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Teton Times seeking to transition its business model

Avis Red Bear

This interview originally aired on "In the Moment" on SDPB Radio.

The Teton Times has served the Standing Rock Sioux Nation for 22 years. We talk to its editor and publisher about what she's doing to keep the paper in operation.

Avis Red Bear discusses the transition to a nonprofit model and why she's making this change.

Plus, we discuss what a community loses when it loses its newspaper.

Learn more about Red Bear's GoFundMe campaign.
The following transcript was auto-generated.
Lori Walsh:
For 22 years, the Teton Times has been serving the Standing Rock Sioux Nation community. To continue operations, that independent newspaper is turning to GoFundMe.

Avis Red Bear is the publisher and editor of the Teton Times and set up the online fundraiser to address some of the nationwide shifts in the newspaper landscape. She's with us now via Zoom.

Avis, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Avis Red Bear:
Yes. Lori, thank you for allowing me this time.

Lori Walsh:
Now, you have much experience in leadership, in community development, in tribal leadership and in journalism. Tell us a little bit about the history of the Teton Times and your work there.

Avis Red Bear:
Formerly, I worked for a couple of Lakota newspapers, Lakota Times and Indian Country Today, and that was out of Rapid City. My former boss, Tim Giago, sold Indian Country Today to the Oneida Nation.

So right around that time, I moved back to the reservation, and I guess you could say there was a news desert here on the reservation. We didn't have a local newspaper. Previously, in the past, there was a newspaper called Standing Rock Star, and then before then, it was Dakota Sun — I mean, after then it was Dakota Sun, and those went out of business mainly because of the drain on finances. The college put it out, I know Dakota Sun, and it just wasn't making money and using a little bit more money than they had, so it did go out of business.

So when I moved back, I knew that there was a real need here on the reservation for a tribal newspaper, and so that's how I got together with one of my former coworkers at Lakota Times and Indian Country Today, he was a graphic designer and cartoonist, and then one of my relatives. We planned it. We did a business plan, and we got funding under the tribe's business equity loan fund and got a loan from Wells Fargo for $15,000, and we bought the computer equipment and started a newspaper. So that's how it began.

Lori Walsh:
A lot has changed in this industry, and a lot of newspapers are folding up shop. You're looking at a shift to nonprofit. Tell us a little bit about what you've learned from other newspapers in different tribal communities, or in different rural communities across the country that says now is the time if you want to survive to create a nonprofit model.

Avis Red Bear:
Okay. Yeah. I guess it isn't just a national phenomenon. It's international because there's a newspaper called The Guardian, and that's in the UK, and that's a nonprofit digital newspaper. It's something that's happening everywhere.

They don't really pinpoint it. It could be a number of things. One of them was not moving fast enough when the World Wide Web came up. They were slow to go digital. One of the things that happened is Yahoo, Google and Craigslist became a thing. But those types of digital formats, they got online right away, and they're able to do billions of dollars of business, advertising business, which traditionally is where newspapers get their income and are able to survive.

So if anybody ever opens up their Yahoo Mail, you'll see news on the side there, Yahoo News, what they do really is mine news from news-gathering sources, and then they put it out, and they can charge for digital advertising and everything. So really, the traditional news-gathering, where you have a reporter on the ground, on a beat, gathering the news, making it, and then it can be mined and then somebody else can profit off of it. So that's kind of where it's been going, not recognizing that there was digital things were coming forth. A new movement, new digital online newspapers. We didn't recognize it.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, tell me what you're hoping for now with the GoFundMe. We'll put some links up on our website so people can find more information, but what do you want listeners to know about how they can support the Teton Times going forward or the new venture. It has a new name. Tell us that.

Avis Red Bear:
The nonprofit is called Tasiyagnunpa Media, and that stands for meadowlark in Lakota. In our culture, we believe that the meadowlark speaks Lakota, and that's why we named it that.

