patient with me,” she said. “He’s helped me grow. He’s the first male boss I’ve ever had. There was a lot of things I had to do differently because of that.
“But in the end, it was all positive,” she added. “It was uplifting, and it was encouraging.”
“Congratulations, Olivia,” Arviso said to Benally. “You’re the first Diné female CEO/publisher in the 62-year history of the Navajo Times.”
This story was originally published in the Navajo Times.