Times treads carefully when covering tribal politics

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

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As 1963 was ending, the Navajo Times was within a couple of months of celebrating its second birthday and it was evident from the paper that the editors at the paper were feeling pretty proud of themselves.

There were questions in the beginning about whether the paper would be able to survive, given the fact that it received very little money from the tribe and was expected to be able to operate on its advertising and circulation funds by the end of two years.

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Times treads carefully when covering tribal politics

Those two years were almost up and the paper was flourishing, printing 20 to 24 pages every week and although it didn't circulate in every chapter yet, it did get to the big communities on the reservation.

The past year saw the paper, for the first time, writing about tribal politics and covering controversial subjects, like the efforts by the tribe's chairman, Norman Littell, and the ongoing battles between Raymond Nakai and the "Old Guard" on the Navajo Tribal Council.

Chet MacRorie, the paper's general manager, and Marshall Tome, the paper's editor, were still treading very carefully in its coverage of tribal politics - it didn't write about the Littell controversy until it was first covered by off-reservation papers like the Albuquerque Journal and it didn't take a stand in its editorial pages on anything remotely to do with the tribal government.

MacRorie and Tome were still worried about Nakai, knowing that he didn't like the newspaper and felt it should be a mouthpiece for the administration. But the paper still had the support of most of the tribal council and Nakai wasn't able to step in and make any changes, although it was evident that if he did have the power, MacRorie and Tome would be out and someone else would be running the paper.

From an economic standpoint, the paper was doing all right, getting a lot of advertisers who wanted some way to get their message to people on the reservation who were interested in buying a new car or furniture.

The one thing the paper had going for it was the fact that no other paper was covering the reservation on a regular basis. The Gallup Independent and the Farmington Times were the only off-reservation papers who would send a reporter occasionally onto the reservation for a story but both papers only had a handful of stories a month and neither had reporters who had any real knowledge of what was going on in the tribal government.

And neither really cared since neither paper at the time circulated on the reservation and relied on readers in their community to support the papers. In 1964, the Gallup Independent would start coming to Window Rock but because of road conditions that was as far as it would go at that time.

The big problem at the Navajo Times was that it didn't have the money yet to actually hire any reporters or photographers on a full-time basis to cover the news on the reservation. It did use part-time writers, like Roland Billie, and occasionally purchased photos from both Navajos and non-Navajos but almost all of the writing came from MacRorie and Tome or from press releases.

It was a tabloid at the time and would have actual stories only on two or three pages, a column by Tome called Smoke Puffs in which he would pick up jokes and assign them to people he knew as well as commenting on various national stories of interest to Indian Country.

The editorials were all on general subjects that were not meant to get anyone upset at the paper but were meant, in many cases, just to remind readers about what organizations were working on the reservation to make life better for them.

In the editorial written by MacRorie for the first paper in 1964, he mentioned the goal of the paper was to promote "our Navajo people everywhere." In other words, it wanted to portray the Navajo people in a good light to those who read the paper off the reservation.

MacRorie said he viewed the Times "as a small voice crying out in the big world of many problems facing our people, but we will continue to present the facts with the hope that some good may be accomplished."

Circulation at the time was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 an issue but MacRorie had hopes for more. "In time," he wrote, "we will have a wider readership which will give more significance to our stand on public affairs."

In the 1970s, MacRorie would say of the early years that he thought more people got the news the paper put out through the radio than through buying the paper at the stores. He said he knew that a couple of the radio stations that broadcast in Navajo were reading stories from the paper to their Navajo listeners.

He wasn't too upset about this, however, as long as the broadcasters told the listeners that the story was being taken out of the Navajo Times. He thought it was a good advertising tool since many of the older Navajos on the reservation were still more comfortable getting their news from the radio because of their limited knowledge to read English.

It was for this reason that the paper was still printing a lot of photos in each issue, most for which came in by mail and showed someone getting an award for something or other. The Navajo Times did have a darkroom that could be used for developing photos, but there was no indication in later years that either MacRorie or Tome knew how to develop film.

The paper had increased its advertising rates the previous October, making a full page in the paper cost a little under $50. On January 1, 1964, the yearly subscription went up 50 cents to $4 a year.

As 1964 began, neither MacRorie nor Tome knew for certain they would be with the paper at the end of that year because they were hearing that Nakai still felt that the paper was supporting the Old Guard.

For that reason, the paper in 1964 would still tread lightly on anything that would get Nakai or anyone in his office really mad at the paper. He didn't stop printing positive articles about the tribe's former chairman, Paul Jones, who would stop by, MacRorie said, and visit the people at the Times whenever hew as in the Window Rock area.

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