Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

A couple of years ago we relaunched Indian Country Today.

We were ambitious. We wanted to create a digital “newspaper” that would open up a “spacious channel” (a term used by the first editor of The Cherokee Phoenix, Elias Boudinot, in 1826). We figured we’d operate a small newsroom, perhaps six or seven reporters and editors, based in Washington, D.C., writing about issues across Turtle Island.

Looking back: We had no idea. That spacious channel opened up in ways that we never could have imagined. Our writers are now in Washington, Phoenix. Anchorage, Cincinnati and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we have conversations just about every day where an editor says, “We need another reporter.”

The biggest surprise (well, maybe the second biggest surprise) was broadcasting. We really expected to be a digital newspaper. That was the story. Then out of the blue we decided to do an election night broadcast in 2018. It was a huge success; the first time that an election team reported about what was happening with all of the Native candidates on a broadcast in real time. Of course it was a record year with the election of national politicians, Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids and Peggy Flanagan, plus the reelection of Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin. (And the many candidates for offices ranging from state legislatures to county commissions.)

That was a turning point. We knew broadcast had to be part of the future. (The future that we were creating.) We looked for partners to make that happen, and Arizona State University was a quick yes — and a year ago we moved our main newsroom to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Arizona PBS. We planned, and practiced, and worked to produce a weekly news program that we hoped PBS stations would be keen on airing. We received significant funding from Vision Maker Media and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Then the pandemic hit. We produced and posted a series of Zoom calls involving reporters, updating our audience on how Indian Country was fairing. Before long those calls became a daily video report, a news show. In our first week of broadcast that show was picked up by FNX: First Nations Experience. Then Arizona PBS on its World Channel. Last week we added 360 North TV in Alaska. That’s just the beginning. Our goal is a national newscast that can be viewed from coast to coast.

Why does all of this matter? There are millions of reasons. This spacious channel reflects the complexity as well as the promise of Indian Country. We are creating a career path for young people. Our operation has grown from three employees to about 18 in those two years. I’d like to see that total double by next year.

A million reasons is even literally true. Last month Indian Country Today had 738,340 readers (unique users in digital metrics) with 876,589 sessions. And the total pageviews 1,021,704. The extraordinary thing is that news stories — news stories — drove that readership. When something big happens, people are turning to Indian Country Today.

I can’t tell you how much that means to our team. Instead of seeing people share mediocre reports from mainstream media, more and more of social media is the posting of stories by Indian Country Today’s writers and videocasters.

And social media makes all of this possible. More than half of our daily readership comes from social media, much of that from Facebook. Searches by topic account for about a third of our readership. And direct readership — that is, people who check every day — is about 8.4 percent. This is the number we want to grow.

Other demographics remain consistent. We are still more female than male, 55 to 45 roughly. Our top age cohort is 25 to 34, followed by 55 to 64 (but the spread across age groups is within a couple of points, except for 18 to 24.) This is a best-in-the-business metric. Any media outlet would love those numbers.

Three-quarters of our audience is on a mobile phone, 20 percent on a desktop, and the balance on a tablet.


New studio: Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center

There are more changes coming Monday.

Like so many, we have been working from home during this pandemic. That means our daily broadcast has come from our living rooms over Zoom. And that means our broadcast quality has been less than what we would like. Our goal is excellence.

So our team started looking at options. Executive Producer Patty Talahongva, Hopi, had an idea from her past: the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center. She was a student at that school and once worked at the center and helped create the museum experience. The center is a great place for receptions and meetings, and in normal times would be a regular community gathering place. Not now, though.

So we worked with Native American Connections, the nonprofit that operates the center, and will be using its facility with our new “studio.” We have worked to make it as contactless as possible in a socially distanced environment. (We are even experimenting with a remote-controlled camera and hope that soon we can operate the entire show with just the anchor in the studio.)

I love the irony of reinventing the boarding school experience. Our set includes floorboards from the old school. I remember reading old BIA school text books where the idea of writing — journalism — was that Native people had a future operating printing presses. Creating content? Not so much. Building a national news show from that facility? Unimaginable.

Public media: The ask

When we relaunched Indian Country Today, we opted for a public media model. We are a nonprofit enterprise that includes advertising, underwriting (television spots on public television) and support from tribes, foundations and companies.

We are grateful that we began this year with a million dollar contribution from our Founding Partner, The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. We have since received support from the NoVo Foundation, Wend Collective, the Bay and Paul Foundations, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as well as other donors.

Now we need you. Like all public media, we will depend on the generosity of our audience. We do not charge for subscriptions (and other media can use our content for free), but we need support from our audience. We know these are tough times and not everyone can contribute right now. That’s OK. The whole point of serving our audience for free is knowing that some readers will support us and others won’t right now. (Unlike a subscription model where only readers who pay get the information.)

Over the next few days our summer membership drive is underway. We are looking for a variety of donors, from those who contribute $10 to those who can underwrite a reporter or advertise their law firm or company on our broadcast. The thing is, there is not one avenue here. There are spacious channels.

Thank you for reading, watching and being a part of the Indian Country Today community. A million thanks.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.