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.