November marks National Native American Heritage Month, which pays tribute to the traditions and ancestry of Native Americans.

Many media organizations throughout the United States serve Native American populations and offer a wide variety of products and news that engage indigenous audiences, such as TV and radio broadcasts, digital and print newspapers and magazines — and some have taken innovative approaches to bringing in profit, such as offering graphic design and print services, or hosting events.

This month, we spoke to leaders of four media organizations that primarily serve Native American audiences to find out how they are innovating, growing their audience, and what they’re proud of in their contributions to journalism.

High Country News

High Country News is a reader-supported nonprofit media organization that aims to “inform and inspire people to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.” First printed in 1970, HCN publishes a print and online magazine that has more than 36,000 subscribers. HCN covers news, special reports and books, and reports on political and ecological issues in regions including Alaska and the Northern Rockies, desert Southwest, Great Plains to the West Coast, as well as 12 Western states and “hundreds of Indigenous communities.” HCN’s executive director and publisher is Greg Hanscom.

What initiatives or projects is High Country News working on to stay innovative and successful?

High Country News is a 51-year-old, reader-supported nonprofit covering the entire Western United States, including Alaska. It’s a huge area, home to hundreds of Native communities and nations, but for much of our history, we struggled to adequately serve Native people. That all changed about five years ago, with the creation of our Indigenous Affairs Desk. It was one of the first such desks at a non-Native publication, and it was led from the start by Native journalists. They quickly made a name for themselves with straight-talking, deep diving reporting and essays that shone a very different light on, for example, the public lands.

The federal government owns and manages fully half of this region — this is the national forests and parks and wildlife refuges, the [Bureau of Land Management] lands and military bases. Many Americans think of these lands as their birthright, their playgrounds, but how did they come to be in the government’s hands, and who were (and are) the rightful owners?

Our team asked those tough questions and won accolades for their work. This spring, HCN won a George Polk Award for a two-year investigation into the dark history of land grant universities — a project that is sparking conversations around the country about how we might begin to set things right with the people from whom these lands were taken.


How does High Country News grow its audience?

For years, HCN relied on mailings sent out to membership lists of other publications and organizations that attracted people who cared about our region. It worked from one standpoint — we have an incredibly loyal audience that provides 75% of our revenue. But this “look-alike” circulation model didn’t result in an audience that reflected the West’s great diversity. In the past four-to-five years, we’ve aggressively moved to ensure that the region’s varied people and communities are reflected in the magazine and on the website — and now we’re changing our approach to “audience acquisition” as well.

This year, we are ditching direct mail almost completely and shifting to a more community- and network-based model. We have a whole campaign called “I am the West” which is designed to draw more diverse audiences into the critical conversations about our region.

What is one product or innovation you’re proud of that has enabled High Country News to stay competitive in the digital news market?

HCN’s email newsletters have been the foundation of much of our success online. I started an email newsletter back in the 1990s — a friendly, personal missive to our readers about the goings-on in the small Colorado town where the magazine was based, with links to our latest stories. It’s been fun to watch newsletters come back into fashion the past few years, and we have several: a general newsletter with our latest headlines and an “Indian Country News” newsletter that highlights the work of our Indigenous Affairs team. We have a substantial list of email addresses, allowing us to deliver HCN’s journalism directly to people’s inboxes across the country.

How has your approach to profitability and journalism changed throughout the years?

Again, HCN is a nonprofit, so we have a different business model than most — but it’s a model that has proven to be remarkably durable, and it’s one that other publications are exploring. HCN has been primarily funded by our readers since the 1970s. It’s similar to the NPR model.

Readers pay annual subscription dues, and then we ask them to make a gift on top of that. Roughly a third of our 35,000 subscribers donate each year. Many make just small gifts — I think the average is $20 or $30, but some have the capacity to give larger amounts.

In recent years, we’ve ramped up our work around those large gifts, and foundation grants, but the heart of our business model is still our readers, who, through subscriptions and donations, bring us three quarters of our revenue. It’s a business model built on trust, and one that has worked remarkably well for us.

