In one of the sadder moments in the history of modern journalism in Alaska, Tony Hopfinger, the founder and former editor of AlaskaDispatch.com, has sued former business partner and good friend Alice Rogoff, the owner and publisher of the Alaska Dispatch News for more than $1 million.
The suit filed this week is pretty straight forward. It basically says this:
Just after Rogoff bought the Anchorage Daily News and ADN.com to merge them with Alaska Dispatch to create the Alaska Dispatch News at ADN.com, she agreed to purchase Hopfinger’s 5 percent interest in the Dispatch.
Rogoff had already bought the 5 percent owned by Amanda Coyne, Hopfinger’s ex-wife and cofounder of an aggressive news site which attracted national attention. As early as 2010, the American Journalism Review singled Dispatch out for its boots-on-the-ground coverage of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
When Coyne left the internet startup in 2012, however, it was still losing money. She got $5,000 for her shares in Dispatch because Dispatch wasn’t worth much on paper at that time.
Everything changed in 2014 after Rogoff bought the Daily News from The McClatchy Company for $34 million in what was in significant part a real-estate deal.
While negotiating with McClatchy, Rogoff had made arrrangements to sell the 120,000-square-foot Daily News building on 5.3 acres of land at Northway Drive to GCI, Inc., the state’s largest telecommunications company. The real estate deal was worth $15 million, which established the actual value of the newly purchased ADN at around $19 million.
Hopfinger sold his 5 percent interest to Rogoff for about 5 percent of the value of the new company, about $1 million. At the time, he and Rogoff were more partners and friends than employer and employee. She was an honored guest at his wedding in Santa Fe only about a year ago.
As friends, they drew up a Dispatch sales agreement on a napkin as they had done when Rogoff first bought controlling interest in AlaskaDispatch.com from Hopfinger and Coyne.
The napkin said, “I agree to pay Tony $100K at end of each calendar year (beginning ’14) for 10 years.” It was signed “Alice Rogoff” and dated 4/18/14.
The sale of the Daily News, which served to establish the value of the new company, had been publicly announced about 10 days earlier. A payment of $100,000 (“$100K”) for 10 years works out to the $1 million now claimed by Hopfinger in his lawsuit.
The rest of the story might be best summarized by Rogoff’s attorney, who issued a statement on Thursday. Parts of the statement were quoted at ADN.com, but for those interested in what is going on – which sounds in some ways more like a divorce than a business deal – it might help to read the statement in its entirety:
“On June 15, 2016, Tony Hopfinger, former executive editor and president of the Alaska Dispatch News, filed suit against Alice Rogoff and Alaska Dispatch Publishing, LLC, a now-defunct online news outlet.
“Hopfinger’s litigation, which requests over a $1 million in damages, is the unfortunate conclusion to a former business relationship in which Rogoff, through substantial financial assistance, supported and nurtured Hopfinger’s journalistic aspirations and catapulted him into control as editor at the Alaska Dispatch News, Alaska’s most widely-read and recognized news source.
“Rogoff’s former business interests with Hopfinger began in 2009 when Rogoff became the 90 percent owner of Alaska Dispatch Publishing, the website created and initially owned by Hopfinger and his ex-wife, Amanda Coyne. In their own words, Rogoff’s involvement gave Coyne and Hopfinger ‘an amazing opportunity to hire a staff of experienced reporters and editors and to tell that story of Alaska in a way that’s been sorely missing here for a long time.’
“Shortly thereafter, and after considerable capital contributions made by Rogoff, the site began to receive accolades and national attention for the unique stories it covered, which were typically not covered by the larger Anchorage Daily News.
“In early 2014, Rogoff began to make financial and legal arrangements to purchase the Anchorage Daily News with the intent of merging the two news operations into one, in order to expand the ability to connect readers with important coverage of Alaska and the Arctic.
“At the time, Rogoff expected that Hopfinger would act as the president and executive editor of the paper, appreciating their previous shared success bringing under-covered stories and news to the public.
“In order to ensure that Hopfinger was truly committed to the paper, Rogoff tentatively and conditionally agreed to provide him with compensation contingent on Hopfinger’s willingness to undertake broad responsibilities for at least 10 years and to dedicate himself to the success of the paper much in the same way he had dedicated himself to the success of his blog (sic). Unfortunately, Hopfinger did not live up to his promises and has remarried and permanently relocated to Chicago with no apparent plans to return or to provide support to the Alaska Dispatch News.
“Without Rogoff’s significant financial support, neither Hopfinger nor his blog would have achieved success. A 2011 book written by Hopfinger and Coyne recognizes the assistance Rogoff provided to them by saying: “Nobody in our professional careers has believed in us like Alice Rogoff . . . We will forever be grateful for her trust, encouragement, optimism and friendship, as well as her love for Alaska.”
“With the filing of this lawsuit, Hopfinger appears to have abandoned this sentiment, which is a far cry from the allegations and claims in the complaint Hopfinger filed yesterday. Nonetheless, while Rogoff and Hopfinger have been unable to come to a resolution short of litigation, Rogoff remains dedicated to exploring Alaska’s rich narrative in order to support the journalistic endeavors of the excellent reporters at the Alaska Dispatch News, and this lawsuit will have no effect on her continued devotion to do so.”
Disclosure: The author was one of the reporters hired by the Alaska Dispatch. He worked briefly for the new ADN. The relationship ended in May 2015 shortly after he caught Alaska Board of Fisheries member Roland Maw in the illegal act of claiming to be a resident of two states. Maw promptly resigned from the board. The ADN covered up the reason for his resignation and reported Maw quit because of “Kenai River fish wars.” The state continued to investigate Maw and eventually charged him with 12 felonies for illegally claiming Permanent Fund Dividends. He is now awaiting trial.