What a week in Alaska journalism. Just when you think the weirdness has gone beyond weird, things get weirder.
If only Robert Service, the bard of the north, were still alive to document this:
An Anchorage television station does a video for a New York internet start-up that reveals the station is going to turn a significant portion of its news gathering over to amateurs, which might or might not be a bad thing given that Alaska journalism has for years now been transitioning from a profession to a club.
The editor of Alaska Commons, the internet magazine-cum-news site that has been plugging away at local and statewide news for five solid years, cries “no mas,” which throws that operation into chaos given he is its heart, soul and a big part of the brain.
And the Alaska Journal of Commerce, an old and established statewide newspaper, gets into a pissing match with Brad Keithley – an Anchorage attorney, sometimes radio, talk-show host and seemingly full-time Facebook presence – because the AJOC thinks Keithley is having too much influence on the state’s fiscal policy debate.
All of which happens just about the time Keithley labels Facebook the “new newspaper” while a guest on an Anchorage radio show.
By any standard, all of this qualifies as a paradigm shift in news and information and gossip and fake news and make-believe and God only knows what else.
To quote the lead characters in that classic, American movie “Ghostbusters:”
“Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
“The dead rising from the grave!
“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”
Where to begin?
Let’s begin with the obvious. Alaska’s struggling media is at the moment one of the biggest news stories around, but you’d never know this from the Alaska mainstream. Ever since the Anchorage Times died way back in 1992, bringing to an end one of the country’s last great newspaper wars, there’s been an unwritten rule that the club doesn’t question, criticize or even talk much about the club.
But old rules are dying. Over the past 25 years, the media has aged into an old truck with the muffler rusted out. It’s now impossible to control the noise. Read Suzanne Downing over at MustReadAlaska.com.
The one time editor of the Juneau Empire appears to have turned in her Alaska Press Club card and gone rogue since jumping into the tubes.
Blame the internet.
That’s what Andrew Jensen, the editor of the AJOC did when he couldn’t take anymore of Keithley.
“It wasn’t a surprise that last’s weeks column drew a response from self-appointed PFD guru Brad Keithley” is how Jensen started an April 26 editorial.
Given the lack of antecedent, what exactly is the “it”? “It wasn’t a surprise….”
What the hell wasn’t a surprise?
OK, Charles Dickens pulled “it” off in a “Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Few journalists rise to the level of Dickens. Usually when they start anything with “it,” “it” is because “it” is easy, and “they” are lazy.
But the author has digressed to a pet peeve, albeit a legitimate one.
The real issue here is the tubes, the pipes, the internet, whatever you want to call it that has let the masses into the public square over which the media once had control.
Long, long ago, when all of this was first starting, Hal Spencer, a one-time Associated Press bureau chief in Alaska (when that meant something), turned Anchorage Daily News reporter (when that meant something) described all the people expressing their opinions on the internet as “10,000 chattering squirrels.”
Translation? Background noise to be ignored.
At the time, he was probably right. But times change.
Ten thousand chattering squirrels might be easy to ignore, but when one of the squirrels somehow grows to 600 pounds….well, it’s hard to ignore to a 600-pound squirrel if for no other reason than it’s a 600-pound squirrel.
“Resorting to the internet version of shouting by going to the all-cap font, Keithley repeated four times that ISER (the Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Research) believes using (Permanent) Fund earnings costs more jobs than an income tax,” Jensen wrote.
NOT TO GET INTO THE INTERNET VERSION OF SHOUTING TOO MUCH, but what exactly is one to think when those in the established Alaska media start responding to Facebook with editorials?
A reasonable conclusion might be that the Facebook posts are leading the discussion, and thus there is some merit to Keithley’s argument that Facebook is the new newspaper.
Dying old newspapers
And, if true, that might be a good thing because Lord knows other news sites, starting with Alaska Commons, are struggling. All of them, including this one.
ADN.com brings in more money than anyone, possibly more than everyone else combined, but not nearly enough to cover what its staff costs. Not nearly even close to enough. Fortunately, millionaire Dispatch owner Alice Rogoff has so far been willing to eat the losses.
And let’s face it. ADN.com does the grunt work, the “paper of record” work, of Alaska journalism, while everyone else messing around in the journalism business enjoys the fun stories and exhausts themselves trying to make a living.
The latter is not easy. Strike that. The latter is a nightmare. Just you try writing a story or two per day let alone editing the contributions of others which range from very good to abysmal.
Alaska Commons cofounder and managing editor John Aronno on Thursday sounded simply relieved to have abandoned the field of battle after five years.
“We weren’t generating any substantial revenue,” he said, and no business can survive without generating revenue of some sort. Who gives up five years of their live to that?
The committed, the well-meaning, those who think facts matter in a democracy?
“This was definitely, probably the toughest decision I ever made, Aronno said of quitting.. “People can say whatever they want about me, (but) actually leaving the job was probably the easier way” to end this.
