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Innovating News in Native Communities

By Emily Guskin and Amy Mitchell of PEJ

The ethnic media play an important role by providing news in both foreign languages and in English about places and issues that are often absent from the mainstream media.  To provide greater depth, we issue reports on different groups at different times.

First, releasing the chapters on different ethnicities separately gives each individual ethnic medium a singular focus.  Also, the timing fits more naturally with the release of data sets.  This way, we can provide the reader with the most up-to-date information instead of the previous year’s.

This report focuses on Native American media.

American Indians and Alaska Natives typically live in more rural and isolated locations of the United States, areas that generally have waited longer for internet broadband access. Many tribal lands still have only very limited connectivity.

As a result, many Native people have moved straight to mobile internet, accessing digital content through cellphones that do not require broadband connection. In that sense, what has occurred in tribal lands in the United States mirrors the practice in other parts of world where countries have largely skipped over the broadband era and jumped straight to mobile. In Chile, for example, the ratio of population to smartphone ownership is nearly 1 to 1.1

Some news organizations aimed at Native Americans have responded in turn. They have focused resources on mobile apps and digital content, and are beginning to train staff and journalists in the latest technology.2 They are also developing new partnerships with public broadcasters and universities to pool resources and extend their reach.

These efforts appeared to bring some payoff in 2011. Native news organizations saw some industry growth. Radio remains the most prevalent medium for this population and since 2009 new stations aimed at Native populations have gone on the air. Television also saw growth with the debut of a new Native station. Newspapers had a more mixed year. In all, however, Mark Trahant, a former president of the Native American Journalists Association, described the state of Native media as “a narrative of expansion.” 3

Demographics

The American Indian and Alaska Native population (terms that are combined for Census purposes and for federally recognized tribes) in the United States reached 5.2 million in 2010, or 1.7% of the total U.S. population.4 That is a growth of 1.1 million, or 26.7%, over the last 10 years, more than double the overall population growth of 9.7%, but still less than some other races. (For example, the Hispanic or Latino population grew 43% and the Asian population grew 45.6% in the same time period.) American Indian and Alaska Native growth is expected to continue, reaching 8.6 million, or 2% of the total population by 2050.5 But the population is still relatively small compared to other ethnic populations like Hispanics (16.3%, or more than 50 million people), African Americans (12.6% or 38.9 million) and Asian Americans (4.8% or 14.7 million).6

The Native population is also younger and less well off financially, compared with other Americans. Over a quarter, or 28.4%, of the American Indian and Alaska Native population is living under the poverty line, compared with 15.3% of the total population.7 The average age of the Native American population in 2010 was 29, compared to 37 for the U.S. over all.

When it comes to news consumption, what stands out most within this population is the low level of internet access. Less than half of American Indians and Alaska Natives, 43%, have broadband access at home. The rate for the U.S. generally is 65%. The rate is also lower than rural Americans (50%) and other ethnicities (over two-thirds, 67%, of Asian Americans have broadband access at home as do 59% of African Americans and 49% of Hispanics).8 And looking just at the population on reservations and tribal lands, the deployment rate is even lower — less than 10%, according to the Federal Communications Commission. 8 And looking just at the population on reservations and tribal lands, the deployment rate is even lower — less than 10%, according to the Federal Communications Commission.10

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“Native Americans face a huge digital divide,” said Loris Taylor, president and chief executive of Native Public Media, a group that seeks to expand Native American media capacity over the radio and other platforms. But, she added, “There’s a huge desire on the part of Native Americans to be included in the digital landscape.”

Cellphones to Get Online

One effect of lower broadband usage rates is greater use of mobile devices to access online content.

“Especially [for] young people,” Jeff Harjo, the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, said, “they’re on the internet. They’re on their cellphones. And this is the best way to reach them.”

Research from Native Public Media conducted in 2009 confirmed the reliance on wireless access. “We found that many young Native Americans gravitate toward mobile handhelds,” said Taylor, “They use their handhelds to get information about the world…. The handheld is really the future.” Even so, mobile coverage can be poor on tribal lands as well.

