Fellowships for Native Journalists: An Interview with Indian Country Today’s First Female Editor

Apr 04, 2022 • Views -

 

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is making history for Native American women. She was recently named the first female editor of Indian Country Today — and fellowships for journalists of color played a huge role in her journey. 

Learn more about how Jourdan took advantage of fellowships for Native journalists to gain the skills and experiences necessary to eventually lead reporting on the pandemic’s effect on Native communities. In her recent interview with ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson, Jourdan discusses her nontraditional path to journalism, the importance of networking, tips for finding graduate school funding, and her advice for Native women hoping to break into journalism. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Click the video above to watch the full conversation!

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Hello everyone. I have a very special guest for our interview today for ProFellow. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is our special guest, and she is Editor for Indian Country Today. I’m pleased to invite her here because she had a very unique fellowship during her Master’s studies, which has led her through her career in journalism. She’s actually the first woman to be the Chief News Executive and Top Editor of the 40-year-old newspaper and website, Indian Country Today. She’s also a board member of the Native American Journalists Association.

She is a Diné citizen of the Navajo Nation, and she received her master’s degree in Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism through the Newhouse Fellowship for Minorities at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York. She’s written for Native Peoples Magazine, Fan First, MediaShift, The Daily Times, NAJA’s Native Voices News, NPR’s NextGen Radio Project, and syracuse.com/The Post-Standard. So, Jourdan welcome. It’s very nice to have you here.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

Hi, thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk about my experience.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Well, first of all, congratulations on your recent promotion to Editor of Indian Country Today. I do want to ask you about this role and we’re going to get to that, but before we learn more about your new role, we’d love to hear about your path to journalism. I understand that your Bachelor’s degree was actually in Athletic Training. So what was your academic career like, and what inspired you to ultimately enter the field of journalism?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

Athletic training was very time intensive and very heavily science-oriented. I think I needed to be creative and I thought, “Let me just take some media classes.” I loved writing. I read a lot as a kid, so I thought, “Let me just try this out.” I saw this class, and I thought it would be blogging and just having fun with video. I ended up going to class and I got the syllabus and it was News Media Writing. I was terrified that first class, and my professor was really, really kind and very understanding. I told her after class, “I don’t know if I can do this.” It was very intimidating. 

My professor really guided me and said, “No, just try. Give it a try and I will definitely help you.” And she definitely did. And I guess I just liked talking to people. I really liked listening to the stories and just learning something all the time. My first story that I wrote for the school newspaper was about the stock market. I knew nothing about it, but by the end, I was able to talk to people, and have an hour-long conversation with them about what was going on, and I think that was very rewarding for me. It was just like a free education within my education, in a sense.

Ultimately I started seeking opportunities outside the classroom. I sought out fellowships or internships or just anything outside and during the summer. I got this fellowship called the Native American Journalism Fellowship through the Native American Journalist Association (NAJA). It’s an intense, one-week-long training at the annual conference. We did workshops, trainings, and reported on a news story. I also got to work with this tight cohort. 

That week I really decided journalism is for me. It’s so fun, and it’s just more suitable for what I want out of my life. 

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye completed two fellowships for journalists of color to eventually become the first-ever female Editor of Indian Country Today.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s amazing. I would call you a ProFellow because you’ve done multiple fellowships! In that first fellowship, did you feel that it gave you a foot in the door into the field? Or what sort of advantages did it have to pursue a fellowship after undergrad to kickstart your career and also make connections?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

That one was really fun and interesting because it was like a networking opportunity, but also they paid for flights and trainings. They allowed me to connect with other people who were interested in the same area. But also it was important for me because it connected me with other younger Native journalists, and now actually I work with a few of them, which is really phenomenal. 

It’s funny to think of that fellowship now because I’m on the board of NAJA. I’m also the Chair of the Education Committee So now I’m the director of that fellowship! I get to use my experiences from that fellowship and other fellowships or internships and apply them to curate and enrich the students’ experience.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s wonderful. Tell me, because we do know that you went on to do your Master’s, how many years did you work before you pursued your Master’s in Journalism?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

I probably worked a year and a half, maybe two years. Grad school costs a lot of money, and I really wanted to find the right program for me. My last year of undergrad, I did an internship with the CDC, and a woman there told me that I should not pay for grad school. She said, “You’re a student of color, an Indigenous student, and a Native woman. You should not pay for grad school.” 

So I kept that little piece of advice and stuck it in my back pocket. When I was shopping around to decide where to go, I had this little business card from a woman I had met at a pow wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are people there with information booths and Syracuse had one. I picked up this business card, kept it, and put it on my corkboard in my room. I searched around their website and saw this fellowship. It was definitely up my alley because it was looking for students who had very little to no background in journalism. It’s like an introductory for grad students who are changing career paths or who decide this is a career path for them.

I thought, “This is me.” I thought about what it would be like to go to school and not have to worry about getting a job, and to know that my family isn’t bending backwards trying to help me make ends meet. That’s a lot of stress not just for the student, but for the whole family.

I applied for the fellowship, and they selected six finalists [for an interview weekend in Syracuse]. There were six 30-minute interviews in an afternoon, but what they don’t tell you is that the whole weekend is the interview. They’re trying to assess how you are as a person. In my job today and as a community member, I think that’s really important, to assess a person’s character not just for their skills and ability, but how will they interact with the community around them, the community that they’re reporting on? Because those people are trusting you with their stories.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s absolutely true. And you hone in on a couple of things that I find true. One good idea: don’t pay for graduate school! We do a lot of content on ProFellow about how to find programs that offer funding. 