Aronno and his wife were the major founding partners of Alaska Commons. The board, which is largely made up minority shareholders, was to meet over the weekend to discuss what to do next.
Chris Bailey, one of those involved in Commons since the beginning, said he isn’t sure how the site goes on without Aronno.
“We’re having a board meeting Sunday,” he said. “We have three options.”
The first is simply to quit, “which I think is a shitty option,”Bailey said.
The second is to sell the name and let someone else take over, or not. Bailey said he’d gladly entertain a million dollar offer from Rogoff, who paid $34 million to secure the old Anchorage Daily News, but he added that a promise of a payment written on a bar napkin would not be acceptable.
The third option, Bailey said, is to sell advertising or create a member-funded website. He was skeptical of the first idea.
“That doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s a hard model to do.”
He thought there might be more possibility in the second idea. He envisioned something of “a non-government funded NPR website.”
“If we could get 500 people to pay $10 a month and some businesses to pay $100 per month, we could raise enough money to hire some writers,” he said.
It might work.
“It’s pretty much throw spaghetti at the wall” and hope something sticks, Aronno said. “My advice to anyone would be to try. We didn’t succeed in being sustainable,” but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t make it work.
There is no doubt news is a valuable commodity. The human desire for information runs deep. But how to make it pay remains the question.
Nobody is having all that much success as KTBY illustrated by trying to turn its new gathering over to amateurs, which beats just fading away. The internet is littered with long dead news websites of one sort or another.
It’s a minor miracle any survive. The maintenance is exhausting. Aronno earned his break, truly earned his break.
“My plan is to take a couple of weeks and read some books,” he said.
What about John Malone (Liberty Interactive) buying GCI for 1.1. Billion?
Does Mr. Malone now own the printing press that ADN is using in GCI’s building?
This state is starting to stink of a planned “take-over”…
Our Permanent Fund has invested millions in Malone’s companies and then he is buying out private ventures in AK?
Not to mention that GCI (Ron Duncan) has profited immensely from state and federal grants to expand into rural Alaska and now another billionaire will profit from our bloated government subsidies while Walker cries no money for the budget!
I think SP was made an offer she couldn’t refuse in Houston.
“It was a dark and stormy night, and raining cash and political offers so hard, even the water broke.”
Good piece, Craig.
Craig, you made my day/week/month with this article. I pretty much laughed throughout the article. Great style. Thanks.
yes, David, but i was crying when i wrote it. so much has changed, not all for the better, and if you’re in the “business” (and, yes, journalism is a business), the situation borders on the apocalypse.
It’s no secret that I’m not a Sarah Palin fan other than I like the fact that the right people hate her, but I’ll take her side on part of that VP run: Somebody yanked McCain’s chain and “persuaded” him that he was not to attempt to win that election. Sarah never got the memo because she was too unknown and untested to trusted with something like that, so she kept trying to win and earned the undying ire of the Beltway Bandits, left and right.
Look at the media elsewhere; all the loud voices are the playthings of millionaires and billionaires who just want to be able to influence the Country. The WaPo cost and is run on chump change for Jeff Bezos, but it is the authoritative voice of the left side of the Beltway crowd. The family whose name escapes me that owns Pravda, excuse me, The New York Times can shed a lot of red ink to keep the voice of the BoWash Axis of Evil safely Red, after all, they’ve seen the future and it works. Rogoff, too, can spend a lot of money to keep the rotting carcass of the ADN upright. I can’t figure out if she and her pals want to run the State, and they are doing a pretty good job of taking it over – of course it helps them that all the potential opposition is too busy fighting each other to oppose Rogoff and the Democrats/unions. Of course her goal may be just to get Alaska in such a compromised financial position that her vulture capitalist husband can step in and “save” us.
I can hang on FB and blogs and even get paid sometimes, plus I still get royalty checks on my book, but they’ve tapered off since it has become pretty dated in the post-Obama world. I need to revise it and get out a second edition but even I couldn’t envision the whole federal government becoming an Alinskyite organizing instrument so there are things to think through. Unfortunately, I can whip out a thousand words or two in a heartbeat but whipping out 100K words or more takes dedication and discipline, things I’m woefully short of these days. But anyway, I can get my voice out there sometimes only because I can afford to not have to do it for a living because I sure as Hell couldn’t live on what I can make doing it. The print and TV/radio press aren’t the only clubs. Ever tried getting a book published when you’re a conservative in Alaska unless your name is Sarah Palin? I won’t grant her the conservative label, but the left thinks she is and she got rich and famous. In the book club you have to a lefty, rich, or famous, and being all three makes you a celebrity and you get lots of money for your book even if all the copies get bought up by leftist PACs and Democrat front groups. Even on the right side of the ditch there’s only one publisher, Regnery, an its authors are a club too.
Anyway, its no place for old men, not if you need money anyway.