How ICT is changing the story
Indian Country Today
This is my annual report to the readers of Indian Country Today.
The year 2020 began with such promise. ICT began its expansion, hiring new reporters, the prospect of our first managing editor (loaned to us by The Associated Press), building a business team, hiring a company president, and preparing for a national weekly news broadcast.
There was so much energy in our newsrooms. Plural. Dalton Walker joined us as a national correspondent in Phoenix at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University, we opened a bureau at Alaska Pacific University with Joaqlin Estus as our national correspondent, Mary Annette Pember started working from Ohio as a national correspondent, and our Washington bureau moved from the National Congress of American Indians on P Street NW to the ASU Cronkite School newsroom on L Street NW.
The atmosphere in a newsroom is exciting. Television monitors keeping track of events in real time. Reporters on the phone talking to sources. Ideas being batted around. Energy.
Dalton Walker attended an Investigative Reporters and Editors training session in New Orleans. That’s when everything changed.
“Two days after returning to my Phoenix home, two airplane flights later, multiple nights in a busy city and hotel and among roughly 1,000 data nerds, I learned that someone at the conference tested presumptively positive with COVID-19,” Walker wrote on March 11. “I barely began to digest the conference tools when I heard the news that my chances of catching the coronavirus went up.”
A couple of weeks later our newsroom was empty. I have been back a lot lately, and the quietness is still unsettling. Desks are empty. The phones are quiet. Even the television monitors are off. The lights are set to motion detectors — so the rooms are often dark.
But the thing is, we found a new way to work. The news did not stop, nor did our reporters, editors and broadcasters. To put this in perspective: Two years ago Team ICT was at three people. We ended last year with nine people. Today we are more than 20.
It’s funny. As fast as we have grown, nearly every day, we feel like we need more people. Our ambitions always will exceed our resources, so how do we best report on all of the important news in the Indigenous world?
Even while we worked remotely, Katie Oyan, Oglala Lakota, our managing editor, built a smart structure. Her team is producing six to 10 original stories a day, plus we are adding wire content so that every reader will also get a sense of what’s going on in the outside world. The goal here is that readers can rely on us as their only news medium.
Our readership remains a great story.
We reached more than 5.9 million people this past year; nearly 8 million page views. Our demographics have remained consistent. More women than men — 56 to 44 percent — read ICT. We continue to be strong with younger readers, 21 percent are ages 25 to 34. (Other age groups are spread evenly between 17 and 19 percent, except 18 to 24 at only 10 percent.) The geography of our readership pretty much spreads across Indian Country, including urban areas. And just less than 7 percent of our readers come from Canada.
There remains a lot of room to grow. My goal is to have us reach a million readers every month. (Or about 34,000 readers every day. Most days now we are in the 20,000s.)
Over the year, just less than half of our readers find us through social media, mostly Facebook. Nearly 2 million find us through search and a lot of that traffic is people looking for a particular story from ICT archives. A lot of that traffic was because there are so many schools on remote study and young people writing reports. About 650,000 people come to ICT directly. This is our version of subscribers, regular readers who check in daily (and some several times a day).
We remain mostly mobile, three out of four read us on a phone or tablet, and the Apple iPhone is the most popular.
The pandemic defined 2020 and it was a challenge for us on the journalistic front. We really wanted, and for a time did well, capturing the data from Indian Country’s caseloads. But the pandemic toll grew faster than we could report. We also are trying to keep up with obituaries, chronicling as many people as we can as fast as we can. We know it’s not been enough. But we are still at it.
I went back and read as much coverage as I could from 1919 and that pandemic. I was stuck by how few stories were told about our families. That’s why it’s so important to us to post as many as we can.
We also think of Indian Country Today as a “spacious channel,” a phrase first used by Elias Boudinot in The Cherokee Phoenix. One application of that channel is our opinion pages. We don’t have our own opinion page; we reserve that space for tribal leaders, thinkers and a wide representation of Indigenous voices. It’s easy to submit: Send your essay (and a picture) to Vincent Schilling at for consideration.
