It’s the only statewide publication in Montana that provides in-depth reporting on the lives of Native Americans
By ERIN LORANGER
The Montana Native News Project, an award winning publication that gives voice to the state’s 12 Native American tribes, is at risk of loosing staff and funding due to budget cuts at the University of Montana, which publishes the newspaper.
University officials are eliminating 201 jobs to make up for a projected $8.7 million budget shortfall, in part due to declining enrollment. Faculty and courses representing diversity, including the Native News Project, are not exempt from potential cuts. Sixteen student journalists and two professors produce the newspaper annually.
Larry Abramson, dean of the journalism school, declined to comment on the future job prospects for faculty, but said there are no specific plans to make changes to the Native News project.
“I’m trying to protect the quality of the program, and I do have a say in what happens,” Abramson added. “(Cuts) may take weeks. Nothing has been decided.”
Created 25 years ago, the Montana Native News Project gives voice to Native Americans who are often ignored by mainstream news organizations, sometimes purely due to distance, said Jason Begay, one of the professors who oversees the Native News project. The required travel for local media to access the reservations is often not cost effective, he said.
The Native News project is also what sets the University of Montana’s journalism school apart from other journalism programs, and it is also, all too often, the only news publication that fairly and accurately represents everyday life on Montana’s reservations, added Begay who is at risk of losing his job because he doesn’t have tenure.
“No other school has this proximity to (cover Native American communities) consistently,” said Begay, who is Navajo and president of the Native American Journalists Association and an alumnus of the University of Montana’s journalism school. “… If you don’t cover these communities that make up eight to 10 percent of the population [in Montana], then you fail in accurately covering your community. That’s not an accurate portrayal.”
Each year Begay and Jeremy Lurgio, a tenured professor in the journalism school, select a group of 16 reporters and photographers to spend Spring semester finding and telling compelling stories about the Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Montana’s other Native American nations. Students are sent in teams to the seven reservations in the state, and to report on the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, a tribe that is without a reservation.
Once the reporting is finished, print and online production is designed by students. The final product is published online, and a printed tabloid is inserted inside two local newspapers in Missoula and Billings.
Lurgio is one of 10 journalism professors to recently pen an open letter to university officials “strenuously” objecting to the budget cuts. The signatories wrote that Native News is “the only statewide journalism project that goes to each of Montana’s seven reservations annually to report in-depth on the lives of the state’s first inhabitants.” Of Begay, the letter states: “Surely his work is central to UM’s aim to serve the most under-reported community in the state.”
At the University of Montana, Native American students are the largest ethnic minority, making up 5.6 percent of total enrollment, while white students constitute 76 percent of enrollment.
Coverage in Native News goes beyond the stereotype of American Indians with feathers, dancing. Begay said, and fully represents the culture of not only Native American students, but their families and friends living on the state’s reservations.
“We’re not just showing powwows,” he said. “We’re showing how people are living. There would be so many stories people would just not know about.”
Prior to the threat of new budget cuts, Native News was already experiencing financial problems due to earlier budget cuts and mediocre advertising revenue. The lion’s share of the publication’s budget goes toward reimbursing students for hotel and gas costs for one reporting trip. Begay said that he’s tried, unsuccessfully, to find additional money to cover two trips, which makes for better news coverage.
Begay added that staff is working to expand the project’s web presence and phase out the tabloid editions to cut printing costs, which eats up a third of their budget. If Native News incurs additional budget cuts, eliminating the print edition could be fasttracked, Begay said.
In 2014, Native News started selling advertising to make up for part of their printing costs. Each journalism student in the class is required to sell one ad.
Despite financial hardships, teaching Native News has been a dream for Begay. When he was a student in the journalism school, he took the class twice. Begay said he returned to the university to help Native American student journalism students succeed and to teach all students to report accurately and respectfully.
Without a Native American faculty member teaching Native News, Begay said he’s worried the tribal communities won’t trust students to report with respect.
“It gives them that little chip in the wall,” he said.
Erin Loranger is a student studying journalism, political science, and women and gender studies at the University of Montana. She spends her spare time lecturing anyone who will listen on the values of sunscreen and feminism.