On the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, for example, there has been a significant increase over the last year in people using cellphones to access the web, especially among the youth, says Vi Waln, the editor of that reservation’s paper, the Lakota Country Times. “A lot of our young people now have the phones that the cellphone company gives us at a discount,” she said, “and a lot of the young people have mobile web…. Some of them don’t even have a computer.”

As a result, Native American news organizations are beginning to move toward mobile applications. Some of the recent developments include:

Federal Government Involvement

The movement toward mobile devices, though, has not curtailed interest in extending broadband access to the Native American population. Both tribal leaders and the government took steps in 2010 and 2011 toward further access.

“Every sector…has migrated onto the internet,” Taylor said, “Tribes are aware of this and they don’t want to be left behind. Their future economy, education and overall nation-building efforts are dependent on this technology.”

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, released March 2010, issued a recommendation to establish a Tribal Broadband Fund to “support sustainable broadband deployment and adoption in Tribal lands.”  As a part of the recommendation, the FCC established the Office of Native Affairs and Policy in August 2010 to “promote the deployment and adoption of communications services and technology through Tribal Lands and Native Communities” and to increase communication between tribal governments and the federal government.

“In terms of policy, [the National Broadband Plan gave us the ability to] really focus on building a digital ecology in Indian Country,” said Taylor. “Native Public Media had direct involvement in the National Broadband Plan by contributing to it and we find that kind of engagement is a real opportunity to change the landscape in Indian Country; to overcome the media and digital divide that has really plagued us, and which really hasn’t moved forward under legacy policies and institutions.”

A later policy change, in March 2011, made it easier for Native-owned radio stations to apply for FCC licenses. Previously, FCC licenses to tribe-owned stations were granted only to stations that would serve tribal-owned lands, such as reservations. The FCC approved rule changes allowing tribes to apply for priority in getting licenses to serve regions with tribal populations away from reservations.11 With 334 reservations but 565 federally recognized tribes, a large segment of the Native American population now lives off tribal lands.

“It’s good policy aimed at closing the digital divide,” Taylor argued. “We have a lot of catching up to do. We’ve suffered decades of communications darkness across Indian Country and good policy is one which is inclusive of all voices.”

For example, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho applied for a broadband stimulus grant in December 2009, receiving $12.2 million, and is now in the process of building a fiber-to-the-home network through the western half of the tribe’s reservation, connecting 3,500 homes.12

“When we get the fiber to the home, that will give us the bandwidth we need to deliver the local content,” without going through the more expensive broadcast channels, explained Valerie Fast Horse, the director of information technology for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Coeur d’Alene is unique. “Basically it’s a tribal-owned utility,” said Trahant, the former Native American Journalists Association president. “And now they’re building the radio station as a compliment. I really don’t know of another tribe that’s into cable the same way.” For more on the radio station, KWIS, read more here. 

Some other tribes are bringing cable to their communities as well.

Tribes and Reservations Providing Access

A handful of reservation councils have made investments to bring fiber optic cables to their lands and others are sharing wireless throughout the community. Tribes that have made investments in cable include the Hopi, Pasqua Yaqui and Navajo Nation, according to Taylor of Native Public Media.

“Based on our policy work and our experience over the past seven years, broadband deployment is very slow,” said Taylor. “There’s not enough money in the federal coffer to cover every single tribal community or, for that matter, every rural community in the United States. It’s going to take years to catch up.”

On the commercial side, providers may decide not to service tribal communities because the populations are too small to make a profit. That leaves it up to tribal providers to fund the effort.

“It’s a service to their tribal communities,” said Taylor, “The cost to tribal governments is enormous…. They have to pull the fiber hundreds of miles to reach their communities…but it’s a huge advancement for the public good of Indian Country.”

One tribe is experimenting with a stronger form of Wi-Fi to reach more of its population.

