Last September, the Indian Country Today Media Network suddenly stopped publishing, citing financial pressures as the reason for its decline. The network consisted of a book publisher, a magazine, and the Indian Country Today website, a prominent source of writing on Native issues. That news hung in the air as Native journalists Christine Trudeau and Tristan Ahtone discussed the future of Indigenous media, the challenges of covering Native issues, and the evolutions of their respective careers in a wide-ranging conversation for World Policy Journal. Ahtone, an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, was in Boston on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard; Trudeau, an accomplished radio and print reporter, and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, spoke with him from her home in Alaska.
Christine Trudeau: I work as a public radio reporter for KYUK, a station serving the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, which is made up of Bethel and 56 other villages. The population here is predominately Alaskan Native—Yupik and Cup’ik, specifically. I live in Bethel, which is sort of an anomaly in a bunch of village communities, as it’s a rapidly expanding community of about 6,500 or 7,000 people.
Tristan Ahtone: I know you’re originally from California, so how did you end up there?
Trudeau: I grew up in California and studied in Northern California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and New York City. I saw the job and a number of mentors said, “This is a great opportunity, and by starting at a smaller station, you’re going to have a lot more responsibility.” I wanted to take on something challenging and not get an internship or be an associate producer somewhere, so I applied for the job and got it. They wanted me quickly because they had just lost somebody. It was a small newsroom: They had two people when I applied, and one of those people had just left, so they were down to one.
Ahtone: To jump into our topic area here, you cover a lot of Indigenous stories. Is that because of your interest, or because of the region you’re reporting on?
Trudeau: I think I’m attuned to the kinds of stories that are valued in Indigenous communities, but it’s also definitely because of the region. When the vast majority of the population is Native, a lot of your stories are going to be Native-focused. Prior to this, I did have an interest in covering Indian country—in covering Native lands, Native issues, Native people.
Ahtone: Do you think you’d be looking for Indigenous stories if you had found an equivalent job in Atlanta, for instance, or another area that doesn’t have a large Native population? Or do you think you would just be focusing on the beat you were tasked with?
Trudeau: When I was working in the lower 48 states I freelanced and I sought out stories that pertained to Indian country. If I had gotten a job at a radio station not in a predominantly Native area, I think I would have done the job and reported the beat I was given. But wherever you go, there’s a local tribal element, whether people choose to look at it or not, so I am attuned to that. Before I got this job, I found that many stations had preconceived notions about local tribal communities and whether they were open or closed to media. Generally, if a group was closed to media, there wasn’t an attitude beyond, “Well, they don’t want to talk to us, so we’re not going to talk to them,” and the station wouldn’t go back and check in. Something I looked for when I was applying to jobs was how open a media organization was to different communities. Do they have blind spots? I don’t want to say “prejudices,” but it turns into that when you completely ignore an entire population just because one source doesn’t want to talk to you. There are other ways to report on a community besides getting one person to talk to you.
Ahtone: I’ve seen that, too, in terms of organizations saying, “People won’t talk to us, so we won’t talk to them,” but I do find it odd that I don’t know of any reporters who act that way toward other communities. I obviously haven’t reported on everything on the planet, but even with general assignment work, it’s very rare that you just ignore an entire segment of the population because you had a bad experience with one or two individuals. It’s strange.
Trudeau: I think it reflects how most newsrooms are set up for coverage. Native issues are never a standalone beat or, often, aren’t even on their radar. If a Native story comes up, it’ll be a human interest story, or a casino story, or a story about a kid getting adopted—something like that. But there’s no sense that reporters should keep regular tabs on those communities. I am fortunate to work at a tribal news station that is funded by grants specifically for tribal-Native radio stations.
Ahtone: Sometimes, I’m not sure if these big organizations can change. Smaller ones can, and people who have the dedication to do so can, but my argument recently has been that even though these legacy news organizations are adopting tech overnight, trying everything from podcasting to 360-degree virtual reality, they still have a hard time finding editors of color. I think that speaks to their actual ability to change, or maybe more to their desire not to.
Trudeau: It’s tough because newsmakers have to prioritize, and I feel the push and pull from both sides. I understand these communities are underserved and we do need better coverage, but I get the perspective of, “Oh, there’s breaking news, we can’t focus on these other little things.” One position I’ve seen pop up recently is staff reporter on the race beat. I think The New York Times just hired somebody to report on race. There are also diversity departments working on staffing and how organizations source stories.
Ahtone: You worked on diversity issues during your time at NPR. Did you think that they were doing enough—that they were actually concerned with diversity—or do you think diversity initiatives can be more of a PR stunt?