Syracuse is actually one of the top communications universities in the country, and this fellowship really opened up some doors. If there’s any journalist watching this or reading the transcript, wondering about this particular fellowship at Syracuse, do you have any special tips that you might recommend? Things you know now that you wish you knew then, or things you remember from the application process?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

Don’t do it last minute, for one! I did mine last minute, I was really sweating. And just being honest in your application, and showing that you want to be there. One of the questions they ask is, “Why am I a fit for this fellowship?” I told them what I wanted to do with [my degree] in the end, and I showed them what I can offer the school: That I have a lot of knowledge and I bring a whole lot of communities with me. It’s not just me.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s excellent, honing in on what makes you unique.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

Exactly.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

And your authentic goals too.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

Exactly.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Tell me a little bit more about being a reporter. I understand your reporting has always been centered on Native American voices and stories that directly affect Native communities. What was the perspective that you were hoping to bring to journalism?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

I wanted to find a workplace that really valued me and my voice and the people I care about, which is my whole community. I think a lot of our voices are just really underrepresented in a lot of the stories that mainstream media covers. We’re people, right? We’re people. We have very nuanced stories as well. I wanted to be at a place and wanted to tell stories that humanize us, humanize indigenous people. 

That’s why I wanted to be at Indian Country Today. I’ve loved every minute I’ve been here. I really enjoy working with the people I do and the ideas that come through. We have a really talented newsroom, and I think the connection with our communities makes it different [from other media organizations]. It’s not just a job we’re public servants. We’re serving our communities. We’re serving our aunties, our uncles, our cousins, our relatives. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s actually the perfect segue to my next question which is, what is the story or project that you are most proud of?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

The one I’m most proud of actually happened during the pandemic. The Indian Health Service wasn’t keeping track of pandemic cases at the time, when it started in March 2020. I thought, “I need to tell this story.” I wanted to look at the bigger picture in Indian country and see how the pandemic was affecting us.

I started a spreadsheet on Google, and people would throw in cases, and I [started to make a database] of how many cases were new and what tribe. I ended up spending maybe four to six hours a day for six months calling people and building relationships and telling them what I’m doing and sharing this database with them. This other Native epidemiologist caught on and made a map out of [the data], and then she linked this up with some folks at John’s Hopkins University. So we partnered up to create an even more comprehensive database, and I handed over that baby to them and was like, “Take care of it.” 

Now we have volunteers who are calling around to tribes and asking tribes for publicly available data. They turned it into this big map that’s on the resource page of their website. That was a really fun project for me because it came out of love. It was important for me to be transparent with tribes and show them, “This is my homework. It’s up for scrutiny. If I’m missing something let me know.” A lot of times reporters or even medical researchers will go into communities of color, extract what they need, and just leave without giving anything back. So it was important for me to give that data back to them and say, “This is what’s going on.” Pretty soon we started tracking deaths, and we were the only ones tracking the mortality rate. That was a big project.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Yeah. I mean that was amazing that you were the one to initiate this huge public health effort. I wonder how this big project of yours played into your promotion into your new role, because now you’ve been named the publication’s first female Editor. How does it feel now to be in a leadership position and a positive role model for young Native American women? What advice would you have for them that may help them take advantage of career opportunities, particularly through fellowships?

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

It still feels very surreal. I love the work. I just want to keep doing it because I think our communities need it. I’m learning a lot about being a manager and a leader, so I’m looking at other people, other leaders I had in my life and other mentors and picking out what qualities I like in them and what do I want to implement in my leadership. How do I bring out those strengths and those qualities I like? 

I would say to young Native people to keep hustling, but also know that rest is part of the hustle, too. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of other people and to do your job. Essentially, we can’t take care of other people or do our jobs if we don’t take care of ourselves. We’re human too and I think mistakes are okay. Mistakes are very much okay because we’re going to make a lot of them and I think accepting that already has definitely helped me in my journey.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Jourdan, thank you so much for sharing your experience. You just have a really interesting background and trajectory in your career. And a couple of things I noticed is that you have linked yourself into groups like NAJA and others. I would also encourage recent graduates and others to go out like Jourdan has and really link yourself up, get involved in organizations that are doing socially impactful work, and broaden your network so that you can find these opportunities.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

That’s definitely the big tip! Try to be brave and just go into those spaces and own it as well, because that’s definitely helped me. And also just viewing relationships as friendships, too. I don’t believe in people being very transactional. It just feels…very odd. It just doesn’t feel human. Every person I met along my journey has felt like a friendship and that’s definitely helped me.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I love that. Thinking of networking as friendships, that’s a really good way to think about it. You’re building relationships, not just a network. I love that. 

Well, Jourdan, thank you so much for spending time with me today, telling us about your experience, and giving us information about the fellowships that you’ve done. I want to make sure these are linked in the interview so that other people can find them, learn more about them, and then, of course, checking out Indian Country Today and seeing your great work there. Keep up the good fight, keep telling the stories that are important, and we hope you’ll stay engaged with us as part of ProFellow community.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

Thank you so much.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye is the editor for Indian Country Today. She is the first woman to be the chief news executive and top editor of the 40-year-old newspaper and website. She’s also a Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) board member. She is a Diné citizen of the Navajo Nation. She identifies as the Towering House Clan, the Coyote Pass Clan of Jemez, the Mexican Clan, and the Hopi with Red Running Into the Water Clan.

Inspired by Jourdan’s story? Check out our list of 40 Journalism Fellowships for Experienced Journalists and Recent Graduates.

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