Another ICT tool for tribes, nonprofits, and companies is our "Press Pool." That is a dedicated channel for press releases. To take advantage, send your written information along with a photo to email@example.com for digital publication. Lisa Ellwood edits that important information stream.
One way to look at 2020 is to think about the election. I am really proud of our team’s work before the election, during the count, and now as new appointments unfold.
On election night it was Team ICT all the way.
“Amazing work all around by everyone tonight,” wrote managing editor Oyan, adding in all caps, “TOTALLY NAILED IT. Fantastic hustle on spot news by Dalton Walker, Joaqlin Estus, Kalle Benallie and Mary Annette Pember.”
We also broadcast live for the second election. The technological challenge was extraordinary, and producer Sky Vasquez made it work. Two years ago the election night script was thrown away after 15 minutes. This time around the scripts were largely on target until the last 15 minutes.
So much good work by Patty Talahongva, Aliyah Chavez, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Kolby KickingWoman, Meghan Sullivan, Carina Dominquez, Quindrea Yazzie, Vincent Schilling, Vincent Moniz, Max Montour, Eugene Tapahe and Erin Tapahe. The technical team built a broadcast studio at the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center, led by ICT Creative Director Tomas Karmelo Amaya and FNX partners Frank Blanquet and Tim Stytle.
Most important: We limited the number of people in the studio, and not a single staff member or contractor was infected with COVID-19.
Our broadcasting plan, and budget, was to produce a weekly news show in the fall of 2020. But when the pandemic hit, our daily Zoom calls quickly morphed into a daily show. That show now reaches 75 million households, and we are looking to grow it exponentially in 2021.
The broadcast will evolve beginning next week. We will still produce a daily show, Monday through Thursday, and on Friday the news program will become a weekend offering. We are doing this because PBS stations have told us that would be their ideal. Our goal is a national audience. In January we will have a new list of stations where you can watch the “Indian Country Today” newscast.
Behind the scenes the broadcast team has been growing. too. Folks who put out the newscast every day last year include Quindrea Yazzie, Weldon Grover, Max Mountour, Carina Dominguez, Vincent Schilling and Vincent Moniz.
If we had planned from the beginning to produce a daily show, we never would have attempted it with such a small team. It’s a credit to all of our team that we did so anyway and somehow make it work.
Native broadcast industry leader Shirley Sneve has also been working behind the scenes to make sure that this broadcast is funded and gets the national audience it deserves.
Our business team has been growing as fast as the newsroom. Karen Lincoln Michel joined us in January as our first company president (more on that next month), and her team includes Heather Donovan (ICT’s longest-serving employee), Nicole Terrance working on marketing, and Alicia Hauki is ICT’s business director of business operations.
The good news here is that we will end 2020 as a $2.1 million break-even venture. (That’s so remarkable when you think about it.) Our fall fundraiser is a good way to view that side of our operation. We set a modest goal of $50,000 — a goal we exceeded and partly matched by the Institute for Nonprofit News.
I am amazed and humbled by the contributions that we get from readers. This is an inspiration to all of those who work at ICT. We get such a mix of support. Readers sending a few dollars and more recently we are getting significant support from people who contribute through a Phoenix 100 membership. The thing is ... it's not just the money. The number of contributions makes our case stronger when we visit with foundations and other supporters. (Our major donors are listed on our "about" page so that we can thank them and be transparent about our funding.)
Over time we see our business model as a mix of donations from individuals, foundation support, television underwriting and advertising.
As we end this year, we know we need to continue growing. There are two reasons. First, we want young people to build their careers at ICT. All of us who have been in the media a long time know how underrepresented we are in the news media. We have heard all the excuses, such as “I can’t find anyone.” All I think about is how much talent our communities produce. We need their voices.
Second, we want ICT to be your primary source for news. We want to produce the stories you share on social media. We want to do our research, tell stories and make you smarter. This is how we change the story about who we are.
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.
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