The face of journalism in Montana may be on the verge of change, with more Native American reporters looking to join newsrooms across the state.
If the vision holds true and today’s American Indian journalism students join tomorrow’s workforce and hit the streets of Montana’s cities and towns, credit will go in part to Jason Begay.
“What I try to bring to UM is the perspective of tribal journalism,” said Begay, an assistant professor of journalism at UM. “Indian country does exist. We’re not a bunch of tragic figures.”
Begay was recruited to UM to study journalism by Dennis McAuliffe, the first Native American journalist-in-residence at UM. Begay graduated in 2002 before earning opportunities to intern with The New York Times and the Oregonian – two giants in the newspaper industry.
Armed with his new skills, he took his pen and notepad back to Gallup, N.M., to write for the Navajo Times. He returned to UM six years later to teach.
“It changed my life,” Begay said. “I thought it would be cool to come back and do what he (McAuliffe) did for me. They agreed that I might be able to do a good job here.”
Inspired by the role McAuliffe played for him, Begay looked to do the same for other Native students, and joined UM’s teaching staff in 2010. The university wanted to attract more Indian students while educating all students on Indian issues.
Many Montana newspapers would do the same in the mid-2000s. They too were on a quest to hire American Indian reporters and achieve diversity of coverage.
But finding qualified Native American reporters in Montana remains a difficult task. Just one Native American student was in the School of Journalism’s professional program when Begay began two years ago.
Now, he says with a hint of pride, there are four American Indians in the School of Journalism’s professional program and three more in the pre-professional program. It’s the beginning of what Begay hopes is a continuing trend.
“Teaching wasn’t something I would have considered in my future,” Begay said. “The thing that drew me here was the thought of recruiting students and encouraging them to join the program. Fortunately, I’ve managed to do that.”
Begay said he was reluctant to join the faculty at UM and the School of Journalism. He feared they were offering him a token position to achieve their own agenda.
As it turns out, he said, the offer was legitimate and his concerns were quickly laid to rest.
“I found out pretty quickly they (UM) take seriously the issues that Indian Country faces,” he said. “Everyone was serious about wanting more Native students in the program, and we needed more professors here. I recognized that sincerity.”
Begay, who grew up near the Navajo Reservation, understands the issues his Native American students face.
He and his American Indian peers on the UM faculty play an important role in serving as an inspiration to Native students. They also lend an understanding ear when UM’s Native students face problems or concerns.
“There are a lot of things they talk about,” said Begay. “They don’t want to seem like they’re using their family tragedies or bad news to gain favor. But me, being from a reservation and growing up near one, I know what they’re talking about. Having someone with the same background helps.”