Connexions Digest
 
   

Hanging On!
Native Media are Surviving, but For How Long?

Bob Rupert

It's been more than a year since the Secretary of State celebrated the International Year of Literacy by cutting funding to Native newspapers.

Because some last-minute ``conscience'' payments were arranged and the current fiscal year doesn't end until April, most of the papers are still around. It's too early to say if they will survive.

Still, a survey of the current situation indicates more may weather the storm than originally forecast.

First, the good news.

Kahtou, "The Voice of B.C. First Nations.'' is now published monthly (it was biweekly) in Vancouver and has raised its newsstand price to $2. The B.C. market is a strong one, with its large Native population, and the future looks promising.

Windspeaker, ``North America's No. 1 Native Bi-weekly Newspaper'' was the most commercially successful of the Native publications prior to the cuts. It continues that role, though no longer biweekly. The ad sales staff, working out of Edmonton, is performing heroically. gone, however, are the outstanding full colour photographs that once made this one of Canada's best-selling tabloids. Windspeaker, also in a strong Native market, was the paper considered most likely to survive when the cuts were announced.

Alberta's other Native newspaper, Kainai News, "Canada's leading Indian Newspaper." is still publishing weekly out of Stand Off, and Indian community on the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta. But it's thin, and even with a higher newsstand price of 75 cents, it will have an uphill struggle.

In Saskatchewan, New Breed, which barely survived with government funding, is demonstrating surprising strength without the taxpayers' help. Ad sales for the Christmas issue totalled $12,000 - a record for a publication that was on-again-off- again for years. But December is the big advertising month, and the publications future is far from secure.

Wawatay News, a semi-monthly tabloid serving a vast audience throughout Northwestern Ontario, is making a strong effort to stay alive. Its advertising market, basically the Sioux Lookout and Dryden areas, is tiny compared with the western papers'. But Wawatay has had great continuity in staff and consistently outperforms the non-Native competition, both editorially and commercially. For many years, Wawatay carried few ads. Somebody is beating the bushes hard up there these days. Ad content is way up.

Both Native papers in the Northwest Territories were helped out by the territorial government. So there's still federal money coming in, but through a different stream.

The Native Press, out of Yellowknife, is now called the Press Independent, published biweekly. Oddly, at a time when street sales, advertising and commercialism in general would seem to demand higher priority, the tabloid has gone to a much more conservative layout, a sort of Globe and Mail change.

The Inuvialuit tabloid, Tusaayaksat, out of Inuvik, is unchanged in format and is still quite thin both in editorial matter and advertising.

Through some innovative financial sleigh-of-hand and by tightening a belt that was already straining, the Okali Katiget Society in Nain, Labrador, has kept its newsletter, Kinatuinamot Ilengajuk, alive. But it is now published only once every two months. Ernistina Pijogge, all five feet and ninety pounds of her, is a one-Inuk publishing band on Labrador's north coast.

That's the best news. Now the 'other shoe' drops.

The Micmac News, which established a well- deserved reputation as the publications of record for Nova Scotia's Native people, folded late last year after making seemingly impressive gains in ad linkage. The line rate must still have been too low. But Sister Theresa Moore, President of the Native Communications Society of Nova Scotia, is trying to resurrect the paper that played a major role in turning around the wrongful murder conviction of Donald Marshall. The Micmac News was published out of Membertou, the reserve on the edge of Sydney where Marshall was born and where he lived when he was charged and convicted. His father is the grand (hereditary) Chief of the Micmacs.

Shortly after the Micmac News died, the Confederation of Mainland Micmac Nations out of Toronto launched the Micmac Nation News. The editor of the paper is aggressive former Micmac News reporter-photographer Rick Simon. The new paper may define its audience as all of Nova Scotia, but the Confederacy does not include the many reserves on Cape Breton, including Nova Scotia's largest Eskasoni.

Part of the original rationale for the Secretary of State's now defunct Native Communications Program was that Native publications should be free from undue influence by their own political organizations. Through a politically aligned newspaper is arguably better than none. the development in Nova Scotia may be a step backward for the "free" Native press. Most Native papers were required to have an arm's length relationship with those organizations as a condition for receiving federal funding initiated in the early '60's.

While skeptics may ask how "free" the publications were from government while they were receiving federal funding, there is little or no evidence that any of them felt any pressure to give the government good press. The independence battle was mainly fought within Native society. Many Native politicians fought hard for continued control of the Native media. They played heavily on the conscience of reporters and editors who believed their "objective" role applied to both non-Native and Native politicians. The struggle for editorial independence was achieved by most, though more by some than others. The Native papers were still evolving from their basically propagandistic beginnings when last year`s budget axe fell.

There was no territorial government bailout for Dannzha (once the Yukon Indian News). The paper tried to survive on ad revenue and a much higher price ($2.50 per issue), but gave up in December. In the small but competitive Whitehorse market, attempts to restructure and renew the paper will face great difficulty.

The Saskatchewan Indian is also gone, while there is hope that Indian organizations in that province will take it over, it hasn't happened yet. And most Native organizations had their federal funding reduced in last year's budget.

In Manitoba, where Native publications never really got on a stable footing, a faltering attempt by the Native Scene died with the Federal cuts.

Hopes to establish federally funded Native media for the large and under-served urban Native populations in central and eastern Canada were also dashed by the budget.

Where does all of this lead? Many of the surviving papers are barely hanging on. They will face very severe tests when the current fiscal year ends and they head, unsubsidized, in to the traditional summer advertising doldrums. What now appears to be a reassuring and surprisingly bright picture may grow dim as the last vestiges of government support dwindle and die - and the recession deepens.

Of course, the government could rediscover its conscience. Or. and this seems like a better bet, Canadians could get themselves a new government. Unless something changes, most Native publications will be hard-pressed to live out the year.

This article appeared in The Connexion Digest #54, February 1992.

Bob Rupert, in Content for Canadian Journalists. Bob Rupert is a journalism professor at Carleton University with an interest in the Native press. Subscriptions to Content are $15/year from Friends of Content, 36 Charkay Street, Nepean, Ontario K2E 5N4

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