I'm hoping to write grants, and I've started that process. I have written five so far and the same day, I got two rejections already. It's a hard, tough thing. But the reason that the budget is $50,000 is it would pay for one salary. I did the math on that, the printing, the mailing, the distribution. We deliver to Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations. For six months, that's what that $50,000 budget is, because I figured it would take me six months to get grants written and get one that's approved.

One of the problems I've noticed with nonprofits is that they want special projects. They want a special project. A lot of the foundations really don't want to give operation money, and so that's going to be an issue. That's why I kind of need some time here just to continue with my head above water. Otherwise, one of the options I had was to go out of business or to sell the newspaper or morph into this, I guess, a new newspaper with nonprofit fundraising, and so I chose the last one.

I really would like to continue operating because, on our reservation, one of the things is that poor communities, more rural communities, that's where you'll find a lot of the news deserts. I would say that reservations are news deserts. I know a fellow Lakota journalist, she did start a newspaper for a year on the Rosebud, but it didn't make it through the whole full year, or just right past the full year. It was too hard. There wasn't enough advertising, and she went under, so what I'm trying to do is just stay in business.

I remember when I first opened the newspaper, one of the people here in my district, McLaughlin, said, "So when are you going to get rich?" I was like, "Never. You're never going to get rich in this business." It's a public service, this business, and there is a lot of sacrifice.

I do have a lot of commitment to what I'm doing. I really believe in it, and so I've done a lot over the years of sacrificing, sacrificing home life. A few times I had to pay payroll with my other payroll, and I had to meet it. Nowadays, if I'm short on something, I'll put the money in there. So you're never going to get rich. You're never going to be a millionaire. It's a public service and I just love what I'm doing. I've been a journalist since 1990 so I guess it's in my blood.

Lori Walsh:
Avis, before we run out of time, I want to make sure, because you know this so much better than I do, but I've seen it from my vantage point. We need those local journalists reporting on those local stories because this is a popular place for national media outlets to fly into, do the story they want to do and fly out of.

So in our remaining couple minutes here, just talk about why it's important that that coverage comes from Native people, tribal members doing the work of journalism in their own backyards, in their own communities.

Avis Red Bear:
Oh, good, Lori. I do have a quote that I want to leave you with, but that is what's happening, too. It's like strip mining. Major companies and newspaper trains will come in and they'll purchase and what happens is your management is elsewhere. They're living outside of the community. They don't know the people. They don't know the issues. They don't know the culture.

So if you want to do a story, they don't know who to contact. They don't know. We have tribal laws and tribal agreements with the state. We have federal funding. We have different issues, and you need to know that background if you're going to do that type of coverage. You need to know, where do I go to research this? What is going to affect the story? Who are all the players? When you're operating out of Massachusetts or California, you're not going to be on the ground.

Then one thing that people are doing nowadays, the trend is to get their news off of their phones. Facebook, Instagram, wherever, they'll get the news off there. Social media isn't really the place for news because there's no accountability journalism there, and a lot of it is opinion. They won't have data-driven facts, things like that.

That quote I wanted to leave you with was, and I think it's really telling of this time, that's why I wrote that quote down. It's from professor Penny Abernathy, and she did a project. It was called the "Expanding News Desert." The quote is, "The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation, disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in the media and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. In communities without credible sources of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases and local residents end up paying more in taxes in that checkout."

So she kind of, in a nutshell, said what we're faced with. That's why I want to share that quote because that's kind of what the landscape looks like when I say a news desert. This is our landscape, and I don't know if this is going to work, too. I'm a little unsure going into the future. Is it going to work? Am I going to be able to write successful grants? Am I going to find operating money? I don't know, but I figured I was going to hang in there until the last dog was hung. Just fight it to the death until I couldn't no more.

Lori Walsh:
All right. We're going to keep following this story. Avis Red Bear, journalist, publisher of the Teton Times. Come back and talk to us again. We'll put some links up to their GoFundMe website so you can find it and learn more. But Avis, you're invited back for more on this story. For today, thank you so much for being here.

Avis Red Bear:
Yes, thank you. I've enjoyed this. Thank you.

Lori Walsh:
Me too.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.