Entrepreneurial News: Veteran Journalist Fills a Niche with Indian-Country Coverage
AN UPDATE FROM THE ARCHIVES: The forces that have decimated traditional daily newspapers in many markets have also created opportunities for entrepreneurial journalists to find a new way to work. We ask Mark Trahant of Trahant Reports how he has managed to cover Native American affairs as an independent journalist after his traditional news-industry job disappeared. Originally published August 2017.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Indian Country Today, a national digital platform that covers Native American news, has resumed publishing after a hiatus of several months. The publication has a new owner (the National Congress of American Indians), a new digital format and a new editorial staff, under the direction of veteran Native journalist Mark Trahant. Last year, well before Trahant was named editor of the relaunched Indian Country Today, we talked to him about Native journalism. We find his remarks timely in light of this month’s relaunch of the nation’s preeminent Native American news publication.
For the past eight years, journalist Mark Trahant has been a one-man newsroom covering Native American issues. Several times a week, his column, “Trahant Reports,” pops up in the inboxes of editors around the country. From there, his work is published in Native American media, Western mainstream newspapers, and national publications like the Daily Yonder. He also does a weekly radio commentary that is broadcast on tribal radio stations.
Trahant Reports is a unique and professional blend of reporting, insider expertise, and analysis. For publications and radio stations that use his work, the price is right. It’s free.
Mark started his independent journalism project after the 2009 cessation of the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he was editorial page editor. With startup support from the Kaiser Family Foundation, he focused on Indian Health Services stories initially before expanding to cover more areas of Native American affairs. His election coverage in 2016, for example, provided a one-of-kind tracking of Native American candidates across the West.
Native American news is rural news. At least that’s how we’ve viewed it at the Daily Yonder. Indians are more than twice as likely as the population as a whole to live in rural areas. The connection to place is a cultural value and political reality. At the same time, however, American Indians are unique within the larger context of rural America. Tribes have their own histories and cultures. They maintain complex relationships with state and federal governments, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native Americans are also part of the urban landscape and have been for generations.
So we wanted to test our assumptions about how Native American news is rural news. And as a nonprofit news platform, we were also mighty curious about Mark’s “revenue model” of giving away his work for free.
Mark has worked for numerous regional daily newspapers, plus Native America news outlets. He’s a journalism educator and is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism University of North Dakota (he credits his academic position with removing some of the obstacles that other self-employed journalists face). He’s past president of the Native American Journalists Association and current president of the board of Vision Maker Media, which funds Native films and media. Mark is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.
Tim Marema: Tell me about your background, where you’re from, and how you got into journalism.
Mark Trahant: I’m from Fort Hall, Idaho. Like many journalists, I started at the top as editor of a weekly newspaper, and I’ve been crawling my way back ever since. I actually love weekly newspapers. It really was a great training ground, because you learn to do everything, and you learn to be versatile. I think the most important thing that rural journalism can teach folks in cities is you got to be prepared with your reporting to have a cup of coffee with whoever you’re writing about. You can’t do it in the abstract.
Tim: How did you get started doing Trahant Reports?
Mark: It really came out of when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer died. [Mark was editorial page editor when the paper opted in 2008 to cease print publication]. I was looking around for ways to do things differently, and I wrote Kaiser Family Foundation and said healthcare is going to be a big deal. We used to have these editorial boards [where] you have access to some of the top experts in the country. I’d ask them, “How does the Indian Health System fit into this?” Every time I’d get these blank stares. I wrote Kaiser and said, “We need to do something on this.” They immediately said OK and gave me a grant.
When the paper died, I went right to work. My first thought was I don’t want to get in the business of freelancing, because you spend all your time worrying about your next gig and trying to basically sell stuff and do what editors want. I really want to focus on getting the word out. I thought I’m just going to send it out and see who uses it. I had a grant for first of the year, and it turned out to be 18 months. I didn’t have to worry about income the first few months. I think it worked brilliantly. It got my copy in blogs, in newspapers, just across the country. It kind of was a jumpstart in a way that I hadn’t thought of. It allowed me to go really deep into a topic area. Nobody else was covering healthcare reform with the aspect of the Indian Health System, or for that matter, rural health.
Tim: The Daily Yonder focuses on rural issues, and we see Native American news as part of that. Do you think that I’m overstating or oversimplifying that connection? How do you see the relationship of Indian Country to rural?
Mark: I think it’s paramount, and it’s not just people who live in rural areas right now. … [N]early every one of us is connected to a place [we are from]. Fort Hall, Idaho — I still have property there. I could see myself living there. It’s just when the opportunities align. I think there’s a deeper connection, partly because of the land and the idea about land and the idea of in my tribal communities, the idea of a 10,000 plus year history where familial or other connections go way back. There’s an idea about a place. There’s a story about geography that’s connected to it. I think that’s all really important.
You see it with young people. Even when they move to Phoenix or somewhere like that, say they’re from Navajo, they’re still deeply connected back to that rural community and want to create jobs back at home, too. There’s this, I think, important both physical relationship and soulful relationship with the rural community.
