ON OCTOBER 1, an Associated Press headline read, “Indigenous filmmaker strikes playful tone with showcase ad.” The story—one of the 2,000 the AP’s members could select from the wire service that day—was the first the AP picked up from Indian Country Today, the nation’s leading outlet for news from Native America.
If the old adage—that good journalism is the first draft of history—is true, then October 1, 2019, marked the first time in mainstream US media that history was written by a Native publication about Indian Country. (Indian Country is the common and general reference to communities of Native Americans and all tribal governments in the United States.)
“In the whole history of media this hasn’t happened before,” says Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, the author of the story the AP picked up. “It’s super exciting.”
Jim Clarke, the AP’s Director for the West, notes that the collaboration with Indian Country Today “helps the wires and our collective journalism.” He continues: “We cover Indian issues to the best of our ability. I can’t name what we’ve been missing, but I know what they’re doing will help us.”
Indian Country Today’s membership in the AP enables the AP to run Indian Country Today’s reporting on their wire, and also enables Indian Country Today to run AP stories on their website. Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, a veteran reporter and Editor of Indian Country Today, is excited to publish the AP’s coverage of stories impacting Native Americans, such as issues related to tax policy and Medicare.
“It’s a win-win,” says Katie Oyan, Oglala Lakota, the AP’s West Desk Editor for Enterprise. “The AP is in so many places and can provide stories related to indigenous issues around the world. And of course Native Americans are not interested solely in Native news.”
In addition, when Indian Country Today picks up a tribal newspaper’s story, they can not only run it on their own website, but also make it available to the AP and, through them, to the nation’s newspapers.
The AP’s relationship with Indian Country goes back at least to the Battle of Little Big Horn, during which AP correspondent Mark Kellogg died in the line of duty, if not to the agency’s very roots: It was founded when five New York newspapers collaborated to send a reporter to cover the Mexican American War.
The partnership is the natural progression of Trahant’s work at Indian Country Today. When he became Executive Editor in 2018, the website was on hiatus, but his leadership has breathed life into the outlet since then, transforming it into a reputable, flourishing digital news media site with metrics that should make any mainstream outlet take notice: 500,000 unique users monthly, up from 160,000 a year ago, most in the 25-34 age demographic. Since he took the helm, Trahant has focused on mobile readership, and the move has paid off: A 7,000-word longform piece on treaties was one of Indian Country Today’s top reads of the year, with most of the views on mobile.
Trahant has followed a public-television model for financial support—grants, foundation dollars, and a periodic membership drive—and is basing the publication’s newsrooms on university campuses, with a main bureau at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School in Phoenix and one about to open at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. The Anchorage office puts Indian Country Today on the frontlines of climate change in the Arctic, and in the heart of the state with the highest percentage of recognized Natives in the US. The outlet also has a bureau in Washington, DC.
According to 2017 data from the American Society of News Editors, less than .05 percent of journalists at leading newspapers nationwide are indigenous, though Native Amerians make up almost two percent of the US population. Next year, with the opening of the Anchorage bureau, Indian Country Today plans to expand its staff to 24 Native reporters—a number that Trahant says matches, if not exceeds, the total number of Native American reporters at all mainstream media outlets.
“It’s such an underrepresented population,” says Oyan. “I think Native America has more representation in Congress than they do in journalism right now. And that’s not much.”
Reporters working for Indian Country Today say they feel relief from the exclusion they encounter at mainstream outlets. “When we hire young people or even experienced reporters, this is the first time in their career they don’t have to explain why [a story is] a story to their editor,” says Trahant.
TRISTAN AHTONE, Kiowa and President of the Native American Journalists Association, says that Indian Country Today’s collaboration with the AP makes him more optimistic about how mainstream media will cover stories about Native Americans in the future.
“It seems to me a good step by the AP to reach out to indigenous reporters,” says Ahtone. “It’s vitally important that there is good and accurate reporting on Indian Country and that audiences outside Indian Country see that reporting. Accurate coverage by indigenous people about and for indigenous people is a big step—especially for the AP, who, like many legacy and mainstream media outlets, need a lot of help getting the story right.”
Native Americans are often depicted as existing in the 19th century rather than the 20th or 21st. Mainstream media commonly mischaracterizes and miscontextualizes the history of Native America, including on topics of slavery, gambling, and health. For example, the oft-cited notion that Congress gave Indians the right to gamble in 1988 is a massive oversimplification of gambling and the long history of gaming in Native communities and their legal agreements with the US government.
“Most Americans have a fundamental misunderstanding of how tribes fit into the country,” notes Trahant. “Having more stories in the national discourse addresses that.”
There are some key style differences between the AP and Indian Country Today. Indian Country Today uses tribal affiliations, and while the AP Stylebook is in agreement, in practice it doesn’t always happen. Indian Country Today’s stylebook also refers to a certain Washington football team as “the Washington NFL franchise,” noting, “Indian Country Today does not repeat dictionary defined slurs.” AP currently uses the official team name. The use of the name “continues to be discussed,” said a spokesperson for AP.
With AP membership, Indian Country Today is positioned to change journalism. “I’m hopeful to see more legacy news outlets begin to build partnerships with indigenous reporters,” says Ahtone.
This piece was originally published by Columbia Journalism Review.