By Kasey Brammell
Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today and former president of the Native American Journalists Association, will deliver the keynote address at the Fall 2020 convocation at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The Cronkite School will host the virtual ceremony at 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 14.
Known as an industry innovator, Trahant has served as the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he chaired the editorial board and directed a staff of writers, editors and a cartoonist. He worked at The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, The Salt Lake Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Navajo Times, Navajo Nation Today and Sho-Ban News. He also reported for PBS’ Frontline series “The Silence,” which revealed the history of sexual abuse by priests in an Alaska native village.
Trahant was appointed in March 2018 to lead Indian Country Today, which is headquartered at the Cronkite School.
Trahant said he is honored to be selected as convocation speaker. “First, I love Cronkite. We are so lucky to be here and a part of the ASU community,” he said. “Second, I love to share the message that this is the ideal time to begin a career in journalism. There is so much opportunity right now.”
As a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, Trahant has long been a leader in coverage of Native American communities and the issues they face. In 2009 and 2010, he was a Kaiser Media Fellow and wrote about health-care reform in existing government programs, such as the Indian Health Service.
Trahant has taught courses on social media, the American West and editorial writing at the University of North Dakota, the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Idaho and the University of Colorado. He served as editor-in-residence at the University of Idaho and as the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He will co-teach a class at the Cronkite School in the spring 2021 semester on reporting on indigenous communities.
He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent research center committed to multidisciplinary, nonpartisan research to provide solutions for complex challenges. He also produces a weekly audio commentary for Native Voice One.
“We’re thrilled that Mark Trahant has agreed to be our convocation speaker,” said Kristin Gilger, interim dean of the Cronkite School. “As an accomplished journalist and leader of the nation’s most important media outlet covering indigenous peoples, he is a great role model for our students.”
A Q&A with Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today
Cronkite: Why have you devoted most of your life to journalism?
Trahant: I like to joke it beats working for a living. I am curious. I like learning. Asking questions. Breaking down problems and exploring options. There is no better career for someone like that than journalism. I have had this crazy theme in my life: Every job in journalism has been the most fun ever. I was a regional reporter for The Arizona Republic, traveling all over, on feature stories. Couldn’t imagine a better gig. Then another one came along. And another one. I remember one day in Seattle, as editor of the Seattle P-I’s editorial page looking out of my window at the view of the Sound, thinking about the issues of the day (and getting paid well to do so), and I couldn’t imagine anything better. But here I am. I now have the best job I have ever had. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
From your perspective, what is the state of the journalism industry today and where is it heading?
Trahant: We know from history that eras like now are moments of innovation. We started a daily television news show in a pandemic. When you think about it, that makes no sense. But if the goal of journalism is service, then it’s an intuitive fit. The funny thing is, after we started this newscast, there was this idea from the audience: What took you so long? Why now?”
What’s the best way for today’s journalists to better cover race?
Trahant: Perhaps the missing ingredient from most journalists’ toolboxes is the dimension of time. We need to find a better way to tell stories of context. To get wonky, I call this the journalism of epistemology. Answering questions about how we know what we know.
What has been your most challenging moment in journalism and what did you learn from it?
Trahant: I have had some great failures (and) learned a lot from each one. But I think my most challenging career moment was being a columnist (another job I loved). It’s the job where you are always on deadline. And there is an expectation that your copy is somehow better crafted, more than just daily journalism. On a story, if it’s not ready, you tell your editor, I need another day. But a column is always there, waiting for those words. That’s pressure.
What are the challenges for this generation of new journalists and what, if any, are the solutions?
Trahant: This generation of new journalists is so lucky because the rules are being rewritten now. That means new journalists can shape what success looks like. How do we connect with readers and contribute to a better society? What are the stories that will become the next generation’s master narrative, the stories that are told over and over?
If you could instantly change America’s newsrooms, what would you do and why?
Trahant: Innovate. We need more risk-taking. Breaking the mold. We need to invent what journalism will look like in the next 50 years instead of clinging to the past. That includes hiring people differently. We need to invest in young people; we need to make diversity a non-issue, and not say “We will do it” (but) just make it happen. There is this idea that I hear from editors about “being ready” for a publication. I love hiring people in their first jobs and letting them teach me about what that job should be. One of the things I am most proud of with (Indian Country Today) is our demographics. Our No. 1 audience is 25 to 34. Not many in the news business could say that.