In January 2011, the Yurok Tribe in California, along with a private wireless company, established a “super Wi-Fi” connection on its land that extends broadband service farther than traditional Wi-Fi signals can reach. To work, a device transmits wireless through a low-frequency signal that the FCC had previously reserved for local television broadcasts. The low frequency has better range in hard-to-reach areas with heavy tree growth or deep valleys.13

Once the tribes have access, they often try to share it with the community. Some tribal offices, community centers and schools, for instance, keep their wireless connections open so people can log on from their own devices, even from laptops and cellphones in the parking lot.

On the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservation, people are sharing wireless access and internet access in their homes with the rest of the community. “There isn’t as much access as I want to see, but the people who have high speed and internet access in their homes,” share access with others in the community, according to Waln, who lives there. “I have my grandkids coming from their house with their laptops to use my high speed. And I know that happens a lot.”

Training for Journalists

Another trend in Native American media has been a growing effort to train Native journalists in digital literacy.

One of the most active efforts is by Native Public Media, which will launch a two-week program in May 2012 to train storytellers from Native radio stations. The workshop will train a dozen Native radio personnel to use new technologies to improve their digital storytelling and journalism skills. Those who attend will also be supplied with and trained on portable digital recording devices that they will be able to take back to their radio stations to use in their reporting. The goal, Taylor says, is to lower costs for audio and video newsgathering and in the process build what amounts to a sustained body of news content created by Native journalists and community storytellers that can be accessed online.

Other Native media groups also plan training efforts. Native American Public Telecommunications, for instance, is working with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and other public broadcasting organizations to help train media people.

Reznet News, similarly, has plans to hold a summer workshop for students to learn how to produce radio broadcasts with multimedia components, including video and photo slide shows. Begay, the site’s director plans to run the multimedia stories both on the Reznet website and on local television news channels. “[We] want to get away from just printed word,” Begay said.

In short, one obstacle facing Native American journalists remains a lack of digital skills and equipment. But efforts are building to improve them.

Tech Developments Among Native News Outlets

Other trends in Native media are toward using social media to reach younger audiences, toward online platforms to reach a wider audience and for traditional media to try to become multimedia operations.

The Lakota Country Times, the official newspaper for the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservation, is an eight-year-old weekly, published in color with a staff of about 10 people. Reaching younger tribal members is one of its key goals. As a result, it has made priorities of using Facebook and Twitter.

“I like to think of our publication as not a traditional newspaper,” said the paper’s editor, Vi Waln, “I know there are younger people on Facebook and Twitter…. And my priority is young people.”

Reznet News is an online-only publication that is not tribe-based, but based at the University of Montana. The site’s main audience is Native Americans who have left the reservation for college or the military and want to keep up with news from home. The content on the site is written by students at the university, but since 2010 it has become less text-oriented and features more multimedia content to appeal to its young audience.

In addition, Reznet’s director also plans to expand the site to cover more territory. Reznet currently focuses on news in Montana, but it is planning a new site in Albuquerque, covering New Mexico. “If everything goes well,” said its director, Jason Begay, “we will expand out to other places in Indian Country.” It, too, has added a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.

KWIS, a non-commercial, tribal-based radio station that went on air on December 9, 2011, on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho, has a mix of Native content along with local news and music. It has long-term plans to move beyond radio to be a full multimedia news and entertainment operation. Valerie Fast Horse, who led the effort to create the radio station, said there would be an online version of the station as well. “Tribal members who have gone away to school or the military [will] be able to… hear what’s happening at home,” Fast Horse said.

In addition, Fast Horse said she hoped to build a full broadcasting studio in the near future, where the Coeur d’Alene Tribe can create morning and evening television programming. Coupled with the tribe bringing high-speed internet to the reservation, content will be cheaper to access and more easily available. For more on the tribe’s broadband innovations, click here. 

