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Jun 27, 2024

Leader Spotlight: JoVonne Wagner of Montana Free Press

Local journalism helps us understand the world and helps the world understand us. People depend on news organizations to get information and make decisions, from how to vote or what’s going on with public education or local government. 

This month, we’re highlighting the efforts of our journalism and storytelling partners whose work supports a strong democracy and healthy communities. Last year, we were privileged to invest in a collaborative initiative between Montana Free Press (MFP) and ICT News (formerly Indian Country Today) aimed at amplifying Native voices, creating opportunities for young Native journalists, and ensuring comprehensive coverage of issues significant to Indian Country.

Through this initiative, Montana Free Press and ICT hired a Native News Fellow to report on Montana’s American Indian Caucus and other critical policy issues during the 2023 Montana state legislative session. This effort increased Native representation in the newsroom while boosting visibility and public understanding of the health challenges and triumphs within Native communities in Montana. 

Their fellow, talented journalist JoVonne Wagner, has since become a full-time reporter at Montana Free Press. JoVonne is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and was born and raised on the reservation, where she says she experienced both the positive and negative aspects of ‘rez life.’ She graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2022. 

We had the privilege of sitting down with JoVonne to discuss why local journalism and Native representation matter, some of her favorite stories from her fellowship, and what she wants funders to know about the fellowship model.


What do you think is the role of local journalism in supporting a healthy democracy?

I grew up in a small, rural town on the reservation where we had one source for our news – our local newspaper. That local coverage was hard to get for our community. We often felt overlooked or underrepresented. Having dedicated reporters helps the community that’s being covered, but also helps our state, region and nation see and understand the real lives that are being affected by issues. Local journalism helps us understand the world and helps the world understand us. People depend on news organizations to get information and make decisions, from how to vote or what’s going on with public education or local government. 

In your view, why is it important to have Native representation in newsrooms, and how does it affect coverage of issues pertinent to Indian Country?

When we say representation matters, I feel that on such a personal level. Starting in journalism school, besides a couple of my professors and mentors, there weren’t many students or staff that looked like me or came from backgrounds like mine. Indigenous communities have this wall built when media comes in because historically the coverage is often sensationalized or cherry picked, or it’s one-time coverage where journalists never took the time to stay and understand the community. Having more Indigenous people in newsrooms and in journalism at all levels, starting in school, gives that insight and knowledge that I desperately was looking for. 

What were your favorite stories that you covered during your fellowship and why?

Two come to mind! There was a bill to get Indigenous Peoples Day recognized as a state holiday in Montana. Unfortunately, it died on the floor, but covering it gave me the opportunity to follow the life of a bill and place myself as an Indigenous journalist. It was good practice in maintaining a journalistic perspective while getting details out to folks in Indian Country and across Montana. There was also a bill to rename a highway back home after our late Chief Old Person. It had an interesting journey through the legislature, but it was signed by the Governor, and I got to cover the naming and honoring! I received a lot of great feedback from folks in Indian Country on the stories. They were excited to see these issues being covered so closely and to have an Indigenous reporter be the one to cover them.

How did the mentorship and training you received during the fellowship influence your professional development?

My ICT editor, who was also my professor and mentor previously, and my Montana Free Press editor were both great, professional, seasoned journalists with different backgrounds and perspectives. I was grateful to work with two editors because it was double the learning! They helped me so much by leading the way in how I approached stories and talked to sources, no matter how intimidating it all seemed. They helped me understand the importance of turning stories around quickly, pointed out what I might be missing, or what quote might be best used where. 

Why do you believe it’s essential for funders to support local journalism, especially initiatives like this fellowship model?

I realized early on how rare and unique this opportunity was. The fellowship opened doors for me with ICT and Montana Free Press which, afterward, allowed me to intern with ICT and now, have a full-time position with MFP in Helena. The journalism path is not exactly well paid, but it’s about more than a paycheck; it’s about the work that we do for the community. It’s motivating when funders see its worth and give that dedicated support. The fellowship gave me encouragement and confidence to know that I can do this, as a younger, newer journalist at the Capitol, and as one of the only journalists of color. We need that representation, and a support system for Indigenous journalists, and Native folks in Montana needed and appreciated the coverage.


We are proud to support both Montana Free Press and ICT News and we look forward to funding a second legislative fellowship for the 2025 session. We encourage other funders and donors to support local journalism to ensure that diverse voices are heard, and critical issues are covered.

Follow ICT News and Montana Free Press to stay informed and support their essential work!

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.