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Native American Newspaper’s Niche Keeps It Afloat

Ethnic Media in the Recession

New America Media, News Report, Sarah Damian Posted: Sep 25, 2009

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The second half of 2008 was murder, or close to it, for several newspapers in Arizona.

“We were apprehensive to come to work because we didn’t know if we’d be next,” said Wells Makhee, managing editor of the Flagstaff-based Navajo-Hopi Observer. “But we have a unique niche in our particular region that must make us immune to [the recession].”

Published every Wednesday and distributed free of charge, the Navajo-Hopi Observer covers the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northeast Arizona. Its parent company is Western News & Info, Inc., which owns about a dozen media publications in the state. With a full-time staff of only four people and six freelance reporters, the Observer is still more extensive than mainstream media in covering Native American news.

Makhee joined the staff in 2006 in time for the paper’s 25th anniversary. He has contributed much to the paper, including knowledge about the interests and concerns of Native American communities in the area.

“When I was hired, I didn’t know at the time, but I became the first Native-American editor that this paper has had,” he said. “So it was a non-native paper before I came on board. It was a milestone, not only for myself but for the paper.”

Stan Bindell, former editor of the Observer, explained that not many Native Americans are professionally trained to be editors. Mahkee has been an asset and having a Native American editor covering Native American issues makes sense, he said.

Journalism wasn’t a conscious career choice for Makhee. He “fell into it” when he started volunteering for his community paper in Zuni, N.M., in the mid 90s. Over time he became more involved, especially when he devoted a special issue entirely focused on a coal mine that threatened the Zuni Salt Lake. His work on the issue ultimately ended the coal project and triggered his passion for environmental activism and seeing journalism as a vehicle for social change.

“Before I came on board, I don’t think there was as much coverage of environmental issues as there is now,” Makhee said. “It has to do with my background and where I came from.”

Some recent environmental stories are still hot topics in the area, including the uranium mine controversy in the Grand Canyon. Other stories include preventing the local ski resort from being contaminated with wastewater snow and the fight against a third coal fire power plant.

While other Western News & Info papers have faced the chopping block in the past, the Observer has remained open.

“It has always been a money maker,” said Bindell, now a freelance reporter for the paper. “It mainly covers native issues in the Flagstaff area and the western side of the reservation, which isn’t really covered by any other newspaper.”

The Navajo Times is the major native paper in the region, but its reporters mainly cover Window Rock, near the New Mexico border and the eastern Navajo reservation.

“They are and they aren’t our competition,” Makhee said.

At its height, the Observer was a 24-page weekly, with its largest issue ever published in June 2008. But within months the economy took its toll and the paper lost its primary advertisers. November 2008 was its smallest issue, reduced down to a mere eight pages.

“We kept our head above water during the worst of it,” Makhee said.

To survive, the staff took custom pay and custom hours. Travel was restricted as well. The freelance reporters were forced to cut the number of stories they could submit from three or four to only one story a week.

“The page count was up before the recession,” Bindell said. “There were a whole bunch of stories on a little of everything. That’s the good thing about Wells; he was able to have a good balance of sports and culture and entertainment. Now he’s limited with the page limit, which has started to grow again but not back to what it was.”

With confidence in the market increasing, the Observer has gained back a lot of its advertisers and is back up to 10 to 12 pages.

“People are a little more willing to spend money again,” Makhee said.

The paper has seen various changes since its inception in 1981. Makhee said it’s still going strong and part of that is due to its unique readership area, its unique audience and unique news coverage.

“We try to represent these communities, and people from these communities, as best we can,” Makhee said. “That’s why I think we’re different. We focus on the people themselves and make them the central view of the story. We cater to the communities we represent rather than conform to the mainstream.”

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