One other Native American media operation is beginning entirely in a new space. It is IndianCountryTV, a YouTube-based program that includes a daily news show, Native News Update. The program features its host, Paul DeMain, conducting interviews via Skype on a number of topics of interest to Indian Americans. IndianCountryTV now produces live programs, longer programs and plans to create a mobile app.

The operation is a subset of News From Indian Country, a national Native newspaper based on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin, but the online functions of the organization have grown in recent years. “We shrunk our newspaper; we grew our online presence,” said DeMain, who is also managing editor and chief executive. “We’re growing in terms of presence and audience… If we do our job, we’ll still be here and grow.”

And 2011 also saw the launching of a new online publication for Native Americans called Native News Network. The site publishes new content six days a week. Privately owned in Michigan, it is not affiliated with any individual tribe.

Public Partnerships

The other major trend, besides the move toward mobile, social and other digital platforms, is that several Native American outlets are building resources and trying to extend audience through partnerships, particularly with public television and public radio organizations.

One example is a new television station, First Nations Experience, which went on the air in September 2011. The station, FNX, is the first 24-hour public television station geared toward Native Americans. It is produced and housed at PBS member station KVCR in San Bernardino, Calif., and is financially supported by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in Southern California. (Currently, the station reaches markets in Southern California, but it plans to expand within its first year to the country, via satellite, cable, internet and mobile devices.)

A key part of the new station’s strategy, its executive director, Charles Fox, said, is to create partnerships with other public television stations throughout Indian Country to facilitate growth. “We are exploring ways of creating relationships where it’s manageable between Native communities, Native Nations, and their closest public television stations across the country,” said Fox, “This is a part of the business plan, to encourage these relationships.”

FNX is also asking people to share their stories with their own digital equipment. “We want this to be something that people can participate in and be a part of,” Fox said. “We are reaching out to find unique ways for young people to tell their stories and to share their realities.”

To support this, FNX’s website has a place for bloggers along with a presence on both Facebook and Twitter.

To counter the problem of limited internet access on reservations and in rural areas, FNX is focused on using satellite, cable, and partnerships with local public television stations to grow.

Some see in FNX the prospect of the first true national network for Native Americans, and one that from its inception will be multimedia.

“I think [FNX] really has the potential to change Indian media,” said Trahant. “If they get access to a satellite, it will be the first national Indian TV network. And both for news and information, that could be extraordinary.”

For now, FNX works with a relatively small annual budget of $2 million a year and a staff of 14 people, but management’s goals are bold. “One day, this network is going to be global,” said Fox.[13. Fox, Charles. Interview with PEJ Nov. 8, 2011.]

Native American Public Telecommunications is working to ensure its content is available, even for people without television access. Its programs can be streamed off of Amazon.com and on Snag Films, another online video streaming service. “Young people in particular don’t watch television over the air,” Sneve said. “We want them to engage with our content.” To foster engagement, the organization has also developed educational and curriculum materials to support its programming and created short video clips to share on PBS Learning Media, a site with digital media for classroom learning.

Other Native news organizations that rely on public television or radio to air their stories include Native Heartbeat, which airs on PBS channels and Native American Public Telecommunications, which plans to pay journalists throughout the country to provide short reports on the 2012 presidential election.

At the same time the partnerships are being fostered, the shaky economy and federal government budget battles leave programs like this in a vulnerable position. One government program, the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, which provided grants for constructing broadcast and telecommunications facilities for public broadcasting, Indian tribes and other nonprofits, shut down in April 2011, thereby stopping all future grants and funding.

Radio, TV and Print

When Native American media is looked at through the lens of traditional media sectors, the picture is one of change, and also of promise. Radio in 2011 appeared to be flourishing. Television, too, took significant steps toward growth. Print is facing a more difficult time and the year was mixed.

(The New America Foundation is working with Native Public Media to release a comprehensive directory of Native media entities later this summer.)

