Breaking news: IndiJ Public Media, the company that brings you Indian Country Today, is now officially a “public charity” under the law also known as a 501(c)(3) organization. We are an independent, nonprofit news company.
This has been a long process. And a quick one.
The long process goes back 40 years to the Lakota Times. The newspaper was started as a for-profit venture by Tim Giago. Then the company was owned by the Oneida Indian Nation, then the National Congress of American Indians. Since March we have been on our own as IndiJ Public Media. But what was missing, until this week, was the legal framework of a nonprofit.
The long process should include other Native media ventures, too. During the 1970s the American Indian Press Association was an Indigenous version of the Associated Press. It was based in Washington, D.C., (and later Albuquerque) and produced copy for tribal media across the country. The press association was brilliant and the bylines are familiar ones today, including Suzan Shown Harjo, Gary Fife, Tom Richards Jr., and of course, Richard LaCourse.
Yet the press association failed. One huge reason is that the IRS rejected the organization’s application to be a nonprofit organization. There was no real track record for nonprofit media and the IRS said a press association was more of a trade group. So there was little foundation support and the tribal newspaper “clients” did not have the resources to support the press association. A worthy experiment.
Of course the world has changed a lot since the 1970s. Now there are lots of nonprofit newsrooms and it's part of the legal fabric. We were sure we would get the IRS’ blessings … we just did not know when.
As IndiJ Public Media’s President Karen Michel told the staff Wednesday: “I’ve been waiting for this approval for what seems like a long time. Now that we have it, I am overjoyed by what it represents for our company. We are an independent, nonprofit news organization devoted to serving our Indigenous people with quality journalism. Each one of you makes that happen each day, and I am blessed to be part of it.”
While we waited for that IRS stamp, we didn’t wait. We asked everyone we could think of for funding. A few foundations found “work arounds” to keep funding us. Individuals contributed record amounts. So far this year nearly 5,000 people have given an average of $35, for a total about $160,000. August was a fundraising month and we received more than $24,000 from readers. September is a “quiet” month where we are not making direct pitches … still we have received some $11,000 anyway. Thank you for that.
The best thing about reader contributions is that it keeps our news free. There are no subscriptions, even for our newsletters. Other media can use our content, again, for free. This is important because it elevates public service as our only priority.
So what does our nonprofit status mean? First the approval is retroactive, officially beginning in November of 2020. Second, there are some foundations that have been eager to support us that could not even consider a proposal without that 501(c)(3). This means we can pitch ideas now — and see where they lead.
The quick process I mentioned started in October 2017 when the Oneida Indian Nation donated the assets of ICT to the nonprofit arm of NCAI. That began a process that led to our shift to become an independent nonprofit company. When I first met with NCAI that fall I told that organization’s leadership it would take us at least five years to break-even. We are way ahead of that schedule and now IndiJ Public Media has the structure in place to make this all work.
ICT’s growth has been phenomenal. But the thing is we still have a long way to go. Our goal is a sustainable news company that serves Indigenous communities. I can’t wait until our newscast is available in every community. Our voices. Our words. News that is written by us. For us.
To make that happen: We need a lot of help. We need more producers for the television newscast. More equipment. We need more reporters and editors stationed across Turtle Island. We need our share of the philanthropic funding directed toward the media.
Thank you for reading and supporting ICT.
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