A new entity has slipped into the interwebs to challenge Alaska’s established news media for the attention of your eyeballs.
Alaska Banner.com is an attractive website with a masthead featuring the big dipper and north star strategically placed between the words “Alaska” and “Banner,” and nothing but hyper-local news.
Google it up, and the search engine will duly inform you the Banner features “News from the last frontier.”
The more than 55,000 Facebook viewers who are members of “Anchorage Scanner Joe” or “Stolen in Alaska” will likely be well aware of the Banner by now. It regularly populates these Facebook pages with links to its stories to “drive traffic” as they say in the internet business.
Traffic is what online news is all about whether your website is named AlaskaPublic.org, Buzzfeed.com, ADN.com, Vice.com, KTUU.com, KTVA.com or even craigmedred.news. Traffic is how websites generate revenue, or at least that is how it works for those that generate revenue.
Traffic has not been all that good to date at the Banner, owner Jeremy Farley said in a Friday telephone interview, but he’s working the internet hard and hoping to grow the operation. He has a vision that reaches well beyond Alaska.
“If it works here,” he said, “it would work anywhere.”
Low, low, low overhead
Farley believes he just might have the keys to internet news success: free labor and low overhead. Almost all his news copy is produced by public information officers, government agency spokes people, and similar public relation’s types all across Alaska, and he and his wife operate the Banner website out of their home in Wytheville, VA.
Wytheville is a pretty little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains about 75 miles west of Roanoke. Sperling’s Best Places pegs the cost of living at 91 on a national scale that puts the average at 100. Anchorage scores a 143 – 43 percent above the national average, according to the website.
It’s hard to argue with the economics of Farley’s plan. Given the worldwide reach of the internet, there is no doubt it is cheaper to produce Alaska news from Virginia than from Alaska. The McClatchy Company, which owned the Anchorage Daily News before its sale to Alice Rogoff, understood this reality. McClatchy never went so far as having news produced from elsewhere, but there was a time when it outsourced some production, copy editing and IT operations to India.
But there is a question as to whether what the Banner produces is truly news. Farley described the site as a “clearinghouse” for government press releases.
“They are news,” he added. “Folks kind of have to be their own editor.”
And in fairness to Farley, the reality is that in many respects the news the Banner is producing isn’t much different from the news produced in Anchorage by established media outlets.
What is the job of journalists anyway?
“I have not researched Alaska Banner extensively,” said Richard Murphy, the former Snedden Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the former Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the one-time photo editor at the Daily News. “But it appears to be an anonymous, uncredited, unverified crime blog that reprints official press releases.
“This style of crime reporting is unfortunately common. The crime beat used to be where news organizations put some of their most seasoned reporters, so readers got a nuanced, and verified, version of the story, rather than the often self-serving and incomplete press releases of government agencies.”
Murphy is old school.
“One of the roles of journalism is to be a watchdog of government, not its unquestioning spokesperson,” he said.
But the reality is that much, if not most, of the news today is driven by little-questioned press releases or unverified statements from government officials
After Seward’s Ronn Hemstock was badly mauled by a grizzly bear while walking his dog along the little used airstrip in that Resurrection Bay community earlier this month, the Alaska Dispatch News suggested he’d illegally entered a fully fenced airport property and gone jogging on arunway because, according to the story, a state official said it was so.
Never mind that the Seward airport is adjacent to the Seward Highway and any half-observant person who has driven into that community 125 miles south of Anchorage has seen that it is not surrounded by a fence. (For the record, the state official, Shannon McCarthy of the Department of Transportation, also denies she told the News the airport was fenced, but that’s another matter.)
How news works today
The newspaper did eventually correct the story on its website to say there was no fence, and Hemstock wasn’t running. He was walking his dog in the early morning darkness. The dog ran off, encountered a bear, brought it back and it attacked.
“All indicators suggest the mauling resulted from a surprise encounter — Hemstock startled a bear that reacted to a perceived threat, the bear subdued the threat and ran off, (Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ken) Marsh said.”
Why continue to run a best-guess account based on Marsh’s heat-of-the-moment conclusions as to what happened when Hemstock has since talked freely about the events leading up to the attack?
Because the news today is loath to challenge anything said by officialdom, which puts Farley’s Banner in an different light.
A former Twitterati for NASA, Farley concedes the ability of government to use the media.
“Press releases may be more propaganda than anything,” he admitted. But today’s news business isn’t your father (or mother’s) news business.
“As the entire news industry is changing, established media are cutting staff,” he said, and press releases are becoming ever more important.
“These are evolving times,” he said.
Farley said he got the idea to try out a new idea for these evolving times in the 49th state because “Alaska is a unique state.”
There is no doubt about that. A slew of reality TV shows have made themselves money selling the uniqueness of the north. They might have distorted some of the characters living here, but the backdrop is real.
The Last Frontier
Alaska is wild. America is largely urban. To those Outside, Alaska is odd, exotic, intriguing, dangerous. It’s a long list of different.
“My mother lives in Alaska,” Farley said. “So we’ve traveled up there a few times.”
He spent enough time in-country to learn the state is huge and not always that well connected. Alaska mainstream media today carry more stories from outlying areas than they did in the past, but the major news outlets still ignore a lot in favor of writing about what is going on in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough which are home to more than half the state’s population.
Press releases from rural Alaska sometimes get overlooked.
Farley said the Banner is trying to “take all of these little pockets around the state and open it up to the nation.”
“If there’s any misunderstanding (as to the nature of the Banner), it’s purely an accident,” he added before asking for suggestions on how he might better identify the site as that aforementioned “clearinghouse” for press releases.
“My mind is open,” he said. “Maybe we need to make that more clear. We don’t mean to do anything misleading. I appreciate your giving me a call.”
A decade ago, there likely would have been little doubt that what Farley is doing – packaging government communiques without any fact checking or background knowledge about Alaska for that matter and passing them off as “news” – is misleading.
But these days the lines get awfully blurry.
Reporting is nothing but the collection of information that forms the framework of a news story. And in in the 49th state today, there are probably more former journalists doing actual, boots-on-the-ground, quote-unquote “reporting” in their roles as government public information officers than there are working journalists doing that sort of thing.
A lot of journalism today is what Farley is doing, rewriting the press releases that comprise the reporting done by officialdom. Officialdom gathers the information. Officialdom defines the narrative. And journalists usually just follow along.
As Farley admits, there is a sometimes very fine line between news and propaganda. His advice that “folks kind of have to be their own editor” could easily be defined in a simpler and only slightly different way.