Yet more trouble appears on the horizon for the already troubled business of journalism in Alaska.
Rumors have been swirling for weeks that yet more downsizing is coming at the Alaska Dispatch News – the state’s biggest, brawniest and, by sheer force of numbers, best news organization.
And Monday came a “Reader Survey” tucked away on page A-4 of the Alaska’s largest newspaper asking readers in little-bitty type to tell editors “what you absolutely can’t live without in (a) newspaper…with no choice but to produce a leaner print paper.”
If your answer to the question of what you can’t live without is “a Saturday newspaper,” forget about that. News publisher Alice Rogoff, who bought the Anchorage Daily News from the California-based McClatchy Company for $34 million in April 2014 in a good-faith effort to help save Alaska journalism, announced the death of the Saturday edition at the start of the year.
It appears other editions could now be on the chopping block.
“…As advertising and subscription revenue move online,” Monday’s “dear-valued-reader” message said, “it is necessary to scale our print product accordingly.”
The appeal was slightly odd that in this the Internet Age it required readers to rip out the ad and mail it back or deliver it to the Dispatch News office, and in that the tiny type in the request was sure to be hard to read for many regular newspaper subscribers who now skew heavily toward the geriatric set.
When the Pew Research Center for Journalism & Media last polled in 2015, 50 percent of those over 65 said they’d read a newspaper a day before and more than a third (38 percent) in the 55- to 64-age bracket were still regular readers.
Beyond that, the percentages quickly plummeted to 16 percent for people ages 18 to 24. Forty-two percent of the latter were regular newspaper readers when Pew started polling in 1999.
Tough times everywhere
“It’s no secret that these are challenging times for newspapers,” the Dispatch said.
Nothing could be more true.
McClatchy – the former owner of the Anchorage Daily News cum Alaska Dispatch News, both of which have done business online as adn.com – reported a $95.6 million loss in the first quarter of 2017, and last month started laying off yet more staff at its newspapers across the country.
ADN laid off its first staff member this week. Rogoff had steadfastly resisted layoffs in the past.
Her old mantra was that “we can’t cut our way to prosperity.” But that was before she parted ways with AlaskaDispatch.com co-founders Tony Hopfinger and Amanda Coyne, the driving forces behind the Rogoff-funded online-news start up that attracted national attention as “a regional reporting powerhouse.”
Their separation has been difficult. Rogoff remains engaged in a bitter lawsuit with her old friend over a promised payment for the purchase of his share of the company he started.
Lots of other problems have followed Hopfinger’s departure.
For Rogoff the news mogul showered in nothing but positive press when funding AlaskaDispatch.com, the long, bright summer in the online land of the midnight sun appears to be sliding into the long, cold dark of the Alaska print winter.
It seems way more than 15 months have passed since she proclaimed in a footnoted headline: “2016 ADN Update: To quote Jeff Bezos, we’re in ‘investment mode’*”
“News flash, first: We are buying a higher-quality printing press that will be in place later this year,” said the column beneath the headline.
“Next our new printing location….we’re narrowing down choices to a site we hope to occupy by fall. Stay tuned for us to tell you where it is, and even to schedule tours for the public.”
The location turned out to be on Arctic Boulevard near the new Dowling Road overpass. The site was not occupied by fall or winter or spring, and now looks like it might never be occupied.
The Tacoma, Wash., owners of the building are being sued by the electrical contractor who was remodeling under the guidance of Dispatch staff. The contractor contends Dispatch employees operating as agents of the building owner ran up a bill of about a $1 million, paid half of it and then refused to pay the rest.
A lawyer for the contractor placed a lien on the building. He said the Dispatch was not named as a party to the lawsuit because “it didn’t have to be.” The building which houses the Dispatch’s non-functioning new press is the only real asset accessible to the contractor trying to recover his costs. The manager for Arctic Partners, the building owner, did not return phone calls nor did the company’s Anchorage attorney.
So much for “‘Investment mode’*”
“*Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos used these words recently when addressing staff of The Post,” the asterisk at the bottom of Rogoff’s column said. “He was distinguishing between operating at a financial loss versus making a planned choice to invest in future growth.”
Of late, there seems to have come a rising awareness on Rogoff’s part that before making any plans for the future you have to survive the present.
In her New Year 2017 message to Dispatch News readers, she said she wanted to continue providing free online news to readers, but then informed them she could no longer afford to do so.
“…We do business with hundreds of other local companies, contractors and organizations,” she wrote. “We don’t need to make money, but we have to stay afloat.
“…A digital publication the size and scale of adn.com costs a great deal to produce….Design and programming, web hosting, content management systems and other tools and services require heavy investment. And of course, the largest cost is the news staff…..We have more of them — along with editors, photographers and columnists — than many local news organizations in far larger places.”
She then announced a $9.99 per month, $99 per year fee for online access to adn.com. How that is working out is unknown. At least one competitor, KTVA.com, has used the fee as a marketing hook for a cable advertising campaign touting “free” news.
