Friday, May 8, 2009


Could Tribal-Owned Media Save Newspapers?
By Kevin Abourezk

May 7, 2009
The Rocky Mountain News.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition.

Hundreds of newspaper employees, including prominent Native journalist Mark Trahant.

All victims of the economic malaise ailing the newspaper industry.

Newspapers have seen few years as troubling as the past one. Media giants like Gannett and McClatchy have laid off countless employees as they struggle to save money lost because of declining advertising revenue. Newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Tucson Citizen face closure or sale.

The owners of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune have sought protection in bankruptcy. Other newspapers have turned to being published only on the Internet or have cut back on home delivery.

Recently, an intriguing idea has taken seed.

While not a novel idea, turning newspapers into tax-exempt nonprofits could be just what the doctor ordered, some say.

David Swenson, who managed a massive endowment as chief investment officer at Yale University, told the Associated Press in March that if newspapers were to become nonprofits dependent on large endowments, it "would enhance newspapers' autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down."

As I've watched colleagues and friends lose their jobs at newspapers over the past year, I've thought a lot about what newspapers could do to survive.

One model that's caught my attention is the tribal-owned newspaper.

I have to say, I can't think of a single reporter for a tribal-owned newspaper who has been laid off in the past year.

Does that mean tribal-owned newspapers are a best-practices model?

"Tribes always want you to do more with less staff or no staff at all," said Jeff Harjo, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association and former editor of the Kickapoo Tribe's newspaper, the Kickapoo Traveling Times. "If you venture to publish anything that reflects badly on the tribal administration you better have another job lined up."

Cherokee Phoenix Editor Bryan Pollard agreed that the tribal-owned newspaper model is fraught with peril.

While some tribes, like the Cherokee, have passed free press acts to protect journalism independence, most have not, he said. And such legislation, he said, only protects tribal newspapers as long as tribal leaders care to abide by those laws.

"There has to be a will among tribal leadership to honor the spirit and intent of the legislation," he said.

Pollard even questioned the nonprofit model for newspapers.

As the former editor of Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper in Portland, Pollard knows well the struggles of trying to keep a nonprofit publication funded.

While being able to write and win grants was helpful, it also was a challenge to fight for the limited grant dollars available for journalistic enterprises, he said.

"Anyone who's worked at a nonprofit knows those dollars are very competitive," he said.

In order to be successful, foundations would have to be created solely to support newspapers, hew said.

But he suggested one aspect of many tribal newspapers that might work for mainstream newspapers.

The Cherokee Phoenix is funded by the Cherokee Nation, which receives its funding from the federal government and from for-profit tribal businesses, including casinos.

Mainstream newspapers could consider creating for-profit businesses to fund their journalism, Pollard said.

Of course, one could argue that's exactly what newspapers have been trying to do from the very beginning. Advertising certainly has little to do with real journalism.

And while the idea of making mainstream newspapers instruments of government isn't an idea likely to gain much steam, Pollard doesn't completely discount the notion of newspapers becoming part of government. It's certainly helped the Cherokee Phoenix weather the recession.

"I feel very fortunate to be where I'm at," he said.

He said the tribe has even considered expanding the newspaper. Pollard sees it as an opportunity to gather some of the talent lost in recent months at mainstream newspapers.

He hopes other tribal newspapers will see the faltering of the U.S. newspaper industry as an opportunity.

"It could be a real boon for tribal media," he said.

Kevin Abourezk's "Red Clout" columns are available for syndication. Please contact reznet to purchase republishing rights.

Kevin Abourezk, Rosebud Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He writes reznet's "Red Clout" political blog and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum's American Indian Journalism Institute. Abourezk was awarded a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 2006.

To send Kevin Abourezk a message please click here
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EDITORIAL FOOTNOTE; The Wuskuso, the official news letter of the Mohegan Tribe, is allegedly read by government officials prior to being sent out. The fact, that it is being read before being sent out, is that making the writers of the Wuskuso, careful of what they write? Could the workers on the Wuskuso, be afraid of the conseguences for what they write? Does the Mohegan Government (the Council of Elders or the Tribal Council control the publication? Could they be afraid of loosing their jobs? Is this more intimidation of the present Tribal Council? Should these people go at election time? What do you think?

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