A Q&A with Nick Martin, HCN’s new editor on the Indigenous Affairs Desk

A member of the Sappony Tribe, Martin joins High Country News from The New Republic, where he previously covered Indian Country.

 

Nick Martin is joining High Country News to lead our Indigenous Affairs Desk, which was started in 2017 to cover Indian Country and center Native voices for a Native audience. Since then, the desk has published hundreds of stories by Indigenous journalists, including Tristan Ahtone (Kiowa), who helped establish the desk. Ahtone co-wrote HCN’s “Land-Grab Universities” investigation, which has won numerous accolades, including a George Polk Award, and sparked conversations and land-back initiatives at university campuses across the country.

Martin, a member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina, comes to us from The New Republic, where he covered Indian Country. He has also written for Deadspin, Splinter, The Washington Post and others. “We were especially impressed with Nick’s big-picture thinking and his ideas for how to keep HCN’s Indigenous affairs coverage distinctive and out in front of what other outlets are doing,” said Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief of HCN.

Martin will join HCN in August.

HCN: You’re from North Carolina, with deep family roots there, and much of your career has been at East Coast and national outlets. What made you want to come to a publication that is focused on the West?
Nick Martin: As I was progressing through my career and started getting into political journalism, HCN’s Indigenous Affairs Desk became a beacon for me and what Indigenous Affairs journalism could be. It wasn’t a case of an East Coaster finding a Western publication; it was an Indigenous journalist looking out and seeing what was possible.

HCN: You’ve been covering Indigenous issues for The New Republic. How do you see your work shifting as you move to HCN?
NM: That depends on the position itself. I’m moving from a writing-centric role into one where I will be editing more. A lot of what I’ll be dealing with will be managerial and editorial strategy. I’ll be flexing muscles I haven’t been able to use as much before. I started in local papers, working much closer to the ground. For me, this is going to be a happy medium: not the pace of a daily, but not the remove of a national publication. The coverage at HCN is extremely rooted in place and community. That’s an exciting opportunity to step into this editing and leadership role while staying true to what HCN is about: covering the communities of the West.

HCN: The IA Desk has covered stories outside of what HCN typically defines as the West — in Oklahoma, for example — because of their importance and how they may impact the larger region. What do you think Indian Country as a coverage area will look like for you and the desk?
NM: I think it’s going to be an organic process. Graham (Lee Brewer, a former editor on the desk and Cherokee Nation citizen) is from Oklahoma, and it makes sense to see his coverage of the nations in that area. I’ve found that you tend to produce some of your best work when you have a personal angle. For the people on the desk and the people we bring in, Indian Country will largely be defined by their conceptions of it. We have the talent on the desk and the flexibility and capability to play with those boundaries but stay true to HCN.

HCN: You’ve written about the rural agricultural background of your family and the Sappony. How do you think that will influence your approach or coverage at HCN?
NM: Our Indigenous Affairs Desk is going to be defined by the people on it, just as the definition of Indian Country will be. When I got into political journalism, I focused on communities like the one my family and I came from. The pieces that are most memorable to me concern topics like farm laborer rights in North Carolina and the divide between rural and urban teachers’ salaries during budget negotiations in the North Carolina General Assembly. These are things I’ve taken in that have inspired me in some way. I’ve lived in New York City for five years now — from one extreme to another — but you are a lot of where you grow up.

HCN: What aspirations do you have for the IA Desk, and where do you see the coverage going in the future?
NM: I want to stick to what has made HCN’s Indigenous Affairs Desk great so far. I’ll be doing a lot of listening and soaking up institutional knowledge. I’m really excited to see what we can do to build on what Tristan, Graham, Bryan (Pollard, interim IA Desk associate editor and Cherokee Nation citizen), Anna (Smith, IA Desk assistant editor) and others have done. The beauty of “Land-Grab Universities” is that it lends itself to so many more stories, and we’ll be looking at that coverage. In addition to grappling with the past, which we should be doing, we’ll also be looking forward to issues that will define Indian Country for the next 10 to 20 years, like the recent story about lithium mining and the cost to Indigenous religions. The federal government and tribal nations are looking away from fossil fuels and extractive industries, but renewables also come with a cost. And that involves the broader subject of how the U.S. is assisting or resisting the pursuit of tribal sovereignty. We need to stay ahead and try not to get bogged down by trying to constantly swing for the fences, while still thinking big in terms of the next “Land-Grab.”

HCN: We recently finished a reader survey, and a lot of the positive feedback we received was related to our Indigenous Affairs coverage. In the short time since the desk started, Indigenous Affairs has become something our readers value greatly and expect from us. How does it feel to be taking that over?
NM: It’s a fascinating prospect. As a subscriber, I’ve had access to the magazine’s archives, and I leafed through the past eight years or so. It’s a marked transition when the IA Desk appears — all across the magazine. The Indigenous Affairs coverage has blossomed in a way that’s unique for a magazine that’s 50 years old. I think it’s been reinvigorated in a way that resonates with a broader audience. Before, HCN’s coverage of Indigenous Affairs was like most other publications, which is to say it didn’t exist in a connected way. HCN is bringing a lot of people into its work with what the IA Desk is doing. To accomplish something like “Land-Grab Universities” sets a high bar — but also reflects how the rest of the industry hasn’t covered these issues well — and now we have readers and up-and-coming journalists looking to HCN for its Indigenous Affairs coverage. But there’s not an overwhelming sense of pressure. We just have to continue what we’re doing.

HCN: Since HCN started its Indigenous Affairs Desk, other publications have followed suit or hired writers to cover Indian Country. So, in relative terms, the field is a little more crowded now than it was in 2017. How do you view that trend, and will it affect how you’ll approach the role?
NM: That’s a product of HCN’s coverage. It shows the difference it makes when a regional magazine like HCN with its profile and the quality of its journalism decides to create an Indigenous Affairs Desk. Other publications have been inspired to dedicate staff or a desk to Indigenous coverage. Since I joined The New Republic, they saw the landscape and invested in coverage of Indigenous issues, and part of that is shaped by HCN. That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for Indigenous journalists who don’t have to sit in the spaces previously carved out for us. The field being more crowded pushes us to work harder. I want to be in partnership with other IA desks, and I want to compete against them, too. I see nothing but positives.

HCN: Have you seen how HCN’s work has affected larger conversations around Indigenous Affairs coverage? And have you thought about that now that you’ll be leading the IA Desk?
NM: As someone who’s a subscriber and has been writing about Indian Country for the past few years at a national publication, I’ve read things in HCN that I wished I’d done or from angles I hadn’t thought of. And part of that comes through discussions with colleagues about HCN’s work. Even dating back to the time I spent at Splinter, I was trading HCN links back and forth with editors because the coverage is so inspirational. One of the things that’s most attractive about HCN is how hard it works on partnering with other organizations. I want to tap into the connections we already have and make new ones. I want to work with smaller organizations to get their names out there, and work with bigger organizations to get our name out there.

HCN: One last question. You’re still in New York City now but have plans to move west. Any idea where you’ll end up?
NM: I’m open to suggestions. The West is our oyster.

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