Native Max

Native Max is a digital media company that prides itself on celebrating Indigenous people through “positive storytelling.” The business has a magazine and has grown its brand to include print, web, digital, mobile, TV and social media. With more than 8,000 monthly readers, the bimonthly magazine includes stories that highlight the culture and lifestyle of Native American and First Nations people of Indian Country. Native Max’s founder and chief executive officer is Kelly Holmes.

What initiatives or projects is Native Max working on to stay innovative and successful?

I’ve learned over the years to really get back to the basics and focus on the one thing that we started out with in the first place: the magazine. We’ve put so much work into the magazine to keep it entertaining and beautiful yet relevant and innovative — from the design to editorial focus and writing style.

How does Native Max grow its audience?

We’ve always used social media to grow our audience and spread our message about who we are and what we do. So social media is something we continue to use today to grow our audience. In the last few years, we’ve also co-hosted and co-produced events as another way to grow our audience.


What is one product or innovation you’re proud of that has enabled Native Max to stay competitive in the digital news market?

Again, it’s the magazine. Sometimes we [have] featured people who were at the cusp of their success, and sometimes we feature Indigenous people who are in TV shows, movies, etc. Our editorial focus is so spread out that we have a diverse lineup of people. We also have themes for each issue, not to narrow down or limit ourselves to a certain topic, but it gives the chance to people who aren’t usually featured or given time to voice their stories in Indian Country.

For example, we have the [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirit, plus] LGBTQ2S+ issue — which focused on our LGBTQ2S+ relatives; [and] the Future Issue, which focused on the youth — because as much as adults love to speak for youth, youth feel they’re not really involved or included, etc. We’re the only publication to do this in the Native American publishing market, let alone the digital news market. This allows us to stay innovative, [and] competitive as well as inclusive.

How has your approach to profitability and journalism changed throughout the years?

We learned to adapt. First, we focused all of our efforts on the magazine, digital, and [print], then thought about expanding our efforts to digital, web, and social media content as well. It’s not that everyone is getting their information or news outside of a magazine anymore. I realized that everyone is consuming content from every avenue and every platform. This is pretty cool too because this [allows] us to create innovative and inclusive content that is only Native Max-style and publish it across multiple platforms like audio, video, events, etc.

Mvskoke Media

Mvskoke Media has a newspaper, radio show and TV broadcasts as well as graphic design and printing services. Its newspaper, the Mvskoke News, serves the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and has been around since 1970. The biweekly publication provides the newspaper free to Muscogee (Creek) Nation enrolled citizens. The media organization covers a variety of topics, including politics, news, health, culture and features. Mvskoke Media’s director is Angel Ellis.

What initiatives or projects is Mvskoke Media working on to stay innovative and successful? 

One of the big projects Mvskoke Media and the Native American Journalist Association worked on recently was advocating for the solidifying and strengthening tribal media policy. What I mean by tribal media is the news production that is focused on Indigenous topics. Not many people realize this but there are over 570 federally recognized tribes and almost none of those sovereign nations have press protection policy on the books.

Those tribes are comprised of millions of people who may not have the right to question their government. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN) recently allowed its citizens to vote on a constitutional amendment to fund and protect news gathering from political influence. As far as I am aware, the MCN is [the] first and only tribe to have their constitution ratified for press protection by a ballot initiative. Native Americans are also American citizens but rarely have the same rights as other Americans. This is a huge step in transparent self-governance.  


How does Mvskoke Media grow its audience? 

One of the ways our audience is growing, and this is a delightful side effect because we do not really focus on a broad interest of topics, is through collaboration. 

Our audience has always been citizens of the MCN. Once we saw huge news headlines about our tribe in the landmark United States Supreme Court court case, we realized that while [we] may not want [to] be the source for the broadest audience, our department can serve as an educational source for anyone who wants to better understand the tribe. So we collaborate with other newsrooms through Oklahoma Media Center’s Promised Land project. 

We help other news rooms by sharing our content with them so their audience has become our audience too! It also helps ensure that the media ecosystem is all on the same page, I share my sources with others, help them understand the bias that is out there and point them to ways to avoid the bias. It is a win-win relationship. 