How many people are paying for adn.com access rather than sidestepping the easily sidestepped paywall is an unknown. So, too, the revenue generated by the paywall versus the revenue potentially lost to advertising sales tied to traffic to the website.
There is no doubt that paywall has revenue potential. If adn.com could get 10,000 people to buy in for a year, it would gross almost $1 million, which would put a serious dent in what some now believe to be a $2 to $3 million annual operating loss for the newspaper.
Web traffic trackers indicate visits to KTVA have been on the increase since it branded itself as the news-should-be-free website, and ADN traffic has fallen measurably since the imposition of a paywall, but adn.com remains the elephant in the Alaska media jungle.
The number of daily visitors to adn.com dwarfs the number of visitors to other news sites, and given the way search engines work – ranking sites in signficant part on their age, past popularity and number of story shares – that market dominance is likely to continue for a long time no matter what the other news sites do.
When the old adn.com – the Anchorage Daily News version – was in business, it took the old Alaska Dispatch.com – the predecessor to the new adn.com – years to begin eating into the former’s online lead. And the Daily News website was still the dominant online news source in Alaska when McClatchy sold it to Rogoff.
The problem McClatchy had at that time was that revenue generated by the website couldn’t begin to cover the costs of running a newspaper, and newspaper circulation was falling at a steady rate of about 3 percent per year. Rogoff inherited those problems after the sale, which exploded her costs of operating a news operation that had previously been housed in the corner of an airplane hangar at Merrill Field.
Rogoff’s problem, sadly, became the simple and yet complex problem facing so many news operations in the U.S. today (including this one): the costs of the labor-intensive business of gathering news exceeded the revenues she could generate from the print and online products.
At craigmedred.news, the problem means the owner often works for far less than the minimum wage and picks up freelance work (a second job) when possible to be able to live on more than “pan y agau,” as it used to be said of the non-doping riders in the Tour de France.
At adn.com, it means, as the survey notes, “we have no choice but to print a leaner print paper if we want to be able to produce a paper at all.”
The problem this creates for journalism is the downward spiral. A smaller paper means fewer reporters and editors because the smaller paper doesn’t need them to fill the newshole around the advertisements and because it can’t financially support them. And unless people become suddenly more productive, fewer reporters and editors generally means less news production in the paper and online, and news consumers pay the price.
And as that happens, what everyone thinksof as “news” changes in the marketplace.
A fading ADN has encouraged the rise of some other news or sort-of-news websites, but what the general reader gets there is a mixed bag: the conservative-edged news of MustReadAlaska.com; the liberal-tinted news of The Midnight Sun; the eclectic whim-of-the-editor news found here, the industry-bought and paid for news of sites like AK Headlamp or Alaska Fish Radio, the government news or propaganda provided by entities such as the Alaska Police Department Nixle, and the community news of sites like nextdoor.com.
The old news model is fading; the new model or models is/are still forming.
Newspapers will survive for a long time yet. Reading words on paper is an ingrained habit for millions, and habits are hard to change. Electrons on a screen have already taken over the realm of breaking news, but news on paper remains the financial backbone of the business.
Nobody has as yet has demonstrated the financial model, though AlaskaDispatch.com was getting there before Rogoff decided to buy a newspaper, that can support independent, online journalism, and until someone does, America needs newspapers.
Granted, there are those in Alaska who would like to see the Dispatch just go away. Rogoff managed to alienate many in the business community with her regularly repeated suggestion they have a responsibility to support the newspaper she owns.
At the end of the day, a newspaper is a business. Nobody has any more of an obligation to support that business than any other business. But it is also a business – like a great restaurant or bar – that it would be a shame for a community to lose.
And only more so because the product it produces – whether you love it or hate it – remains vital to a functioning democracy.
In fact, the scariest thing in American democracy today might be the rate at which government agencies are replacing the media with their own news. A lot of it seems benign, from the National Park Service’s “Denali Dispatches” to the Alaska State Trooper’s “Daily Dispatches,” but there is no denying the danger of government becoming the source of news in the absence of an independent media.
The words of the late Alaska adventure Archdeacon Hudson Stuck might say it all here: “The old-timers in Alaska have a saying that (everything)…is all right as long as it is all right….”
Stuck was writing about travel on the trail at 50-degress-below zero, but his observation applies to so much more – so, so much more.
(Editor’s note: The author of this story worked for more than 25 years as a reporter and outdoor editor at the Anchorage Daily News, was deeply involved in the start-up of AlaskaDispatch.com, was for a time an employee of the Alaska Dispatch News/new adn.com, was for years a personal friend of Alice Rogoff and Dispatch co-founders TonyHopfinger and his then-wife Amanda Coyne, and was fired from the Dispatch News after catching Alaska Board of Fisheries member Roland Maw allegedly stealing from the Alaska Permanent Fund. Maw is now awaiting trial on multiple felonies. The Dispatch firing, while unpleasant for both parties, was a reasonable business decision based on Rogoff’s stated believe at that time that the key to success in the Anchorage media market was to produce a less controversial news product.)