I’ll use an example, Alaska. Anchorage has become kind of the [nation’s] largest rural village. People go to Anchorage, they work there, but they’ll keep their voting back in their home village. They’ll be connected to their home village. That relationship is different than a lot of communities. … I remember growing up when people couldn’t wait to get to Portland. That was part of our narrative. Now the narrative’s very different. It’s about, “Yeah, I may live in Portland, but this is [just] where I’m working.”
Tim: Tell me about the media environment for Native American news. What’s out there that people who are interested in those issues pay attention to?
Mark: There’s a combination of digital media ranging from Indian Country Today to Native News Online to News from Indian Country. Many of them have either a hybrid print edition or some connection to print. Radio continues to be a huge one. There are 70 some tribal stations, and one of the reasons I wanted to put more emphasis on radio this year is that I think with digital and print, you’re reaching people who are already engaged. You’re reaching people who want to know what’s going on and the latest with the Senate health bill. With radio, you’re getting people who are driving around who may not care about it, but may listen and say, “Damn, that makes me mad.” That’s the folks I want to reach that aren’t engaged on a daily basis on these issues.
Television is just growing. Canada has a nationwide network, Aboriginal People’s Television Network, but the U.S. is getting close to one. It’s called FNX, and it’s based in Southern California in San Bernardino. They’ve slowly been expanding, using sub-channels for PBS. I think probably within the next year or two, it’ll be a national network.
Tim: Your coverage of Native American candidates at the national and state level in the 2016 election was excellent. Where are Indians making progress in representational government?
I’m going to do [a radio report] on women in politics. This is one where Native American women are actually ahead of the curve. Across the country, women are about 20% of legislators, and Native women as elected officials are about 48% [of all women elected to state legislatures]. Much higher than the general population. I’m exploring why that is and how to make a greater strength.
We still haven’t had a Native American woman ever elected to Congress, and this next cycle may be the first one to break through that. There’s a really strong candidate, so that could be interesting.
State legislatures, I think that’s one of the real success stories. Native Americans in general are at about 1.1% of the population in terms of elected officials, and we’re just under 2% in terms of the overall population. We’re really close there to parity, compared to other elective offices. Congress, on the other hand, is 0.44%. We have a long, long way to go.
Tim: What’s your revenue model for that free copy you produce for other news outlets?
Mark: A combination of … fundraising and … grants. Then this year out of the blue, a couple of [media outlets] that use “Trahant Reports” have actually [contributed] to the point of $500 a month, and they’re saying, “We use that much copy that we want to keep it …” I said, “This means other people, basically your competitors can use it, too.” They said, “We know that.” They send the check every month.
I’m blown away by that, but I think it shows that folks are looking for a new way to do this, that we don’t have to stick with the old models. The old model of freelancing, I think, is broken, because you’re always working selling instead of worried about what you’re going to write. I do a fundraising month in July, but other than that, the rest of the year I don’t even think about it.
Tim: What are you working on?
Right now, I’m writing a lot about Medicaid, Medicaid expansion, what it’ll do to communities. This week [when the Senate Republicans released a version of their healthcare bill] is a good example of that, where so much of the discussion has been about healthcare, but it’s a jobs provider in these communities. Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics report talking about healthcare jobs almost dismisses them as low-paying jobs, but in some of these communities, $26,000 for a home healthcare worker is a damn good job. I’m trying to turn around that and just cover every aspect of the Senate bill. … Whether or not it passes or not, I want to make sure people know every angle that I can think of and have that discussion be out there.
Other than that, though, I try to be broad and just look at a range of public policy. Probably going to spend a lot of time in the next few months on budget issues. I want to spend more time this year on democracy and rethinking our democracy in terms of structures, how to make it more fair and equitable with some sort of way to get past the district system and to sort of proportional [representation] plan. The Maine elections, I thought, were amazing. It didn’t get a lot of national attention, but Maine voted for proportional representation, and then almost immediately the legislature said, “No, the voters didn’t really need it.”
Tim: Is there anything you wish that your non-Indian audience knew about Native American affairs or Indian Country?
Mark: I think one message is that rural America has much more to gain from working with Indian Country than the other way around. … You look at some of the communities that can really build on tourism or other new economic initiatives, and it’ll take working with tribes.
The other one is as we get more and more into the mechanics of climate change, I think working with tribal governments is going to be even more essential, especially when it comes to adaptation techniques ranging from sea walls to actually water delivery or potential relocation. …
There’s the history of contentiousness between [non-Indian and Indian communities] is what I was thinking of. Rural America votes, in the West especially, votes so different than the tribal communities, where the tribal communities would be 10 to 1 Democrat, and the rural communities will be 10 to 1 Republican. They see this division rather than this opportunity of working together in ways that go beyond politics.
Tim: Can you give an example of what you mean by working together?
Sure. Healthcare would be a great example. I think one of the mistakes we’ve made is that we’ve built up rural healthcare and tribal health communities in tribal areas instead of saying, “What one health system could we have that would work for everybody?” We don’t have a big population base. You could really stretch your resources a lot more effectively. That would take working together. One way to do that is through community health centers and federally qualified health centers, instead of just Indian Health Service or rural health. It’s funny, because with Medicaid, one of the narratives out there is that doctors don’t want Medicaid, and they don’t want to deal with Medicaid patients, but in rural America, it’s all Medicaid. Doctors know that’s the deal.