Radio

Radio is still a strong medium for Native people, and in 2011 the evidence reflected the platform was growing. There were 48 Native radio stations in late 2011, a 45% increase from 33 in 2009, according to Loris Taylor, the president and chief executive of Native Public Media, a group that assisted tribes and tribal entities to file applications for new stations.14

And with an improved process for applying to the FCC for permits, the number is expected to grow in coming years. (More on that, here.)

Still, less than 0.3% of American broadcast radio stations are licensed to Native Americans, according to Taylor. “We have been working really hard to advance tribal interests,” she said, “In some cases it has been uphill because we’re such a small voice out there.” Of the 565 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Villages in the U.S., only 48 have radio stations serving them. 15

Radio has the ability to reach rural locations that do not have broadband access or strong cellphone signals, so it remains an important way for Native media outlets to reach their audiences. And Native radio providers are expanding their horizons, using digital media and the internet to enrich their offerings. “There are new opportunities and now we have to make sure our people, our tribal community members, understand that the landscape has changed,” Taylor said.

Television

While there are only a handful of Native television programs, the launch in September 2011 of First Nations Experience, the first television station focused exclusively on Native American subjects, represents a significant advance. FNX joins Native Heartbeat, a television magazine that emerged in 2009 and is expanding its programming slate from four shows a year to 15 in 2012, despite being without funding for over a year.16 And the online Reznet News has plans to provide video news clips to local television stations in coming years.17

Print

It is always difficult to quantify how Native newspapers fared in a given year. Virtually no native papers have audited circulation figures and there are hundreds throughout the country, mostly owned by tribal governments. Yet as the move toward digital appeared busy, some evidence suggests a more challenging period for print. One of the biggest Native newspapers in the country switched to a magazine format in 2011, while another focused its resources online, and at least one independently owned chain shut its doors.

One of the largest publications geared toward a Native population, Indian Country Today, switched from newspaper to a weekly magazine format in January 2011. The company’s operations were moved to New York City and it renamed itself Indian Country Today Media Network, which, in addition to printing a magazine, updates online frequently.

Another big Native newspaper kept its format as a newspaper in 2011 but focused its efforts online. News From Indian Country, another national Native newspaper, launched its online news video on IndianCountryTV.com in 2008 and now the company’s managing editor and chief executive, Paul DeMain says 70% of the company’s efforts “are to the TV side of things.”18 (More on Indian CountryTV, here.)

One newspaper, News From Indian Country, reduced its number of issues to 14 in 2010 from 24 the year before, and remained at 14 in 2011.19 “We reduced the number of pages for quite a while,” said DeMain, “But we do have more advertising clients coming back,” so the number of pages could grow again. The paper says it is still publishing about half of what it had a few years ago — 4,000 to 5,000 copies per issue — but is growing in website visits, citing an average of two million hits a month. The company also gradually cut its staff from about 15 employees in 2000 to 8 in 2011.20

But for DeMain, the paper is successful because it still exists. “Being here is a good sign,” said DeMain, “A lot of people aren’t here…. It may be that we’re one of the last surviving national [Native] newspapers.”

The largest Native newspaper is The Navajo Times, a semi-independent newspaper affiliated with the Navajo tribe. The regional newspaper covers the Southwestern U.S. and DeMain of News From Indian Country is The Navajo Times’s board chairman.

A smaller chain, Alaska Newspapers, owned by Calista Corp., closed shop in August, citing rising costs. Weeklies printed by Alaska Newspapers reached isolated locations throughout the state, and included the Arctic Sounder, the Bristol Bay Times, the Cordova Times, the Dutch Harbor Fisherman, the Seward Phoenix Log and the Tundra Drums.21 Alaska Newspapers’ quarterly magazine, First Alaskans, is now published by the First Alaskans Institute.22

The editor of the Cordova Times bought that paper from Calista Corp., thereby preserving the chain’s oldest newspaper.

