Covering the COVID-19 Crisis in the Navajo Nation

The Navajo Times, based in Window Rock, Arizona, is the only newspaper focussed on reporting the news of the Navajo Nation—which covers an area larger than West Virginia and is home to more than a hundred and seventy thousand people. Many residents of the reservation don’t have Internet service, so the paper is vital to the community in a way that is increasingly rare these days, as local-news outlets around the nation are withering, sometimes supplanted by social media and sometimes by nothing at all.

Eléonore (Léo) Hamelin’s short documentary “The People’s Newspaper” follows staff members of the Navajo Times as they travel across the reservation collecting stories and covering the COVID-19 outbreak. For most of last year, the per-capita coronavirus-infection rate on the reservation was the highest in the country. The film gives a taste of the daily work of journalists who are attempting to cover the unfolding crisis, even as it touches their own lives. The paper has been running many more obituaries than usual. Several staff members have had the virus and recovered; one, who delivered the paper, died.

In a small community, even straightforward statistical reporting on the pandemic quickly becomes personal. “I see the numbers every day and I report on it,” the reporter Arlyssa Becenti says in the film. “Seeing those numbers and knowing those are my relatives and knowing that—my mom, she knows everybody. She’ll say a name and I’m, like, ‘Oh, are you kidding me? I know that person. I just saw that person.’ And they’re just one of those numbers now. The death toll that I’m reporting on.”

The paper, which comes out every Thursday, was selling a few more than twelve thousand copies a week at the beginning of the year, but it reaches even more readers. When print publications calculate their circulation, they usually assume that two or three people read each copy. Tommy Arviso, Jr., the C.E.O. and publisher of the Navajo Times, told me that for his paper, which is often the only available source of the news it provides, that number is five or six. The pandemic has affected the newspaper’s circulation, Arviso said, as newsstand retailers have closed during shutdowns, but it has also made the publication’s importance to the community more apparent than ever.

“I can honestly tell you that our journalism has made a difference,” Arviso said. “We’ve had stories about people that were struggling to get by with their basic necessities because of where they live—they’re out in such remote areas. Their living conditions are really challenged. And people responded. They responded. They went out and helped people. They brought water; they brought firewood; they brought food. They brought equipment to help patch up your roof. Those are the kinds of things we do that are distinct that I’m really proud of.”

In some ways, the Navajo Times is doing better than many other local papers. It started in 1959 as a newsletter put out by the Navajo tribal council, and, after some struggle to break away from the oversight of tribal authorities, it has evolved into what it is today: a self-sustaining, for-profit, independent outlet. It owns its own printing presses, which helps with costs. The paper won the Newspaper of the Year award from the Arizona Newspapers Association four years in a row, from 2016 through 2019.

Still, like much of the industry, the paper is “feeling the pinch,” Arviso said. Before the pandemic hit, the cover price rose from a dollar to a dollar-fifty. Recently, the price of newsprint went up, which Arviso called “a big hit.” For now, however, the finances are relatively solid. A greater challenge is maintaining the publication’s ability to provide its unique coverage. The paper has just three full-time reporters, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find young, Navajo journalists, particularly those who can speak Navajo, which is the primary language for many of the elderly in the community. In the film, we see a reporter announce that she’s leaving for a job at the Texas Observer; an opening for a reporting position is still posted on the paper’s Web site.

Arviso himself has been with the paper for thirty-five years. He and his staff persist in their work despite the hardships. “We know what we’re doing is the right thing,” he said.

“This paper is not just a piece of paper with words on it,” he said. “It actually takes on a life of its own. It’s how we think and feel, what we put into it. Our own thoughts, our tears, our smiles, our laughter. Every emotion goes into this newspaper. So when it goes out into the street, when it goes out into the newsstand, it’s a part of us that we’re sharing with our people.”

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