Trudeau: I don’t think they’re a PR stunt. I think that there’s a genuine need, and that NPR does lead the way when compared to a lot of other organizations. When I was there, I was part of a specific project to create a more diverse database of experts, specifically people of color. In the database that they had been pulling from, the vast majority of their experts were Caucasian males. They wanted to create a database that would give people more options to ask, “Is this expert going to be a little more savvy, or have different information or a different focus that we wouldn’t otherwise have?” I think that was helpful, but you still need to make people aware of themselves, and aware of the biases they take into a story, because those aren’t always something they can see. That was the issue with diversity and with covering race and culture. There’s this notion that reporters come in without assumptions, and believing that is how people end up accidentally stereotyping their subjects. That’s one of the reasons why there was a push at NPR to change how issues were covered, and who you heard on the radio. NPR has definitely been successful at dealing with these issues, and although they have a long way to go, I would say they’re much further along than a lot of other organizations.
NEWS ORGANIZATIONS ARE TRYING EVERYTHING FROM PODCASTING TO 360-DEGREE VIRTUAL REALITY, BUT THEY STILL HAVE A HARD TIME FINDING EDITORS OF COLOR
Ahtone: Do you think Indigenous stories and reporting are being taken more seriously now, or do you think this will happen in the next couple of years? Or maybe not at all?
Trudeau: The pendulum was swinging one way, and under the current presidential administration it’s going drastically in the other direction. The way Native Americans are viewed in this country under [Donald] Trump is unique; I can’t compare it to anything I’ve seen in my life. It seems like there is a desire to eliminate the cultural identity of the Native, or at least the racial identity of being Native, and what that means, what that implies.
There is a misconception that Natives have had more privileges and rights than other Americans, and that’s a belief that could be addressed if we had better reporting on this community. More people need to be educated on what’s happening, and I think you could say that about other racial minorities in this country, too. It’s necessary for newsrooms to help us understand our differences as Americans.
Ahtone: Do you ever worry that your work covering Indigenous communities will pigeonhole you in the future?
Trudeau: I’m not sure. If I covered a beat specifically related to Indigenous issues, then maybe. Now, while I cover a lot of stories that have Natives in them or are about Native communities, I am a general assignment reporter. I cover municipalities, I cover education. I do feel like I have a big enough portfolio, but you never know, someone could read my name and see that I’m Native, and just immediately assume, “Oh, she’s going to only cover this, and will want to push for that, and she won’t be a good reporter.” That’s definitely a fear, but at the same time, if that’s all they see, that’s all they want to see. Hopefully they’ll see my work and will recognize that I’ve covered a lot more than just one issue.
Ahtone: I wonder if there’s a particular aesthetic in your work that might feel unique. For instance, when I’m reporting I obviously come to Native issues with a very different viewpoint than you do, but I’m always trying to make people seem three-dimensional, and part of this is making sure readers understand that these characters are real people with ambitions and dreams and problems, not just stereotypes of Indians or anything like that. I’m wondering if that’s something you try with your work.
Trudeau: I think the nice thing about reporting on this region is that it forces reporters to be hyperlocal and aware. I haven’t seen much of what I would call stereotyping of Native people. A lot of the reporters at my station aren’t Native. They’re learning as they go, and they’re attuned to the fact that they’re serving a Native population. So, for instance, don’t tell readers what akutaq is, because they know what akutaq is—mention the details, don’t describe it as an “exotic Native dish of food,” or some bullshit like that. [Editor’s note: Akutaq is a Yup’ik desert containing berries, a lard substitute, and sometimes fish eggs.] That’s not helpful or even respectful in a region where everyone knows what you’re talking about. You’re just going to look foolish.
I’m new enough to the trade that I’m still learning what and how I am, if that makes sense. For instance, I cover municipal issues, so I follow city council, I go to meetings, I do daily news updates, and I’m starting a talk show about civic figures in the community. I really like talking to, say, the city manager, and getting into the details of his job. I don’t fully understand what a city attorney or a city clerk does, but the more you understand that nitty-gritty stuff, the more effective you can be as a citizen. I guess the flip side is that when you’re a local reporter and most of your audience is Native, you try to think about what’s going to be helpful, and how you can get things across in ways that will be interesting enough to listen to. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on that. I can’t think of any other place in this country where I would be able to cover Indigenous people and where the majority of the listeners and viewers would be Native. I’m accountable to people here. Locals will come up to me at the grocery store and tell me that I mispronounced their cousin’s name. So, that connection is different, and I feel really lucky.
Ahtone: You’re in a hyperlocal area where accountability to your audience is a necessity and a part of the job, but how do those principles translate to larger organizations? Is there a way?
Trudeau: Yes and no, because old power dynamics are still in place, but people are getting more assertive. And there is a new generation of reporters coming in and saying, “Hey, we should really look at what’s happening in Standing Rock.” There’s a young reporter formerly of the Bismarck Tribune, Caroline Grue-skin, who probably paid more attention than anybody else, and that was how the paper started covering the movement. Hiring younger people and having a diverse staff make news outlets more accountable. It’s tough when you’re the only Native American in the room, because you’re kind of playing the role of doing your job, and you also have to make sure that you’re conveying culturally relevant information so non-Native reporters don’t go out and get into sticky situations that could have been otherwise avoided.