What is one product or innovation you’re proud of that has enabled Mvskoke Media to stay competitive in the digital news market? 

One of the best things we have to offer at Mvskoke Media is our reputation and understanding of how ethical application of journalism is an asset to democracy. We consistently respectfully report on one of the most underrepresented populations in our country. We do it while living and existing in that community. So we know the need for information and can understand from the inside how important civic engagement is for our community. We also do it with one of the most diverse socio-economic spectrums. 

Some of our audience is young, [and so] we engage them on platforms they use. Some of our audience has limited access to technology, such as our elders, so we print and mail a traditional newspaper. We even produce a weekly radio program. Our product is about meeting people where they are and giving them trusted information. We approach information as if it is a service and a right for people and we deliver. We also run a commercial print shop, the revenue from which supplements our budget. As we build on this model we anticipate that we will ask the tribal government for less funding. 

How has your approach to profitability and journalism changed throughout the years? 

Our journey to a “free and independent,” press has shifted over time and profitability has been a focal point of that conversation. The first law our tribe adopted in 2015 came with the philosophy that ultimately independence meant independent revenue. 

The market we exist in, where we provide very in-depth information to a very small audience … making that profitable when competing in a very robust news ecosystem is almost impossible. 

When I joined the team in 2018, I asked our leaders to consider that information for our citizens is a duty of the government that operates on public funds. Why not use public funds for civic engagement? 

Public funding of media was not a new concept but it was a new approach to policy for the tribe and it is working. Tribal citizens housing programs get funded [so] why not the information that can literally give a person the tools they need to help them make life-changing decisions? So now we are funded with tribal gaming revenue, sort of the way tax dollars support PBS and we report on tribal topics while we help teach others to report responsibly on our community.

Native News Online

Founded in 2011, Native News Online is a daily news organization that serves millions of readers annually, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. Native News Online is part of Indian Country Media, LLC, which also publishes Tribal Business News. The online news site includes stories about education, health, sovereignty, environment and arts and entertainment. Native News Online’s publisher and editor is Levi Rickert. 

What initiatives or projects is Native News Online working on to stay innovative and successful?

Native News Online was launched on Feb. 15, 2011. During the first week, only 16 viewers came to the website. Through the years, readership has grown to over 3 million unique visitors annually with over 5 million page-views.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew vast health disparities existed among Native Americans when compared to their Caucasian counterparts. During the pandemic, the problem became amplified. Native Americans faced death rates 2.2 times higher and were three times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than their Caucasian counterparts.

This summer we developed a health initiative that will have a dedicated health desk to the news website.

How does Native News Online grow its audience?

Throughout history, Native Americans have not always been pleased with how we have been depicted by Hollywood, in American history, in American literature and even the media.


Native News Online operates on the premise our readers want accurate and consistent Native American news. We feel we can provide accuracy because we have a Native American-led newsroom.

During the past decade, readership has risen because readers can count on Native News Online every day of the year to provide news.

Beyond our journalism, Native News Online uses social media to drive reader traffic.

What is one product or innovation you’re proud of that has enabled Native News Online to stay competitive in the digital news market? 

The success of Native News Online has come through continuously looking for ways to improve our website and ways to get our news out to our readers. Last year, we were able to give our website a complete overall.

Last year, during the presidential election, Native News Online produced two live streams that attracted over 35,000 viewers. The lesson learned was we need to examine ways to use multimedia on our website and social media sites.

How has your approach to profitability and journalism changed throughout the years?

Native News Online has learned to constantly look at different ways to increase revenue. Our revenue streams consist of advertising, donations, sponsorships and grants.

Our journalism has improved as revenue increased because we could afford to hire reporters. With the increase of staff, we have been able to concentrate on topics important to Native Americans, such as the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) crisis and Indian boarding schools. 

Responses were edited for length and style.

Looking for more news and information for and by members of the Native American community? Check out Native Business, Indian Country Today, National Native News and Indigenously.