Native American Journalists Association

One other sign of change, or turmoil, was what happened to the best-known Native American journalists group, the Native American Journalists Association, which had a rocky 2011. In November 2011, the board president, Darla Leslie, resigned during the board’s annual retreat, saying the group was on the verge of “financial ruin.” Another board member, Brent Merrill, also resigned at the meeting.23

A former president, Rhonda LeValdo, resumed her position as president after Leslie’s resignation. The organization is the smallest association of journalists of color, with 247 members in November 2011.24

In 2011, Native news organizations saw clear sign of progress. New radio stations came on the air, an all-Native television station launched, new partnerships were established, and many newspapers held on for another year. But one of the biggest developments was the increased push by Native news organizations, tribal leaders and to a certain extent the federal government to bring digital tools to Indian Country and the news media that serve it.

Endnotes

  1. In 2009, 96.7% of Chilean households had mobile phones, while only and 10% had internet, compared to 22% and 3.8%, respectively, in 2000. Source: la División Políticia Regulatoria y Estudios de la Subscretaría de
  2. Indian Country is a conceptual term, a geographical space and a legal designation (definition from Native Public Media). The terms “American Indians” and “Native Americans” are used interchangeably in this report. 
  3. Trahant, Mark. Interview with PEJ. Nov. 22, 2011.
  4. Large proportions of the American Indian and Alaska Native population indicated more than one race in the 2010 Census. Almost as many, 2.3 million, indicated American Indian and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other additional races, as those who indicated American Indian and Alaska Native alone, 2.9 million. Therefore, the figure PEJ is using includes both those who indicated American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination with another race for the 2010 Census.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau. “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2011.” Nov. 1, 2011.
  6. Humes, Karen R., Jones, Nicholas A. and Ramirez, Roberto R. “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010.” U.S. Census Bureau. March 2011; And Grieco, Elizabeth M. and Cassidy, Rachel C. “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2000.” U.S. Census Bureau. March 2001.
  7. U.S. Census Bureau. “American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2011.” Nov. 1, 2011.
  8. Federal Communications Commission. National Broadband Plan. Chapter 9: Adoption and Utilization.
  9. Federal Communications Commission. National Broadband Plan. Chapter 9: Adoption and Utilization.
  10. Usage is reported to be as low as 5-8%.
  11. Riismandel, Paul. “FCC Eases Rules for New Tribal Stations.” Radio Survivor. March 13, 2011.
  12. Kramer, Becky. “Face Time: Fast Horse is Bridging Digital Divide.” The Spokesman-Review. April 4, 2011.
  13. Tam, Donna. “Arcata Communications Company Launches ‘Super Wi-Fi’ on Yurok Tribe Reservation.” Times-Standard. Jan. 31, 2011; and Woolley, Scott. “A Broadband Boom in the Boondocks.” Technology Review. Feb. 8, 2011.
  14. Taylor, Loris. Interview with PEJ. Oct. 20, 2011.
  15. Taylor, Loris. Interview with PEJ. Oct. 20, 2011.
  16. Browder, Jim. Interview with PEJ. Oct. 21, 2011.
  17. There are also virtually no Native Americans employed by national network news programs, according to Mark Trahant. Hattie Kauffman, who had been a full-time employee at CBS News, is largely off the air, and no other Native people have been hired recently.
  18. DeMain, Paul. Interview with PEJ. Nov. 28, 2011.
  19. DeMain, Paul. Interview with PEJ. Nov. 28, 2011.
  20. DeMain, Paul. Interview with PEJ. Nov. 28, 2011.
  21. Thiessen, Mark. “Calista to Shut Down, Liquidate Alaska Newspapers.” Associated Press. July 23, 2011.
  22. Calista Transfers Ownership of First Alaskans Magazine. Calista Corporation Press Release. Aug. 19, 2011.
  23. Native American Journalists Association President Resigns, Saying Group is in ‘Financial Ruin.’ ” Associated Press. Nov. 16, 2011.
  24. President of Native Journalism Group Resigns.” Associated Press. Nov. 16, 2011.