On Wednesday, March 25, from 12-1 p.m., Karen Lincoln Michel will present “Media Landscape – Views from a Ho-Chunk Journalist,” a virtual spring colloquium hosted by the Department of Life Sciences Communication. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is proud to support the event as part of Our Shared Future, a multi-year effort to educate the campus and the broader community on the Ho-Chunk Nation and the history it shares with the university.
Space is limited to 75 public “seats” for this virtual colloquium via the Zoom platform.
Register here until Tuesday, March 24, at 11:59 p.m. A recording will be available at a later date for on-demand viewing.
Michel, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, is the president of Indian Country Today, a non-profit public media operation with a digital news platform covering the Indigenous world, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. She was previously publisher and executive editor of Madison Magazine, and served in management and reporting roles at The Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, Louisiana), Green Bay Press-Gazette, Dallas Morning News, and La Crosse Tribune. She has served as president of the Native American Journalists Association, and UNITY: Journalists of Color.
Below is a lightly edited Q&A with her:
Q: You’ve said that your time in Winnebago, Nebraska, convinced you of the need for more Native American journalists. You went into journalism soon after that. What was it about your experience there that stoked your desire to become a journalist, and a leader for Native American journalists?
A: At the time, I was teaching graphic arts courses at a tribal community college on the Winnebago Indian reservation and managing a student print shop. Tribal leaders were moving ahead with some innovative projects to increase economic development on the reservation and they contracted with my students to print some promotional materials. My students and I became well versed in the tribal government’s plans to expand commerce and invest in infrastructure. But I soon noticed that many people in the community didn’t know about these forward-thinking ideas, and others who were familiar with the plans didn’t necessarily have all the facts and were spreading misinformation. I thought that if someone started a newspaper or a radio station on the reservation, community members could be kept better informed.
I brought this idea to my boss, who encouraged me to attend an upcoming gathering of Native American media professionals. It was called the National Indian Media Conference and it brought together journalists from reservations and urban areas across the country. It was the first time I had seen Native reporters, editors, producers, broadcasters and on-air talent, and I was amazed at the type of work they were doing and the impact they were making in their communities. It was the first time I thought: Maybe I could become a journalist.
Q: You’ve held top management positions and had a strong hand in hiring decisions and newsroom leadership. What have you learned about providing opportunities and fostering inclusive and diverse work environments that might be helpful in any workplace?
A: It’s important to mention that my management principles are based on my Ho-Chunk values. Some of those values are respect, integrity, humility, gratitude, wisdom, listening, humor, and considering what’s best for the whole group. These values originate from teachings that have been handed down through the generations, but they also apply to business practices in the workplace. I believe these management principles also help set the tone for an inclusive work environment.
Every workplace has a culture. I have been fortunate to have worked in some newsrooms where diversity, equity and inclusion were important. As I moved into management, I tried to do what I could to make sure we considered a wide pool of applicants for open positions and put practices into place that would be welcoming to all employees. The push to have an inclusive work environment starts at the top. You need to have leaders who place a high priority on diversity in staffing – and for newsrooms in particular, you need to ensure your news coverage regularly includes stories about underserved communities. One of the best ways to achieve those goals is to promote qualified individuals who represent diverse communities into decision-making roles. It’s also crucial to provide training opportunities and mentoring programs for all employees to try to foster an engaged and talented workforce.
Q: Over 30 years as a journalist, your work has sometimes touched on matters of public health, agriculture, the environment, and other sciences. Do any stories stand out to you as illustrative of the similarities or differences in how members of indigenous and non-native communities view these issues?
A: In recent years, I have worked on the business side of journalism; so, my most vivid experience of cultural dynamics took place earlier in my career. I was a reporter at the La Crosse Tribune when the spearfishing controversy was at its height in northern Wisconsin. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Ojibwe tribal members speared walleye in lakes located in areas that the Ojibwe had ceded through treaties in the 1800s. As part of those treaties, the Ojibwe had retained the right to spear fish in those ceded territories. In protest, demonstrators gathered at landings where spearfishermen launched their boats. Some protests turned violent and some of them turned into media spectacles.
Another reporter and I, along with a photographer, were sent to the Lac du Flambeau area in Vilas County to write a series of stories about the conflict and try to give readers a glimpse into the views of not only the Ojibwe spearfishers and the protesters, but also the views of Ojibwe people, white supporters and local off-reservation business owners who feared tourism would decline as a result of the controversy. Tribal leaders and state government officials also were interviewed for several of the stories. I like to think we did a good job of explaining the meaning of tribal sovereignty, and why the Ojibwe had a right to spear fish in the ceded territory — that the Ojibwe people weren’t “given special rights,” but had retained certain rights through treaties with the federal government. The series also included views of a vocal anti-treaty group, as well as a group supportive of the spearfishers. It was a complex issue with many layers. For that series, Lee Enterprises (the parent company of the La Crosse Tribune) gave the paper an award for enterprise reporting.