By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
Native News Online, a national news outlet focused on Native American issues, relied exclusively on advertisement revenue prior to 2020. The year isn’t over yet, and publisher/editor Levi Rickert has already gained his “biggest lesson this year.”
“Go after the grant money,” said Rickert, who founded Native News Online in 2011. The digital publication received a Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund grant earlier this year, helping Rickert hire a new managing editor as well as several freelance journalists spread across different tribal territories.
And he almost didn’t apply for the Facebook Journalism Project grant because Native News Online isn’t necessarily local.
“However, we reversed the narrative and said that we’re a national outlet covering Indian Country, and your grant would help us localize our coverage much better,” Rickert said.
There are 574 federally recognized tribes and another 400 state-recognized tribes, he said, and very few of them with anything more than a newsletter as a credible news source. The grant helped launch a new series called “Local Impact,” which focused on these underreported tribes and tribal citizens. The series produced dozens of deep dives into Native American life during coronavirus.
“Some of our people live in third-world living conditions, and COVID-19 exacerbated an already problematic situation,” Rickert said. “Maybe if any good comes out of COVID, it’s that Congress takes a harder look at living conditions in reservations.”
“When you do those Facebook campaigns, you’re getting yourself out there more,” Rickert said. “Like anything in life, you can keep going along and stay at the same level, but that campaign really helped us get to another level.”
Rickert also engaged with a survey expert to better understand his audience and help inform election coverage. In the survey, he learned Native Americans face the same issues as most Americans — health care, education, jobs and the economy. But they also care deeply about tribal sovereignty, water rights and sacred sites protection, among other tribal issues.
“These are the struggles that Native News Online still covers,” Rickert said. “In a sense, I’d like to consider Native News Online as trying to move the needle a little bit when it comes to Native issues.”
That mission focus is nothing new for Rickert, who led ongoing coverage on cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Native News Online also covered the social unrest in Minneapolis and at tribal lands throughout the country. He even pens a weekly op-ed.
“I’m always going to maintain the Native stance or position,” he said.
The new hires have allowed Rickert to focus more on revenue-building efforts, mostly advertising as well as paid content, reader donations and sponsorship programs. And he has already secured enough funding via a donation request at the bottom of each article to keep the managing editor on full-time after the Facebook grant expires. He’s even hopeful about hiring one of the new freelance writers full-time.
“We’re trying to change the narrative about who we are as people and try to give a more accurate portrayal,” Rickert said.
This is part of a Local Media Association series exploring how local media organizations used funding from Facebook’s COVID-19 relief grants for extending vital coverage and innovating to reach new audiences.