Ahtone: I was talking to someone the other day, and she was asking, “As members of news organizations, how should we try to figure out who can cover what? Should a non-Native reporter cover a Native issue, or should a Native reporter cover a non-Native issue? How do we deal with that, and how do we make sure we know who’s right for the job?” That struck me at the time as a crazy question, because you could hire a Native editor to make that decision. You could hire somebody who is culturally competent instead of relying on your reporting staff to navigate those situations. Isn’t that easier than trying to shoehorn all that knowledge into somebody who may not have it? These are no-brainers at some level.
Trudeau: But when you suggest, “Let’s hire a Native editor,” the bosses will be like, “Okay, we’ve looked at the stack of resumes, and we can’t find anybody who is going to be the right fit for editing an entire beat that’s not specific to Native issues.” And you’ll come back with, “Well, why don’t you have trainings? Why don’t you hire somebody who would be an editor specifically for that beat? Why not create that beat?” There’s just a lot of shuffling around. So I’m glad that somebody’s asking. The fact that somebody even bothered to ask is a huge step.
HIRING YOUNGER PEOPLE AND HAVING A DIVERSE STAFF MAKE NEWS OUTLETS MORE ACCOUNTABLE
Ahtone: I often hear people say, “We couldn’t find anybody qualified,” and you’re right, that’s why you offer training if you feel like you haven’t found that person. Again, news organizations go after people who know what they’re doing in particular areas, like virtual reality filmmakers, and work with them even if they’re not trained in journalism. I often think that “we can’t find anybody” is an excuse.
Trudeau: I think it’s an excuse, but I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that people, whether they realize it or not, might just not value and prioritize certain views and certain people. They don’t see the value in covering Native issues because Native communities have never been covered to the extent that they should be. There are no facts or data or research that would prove how it would move a news organization forward. And there’s no way to find out how that would scale until it’s done.
Ahtone: When it comes to establishing race reporters, or race beats, do you ever wonder if it’s too little, too late? I ask because everyone’s freaked out about trust in media being at an all-time low, but it often feels like what they’re really talking about is it being at an all-time low with white people. It’s not like a lot of these legacy media organizations have done a particularly good job covering communities of color, ever. The fact is that they wrote off maybe 50 percent of their audience in the first place, which is a huge portion of the population. When we talk about distrust of media, I often think we’re talking about it from the perspective of one particular group, because the other groups already don’t trust the media.
Trudeau: I think about that in terms of hiring Native reporters. When I was at NPR, I was the only Native in my group of interns. But I also did the Native American Journalists Association Native Voices fellowship, and only a couple of people who were in my group are still reporting. Others are either going into public relations or communications—fields with more money, essentially. It’s understood that Native journalists have to represent an entire culture or race of people, whether that’s spoken or not. It’s tough to just go out and be a reporter, and it’s especially tough if you’re Native. If people want to know why it’s hard to keep people in the field, they should look at what’s out there, because there are not a lot of opportunities specifically for members of Native communities. If recruiters from news organizations really wanted to reach out, they would go to tribal colleges and universities and start training programs. If the right thing hadn’t happened for me, I’m not sure I would have been able to stay in the profession. It would have been hard, and I’m really lucky that I got the internships that I did, and that I got into the graduate school that I did. When I get frustrated and think, “Why aren’t there more prominent young Alaskan Native reporters up here who I can work with and talk to?” I have to take a step back and remember that it’s hard and not everybody is lucky.
Ahtone: I agree, if the industry is really interested in supporting up-and-coming reporters, there are some very simple steps that folks can take. I often think that they don’t really want to make those changes. Maybe my theme in this conversation is cynicism. As long as we’ve known each other, I’ve always pushed hard for people to get into mainstream news outlets, because I thought that was where people could do the sort of work that would change perceptions of our communities. But over the last few years I’ve started thinking that maybe that’s not actually the right way to go about things. Maybe young Native reporters shouldn’t be going into mainstream outlets. Maybe we should start outlets of our own. If the whole media landscape is changing, I wonder why I’m investing my time and energy in organizations that are in some respects relics, though they’re also the most influential.
When it comes to thinking ahead about future endeavors, I’m not particularly interested in working as a reporter who occasionally does something for a major media outlet. That just doesn’t do anything for me. I want to work at an organization that’s going to make an actual commitment to listening to the stories that I think are important. If it’s not something like that, I want to make something new. Everybody’s been freaking out about the Indian Country Today news website closing down, but I think it offers us a really great opportunity to think about what we want and don’t want in media, and how can we build on what they started and make it better.
Trudeau: I have so many thoughts about that and about future business models, because Indian County Today was a nonprofit, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to partner with investigative nonprofit news outlets and to see how they carry out their research and structure their organizations. We need serious, hardcore investigative work coming out of Indian country. Can you imagine? That would be pretty cool.
Ahtone: A Native spotlight team or something like that would be fantastic, because the stories are out there—we just need people to do them. When it comes to reporting in Indian country, you just have to throw money at it. Not only that, but if we had some money, we could do a lot of really cool stuff. Again, my cynicism tells me that sometimes people support Native causes because they think they’re kinda sexy, but when it comes to the big issues, you find those voices completely absent.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.