National Native American magazine going digital

Updated at: 07/14/2013 3:35 PM
By KRISTI EATON

(AP) SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - A weekly magazine that is a leading source of Native American news is abandoning print in favor of an online-only presence, in a cost-cutting move that worries some readers who fear they may lose access because of the switch.

This Week From Indian Country Today, a New York City-based publication owned by the Oneida Nation, will become an online newsletter starting with its July 17 issue.

"In the age we live in, technology is really advanced to a point that we’re trying to make sure we’re serving what our audience really needs," said Indian Country Today publisher Ray Halbritter. Converting to an online newsletter that is emailed to subscribers will eliminate some of the lag time between when news happens and when it appears in writing, he said.

The magazine, which was started in 1981, provides a mixture of straight news stories and commentary by tribal members, and it is often a way for politicians to get their messages out to Native American communities. President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner have all done interviews or written opinion pieces.

For Native Americans on isolated reservations, access to broadband Internet is anything but guaranteed and print media is a staple of life. According to the Federal Communications Commission, just 43 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have access to broadband Internet at home, compared to 65 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. Access on reservation and tribal lands is even scarcer, at less than 10 percent, although there are government efforts to expand such access.

Suzanne Sobel, the managing director of Indian Country Today Media Network, said she’s not worried about the statistics.

"The reservations that don’t have broadband Internet, quite frankly they were also having a hard time getting the magazine too," she said. Sobel said most tribal members on such reservations use their smartphones to get information. She noted that the website had 550,000 unique visitors in June and continues to grow.

Sobel, a former executive with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and creative director Christopher Napolitano, former editor at large for Playboy magazine, are leading Indian Country Today’s transition to digital-only. The evolution has been in the works for some time, Sobel said. Halbritter said the change will allow the company to expand its international coverage of indigenous issues and work with more contributors.

Sobel and Halbritter declined to say how much money will be saved with the elimination of the print magazine, which had a circulation of about 15,000. A year’s subscription to the online newsletter will cost the same as the printed magazine did _ a little less than $20.

Sheena Louise Roetman, a 28-year-old Atlanta resident who is Creek and Lakota, describes Indian Country Today as a trustworthy source that she considers to be the "Native version of the New York Times." She said she worries that by eliminating print copies of Indian Country Today, some tribal members _ especially older ones _ will have less access to the information.

Others think the digital-only strategy makes sense for tribal nations working to improve access to the Internet.

The Seneca Nation in New York, for example, has two reservations with basic dial-up Internet, but the tribal government is working to upgrade to broadband, said Samantha Nephew, a 23-year-old marketing specialist for a Seneca Nation-owned corporation. She said she’s a regular reader of the magazine.

"I think when that happens, the Seneca Nation members will have more incentive to check out (Indian Country Today) digitally," she said.

Rhonda LeValdo, the president of the Native American Journalist Association, said Indian Country Today’s switch to digital-only could be seen as a positive step for Native communities because it may free up resources for more reporting and accelerate the push for greater access to broadband. And, she added, traditional tribal newspapers may see people who prefer print turning to them for their news.

Tim Giago, the magazine’s founder and former owner, is counting on it. Giago, a Native American journalist who lives in South Dakota, founded the Lakota Times in 1981 and later changed its name to Indian Country Today. He sold it to the Oneida Nation before starting another Native American newspaper, the Native Sun News, which doesn’t publish stories on its website.

Giago said that for people to understand how Native Americans consume news, they only need to look at the Navajo Times, the newspaper that covers the Navajo Nation.

"It (The Navajo Times) is now the largest Indian newspaper in America and it also continues to grow because most of its readers prefer to hold a real newspaper in their hands and many on the Navajo Nation do not have access to the Internet," he said.

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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)