MacRorie returns to become editor of tribal newspaper

Chet MacRorie officially took over the running of the Navajo Times on March 27, 1971, at the request of Chairman Peter MacDonald. MacRorie had been the paper’s first editor, leaving after nearly two years because of his frustration dealing with then-chairman Raymond Nakai. He came back two years later at the request of members of the Navajo Tribal Council and then left some 18 months later at the request of the Council.

He has never been given the credit he should have for converting a tribal newsletter into a functioning newspaper despite a number of challenges imposed by the tribal government. The first was financial. The Times was never given an adequate budget under Nakai. That meant that MacRorie, who was in charge of running the paper, was responsible for advertising, handled circulation and was never able to hire a full-time reporter, forcing him to do much of the writing.

He said the only other employee he had was a secretary. He was also under a lot of constraints about what he could write about. He could attack the BIA, federal government and outside interests but any attack, no matter how small, on actions by the tribal government would lead to talk by some on the Council and offices of the government about the need to find someone to replace him. The only thing that forced the tribe to keep him was the fact that Nakai could find no one with the ability to put a newspaper out and who was willing to do it for $10,000 a year.

On his side, MacRorie tried to put out a decent paper but, with no money to hire reporters, he was forced to fill the paper with press releases and community service announcements except for the two or three stories he had time to write each week. The first paper he published when he came back was the April 1 issue, which was a step up from the ones produced by Dick Hardwick but not a big step.

The paper still had no money to hire a full-time reporter but MacDonald had agreed to increase the paper’s budget to provide funds for the hiring of two part-time reporters, which for the first time would give the paper the ability to actually cover the tribal government. In that April edition, MacRorie gave readers a brief history of the paper and the behind-the-scene discussions that led to him being contacted in 1962 to create the paper. “Returning to the helm of the Navajo Times is like coming home,” he said. “There is something like being at the birth of a newspaper is like being a parent. When your child is born, all you desire is the best for him.”

As the child grows, all you want to do as a parent is to bore your friends with stories on how well he is doing. The same was true with MacRorie and the Navajo Times. He said he was contacted in 1961 by John McPhee, director of communications for the tribe, who asked if he wanted the challenge of creating a tribal newspaper from scratch. “His optimism was contagious,” said MacRorie, who was at one time the publisher of the Gallup Independent, which is where McPhee came in contact with him.

MacRorie had moved to California and jumped at the chance to return to the Southwest. The first problem he had to deal with, he said, was building up the paper’s circulation. He did this by making an arrangement with the Navajo Police to have officers deliver – at no cost – papers to every chapter. One person would be in charge of selling the paper, receiving four cents for every paper sold. Fortunately, the papers sold well as MacRorie was able to get someone in all of the major chapters and most of the smaller ones to act as a correspondent.

That doesn’t mean they actually wrote stories. Their responsibility was to collect information each week about upcoming events. The correspondent was then responsible for relaying that information to Window Rock.

My guess is that they received a small fee, probably $5 or $10 a week, to do this. He also put notices in the paper for people to send any photo that was newsworthy, which resulted in the paper printing hundreds of photos a year of groups of people staring at the camera. He said he did this to prevent the paper from having just news about Window Rock.

These announcements accomplished that but readers of the paper realized that all written stories focused on something going on in Window Rock. The budget given to him was enough to pay for him and a secretary.

The money coming in from sales of the paper helped pay part of the cost of having it printed in Albuquerque. The rest had to come from advertising. He didn’t have a lot of time to go after advertisers so most of his efforts went toward persuading car dealers in border communities to advertise.

Not only did car dealers buy large ads (half or a full page) but once you got one car dealer in a community to advertise, it forced the other car dealers to do the same. Other border town businesses were urged to advertise but most tuned their backs on the paper in its early years because of a belief that elderly Navajos had no money to buy things and the segment of the tribe that did have money – young Navajos in their teens and 20s – didn’t read the paper.

MacRorie counteracted this by giving businesses cheap rates – in some cases, at no cost – to give them a chance to see how effective an advertising tool the paper was. As the paper grew, it began getting resistance, he said, from tribal leaders who were concerned about what the paper was saying about them.

This was a time, he said, when the reservation and the Navajo people were experiencing a lot of change and he wanted the paper to cover these changes. MacRorie said he fought for the right of the paper to cover the tribal government, pointing out that the paper belonged to the Navajo people, not the administration.

A lot of tribal leaders didn’t have this same attitude, which caused friction at times between the paper and tribal leaders. The biggest point of contention in the early years, he said, centered on the letters to the editor, which gave readers the opportunity to point out problems on the reservation and in the tribal government. It also allowed them the opportunity to criticize government leaders.

Tribal leaders wanted the opportunity to review the letters before they were printed but MacRorie refused to allow this. So throughout the Nakai years the paper wasn’t able to actually cover the news. This would change a little during the MacDonald years but editors and reporters at times felt the pressure when MacDonald decided a story was too critical of him or his administration.


About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.

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