50 Years Ago: Survey gauges reader interest in Times’ content

Back in the summer of 1968, Navajo Times management was taking a long, hard look at the tribal newspaper in an effort to find out why people bought it.

Circulation throughout 1967 and ’68 was static with the paper selling a little over 10,000 papers a week and Dick Hardwick, the paper’s editor during that time, was trying to think of a way to boost sales.

There was talk about having a circulation contest among the people who deliver the paper to stores. The person getting the biggest increase in sales would win a prize. But the paper carriers nixed that idea, saying that there was little they could do to boost sales when they couldn’t control when the papers hit the newsstands.

The paper during those years (and up until the early 1980s) was printed in Albuquerque and the layout sheets had to be driven to Albuquerque about 10 p.m. on Wednesday night in order to have it printed and ready for pickup at 7 a.m. on Thursday.

During this period, the Times had one staff position for a reporter and another for a part-time photographer so Hardwick found himself doing a lot of the writing as well as layout. So the 10 p.m. Wednesday deadline sometimes spilled over into the early morning hours of Thursday.

Bad weather also had a major effect on when the papers were delivered so there were times when the paper didn’t hit the stores until late Thursday or, in a few cases, Friday morning.

This affected sales on the reservation but not in the border towns since the biggest sales period for Gallup and Farmington was on Saturday when families traveled off the reservation to shop, do laundry, see movies, or visit night spots.

So Hardwick decided to postpone any circulation drive until he could have better control over when the paper hit the stores. Instead, he decided to do a survey to see what the readers of the paper liked and disliked about the paper.

He had a survey sheet inserted in the August and September editions asking people what section of the paper they liked. He also asked readers to make suggestions on how to improve the paper.

When the results were tabulated, there were a lot of surprises.

The main complaint was that the paper did not get to stores at the same time each week.

Readers also wanted more photos, especially of sporting events, and fewer photos of people just standing and looking at the camera.

In many cases, the readers said, the faces were so small and the printing so dark that no one could be recognized.

Hardwick responded by saying that he didn’t know until he saw the printed product as to whether the photos were clear enough to make the faces recognizable. He blamed the printer for that problem although the actual fault was that most photos were sent in and had poor quality.

This was the heyday of the Polaroid, which printed out photos in less than a minute. The quality, however, left a lot to be desired especially when the photographer tried to jam as many faces into a photo as possible even though Hardwick would say the fewer people in the shot, the better.

A lot of the paper’s readers said they wanted to see more sports stories in the paper, especially about rodeos and basketball tournaments. Readers pointed out that off-reservation newspapers did not cover reservation schools and they wanted more school sports stories.

More than half the people who turned in surveys commented on the lack of school sports stories, convincing Hardwick that he needed a full-time sportswriter.

Next to sports, most read was letters with more than one person commenting that the letters-to-the-editor section often contained more news about the government and chapters than the rest of the paper.

A number of the readers also complained that the paper didn’t report on what was going on in the tribal government and border-town papers did a lot better job of covering controversial news.

Hardwick blamed this on the lack of full-time reporters. In fact, he realized there were limits on what he could write about because he wanted to stay in good favor with the administration.

While it was true that the government was subsidizing the paper to make up for annual losses, there was no real censorship except that of management wanting to curry the support of tribal leaders.

The readers said they also wanted obituaries with many readers living off the reservation saying they wanted to know who had died. As a result of these comments, Hardwick contacted the funeral homes in the area and urged them to send in their obituaries, promising to print them without charge.

Readers also indicated they wanted wedding news but Hardwick felt this would take up too much space.

Many readers commented on the quality of the writing, saying most of the articles each week were boring.

Hardwick admitted privately that this was fair criticism since a majority of the articles printed each week were press releases and the paper didn’t have the manpower to do its own stories.

A few readers also suggested coverage of national Indian news but, again, the problem was lack of manpower. It would be another 20 years or so before news from other tribes became available.

A few readers urged the paper to become a daily but Hardwick said he was having a hard enough time putting out a weekly paper to even think about doing it more than once a week.

The paper went daily in the early 1980s and then returned as a weekly after being shut down for several months by Peter MacDonald shortly after he began his fourth term as chairman.

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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.