The Alaska Dispatch News, the 49th state’s largest newspaper and most-visited online news site, is teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and some on the right in one of the nation’s most conservative states are celebrating.
“If they hadn’t become a shill for left-wing policies, I’m sure many would still have subscriptions,” opined retired Marine Tom Burton from Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. He echoed the views of many.
There is, no doubt, a sliver of truth to this observation as Dispatch publisher Alice Rogoff would admit if she were up to admitting anything these days. Given that she isn’t, what she once told this reporter will have to stand:
“Why do they think I’m so liberal? I’m a Romney Republican.”
Rogoff clearly understood the negatives attached to the L-word in parts of Alaska, but associating herself with a man so widely viewed as part of the American ruling class seems only slightly better.
As for the product produced by the people under her command, the idea that the newspaper itself was or is some flaming liberal organ is simply wrong. Yes, it often leans left, and the Three Partisans – columnists Charles Wohlforth, Dermot Cole and Shannyn Moore, the She-Ra of slurs – can sometimes make it look far more leftist than the old Anchorage Daily Worker, as critics of the Daily News once called that newspaper.
But the reality is that the grunts in the trenches who produce the vast majority of what goes into the newspaper day in and day out spend their time covering non-political events of interest to red Alaskans, blue Alaskans and red-white-and-blue Alaskans – crime, natural disasters, business, the oil industry.
The home page of the ADN website today (be aware it might have changed by the time you hit that link) had stories about Matanuska River erosion, a helicopter crash at Birchwood, the GCI effort to evict the ADN from its print plant, the Zack Brown Band, and a good but retread-story from High Country News about a 16-year-old from Gambell who killed a whale, trolled save-the-whales activist Paul Waston online, and then masterfully played the victim card.
The only one of those stories that might be accused of having any kind of slant is the whale story, and it tilts toward a young Alaska hunter. Is that conservative or liberal, Alaskan or unAlaskan?
Yes, there is a story about President Donald Trump with a headline that quotes him condemning an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” in Virginia where a protest staged by white nationalists sparked a deadly riot that left one dead. The headline sounds pro-Trump. The Washington Post story below it, however, could be viewed as slanted against Trump; it focuses heavily on whether the president was quick enough with his public condemnation.
The headline looks almost like something of an effort to downplay the approach taken by the WaPo with which the Dispatch has a business relationship. The Alaska paper gets a cut-rate on WaPo’s “Arc Publishing Technology” by serving as something of a test bed for software development. “The (Post) News Service and Syndicate site is part of The Post’s Arc custom publishing suite,” the WaPo website says.
Given that the Dispatch dumped the Associated Press, the Post News Service coverage might have been the cheapest and easiest way for the Dispatch to obtain a national story. The story could arguably provide ammunition for those who want to lob accusations of left-wing shill, but any Dispatch bias is way more about power than politics.
With Rogoff firmly entrenched in the Hillary Clinton camp prior to the past election, she dispatched her daughter, Gabrielle “Elle” Rubenstein; and trusted boy-Friday Mead Treadwell, the former Lt. Governor now president of the Rogoff-inspired PT Capital investment firm, to embrace the Trump camp and cover her bases.
Rogoff likes to wrap her arms around power. Alaskans sense it and mistrust it even if they confuse it with liberalism. What is unfortunate is that the leaders of her newsroom, and sadly sometimes those in the trenches, aren’t as concerned.
Here is the sum total of how Rogoff’s newspaper covered her private dinner with Democrat President Barrack Obama on his visit to Alaska in 2015:
“President Obama had dinner Monday night at the South Anchorage home of Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff.
“Rogoff, who has been acquainted with the president for several years, described it as a private dinner featuring an Alaska-grown menu. She did not disclose who attended the dinner or how many guests were invited.
“‘It was a chance for the president to have a conversation with a diverse group of Alaskans,’ Rogoff said. Because it was a private dinner, no guest list will be distributed, she said. She described it as a ‘non-political event.'”
Her “diverse group of Alaskans,” as a photo from the event would later show, included Scott Minerd from Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Partners chairman of investments and global chief investment officer. Guggenheim has talked enthusiastically about backing plans for Arctic development projects.
Minerd was in Anchorage, as ADN.com duly reported, to make a “presentation at ‘The Alaskan Arctic: A Summit on Shipping and Ports,’ a conference organized and sponsored by Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff.”
Also making appearances at the conference were Rogoff’s old friend Gail Schubert, president and CEO of the Bering Straits Native Corp.; Rogoff protegé Hugh Short, co-founder (with Rogoff), chairman and CEO of PT Capital; former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission; and Jimmy Stotts, the president of Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska.
All joined Rogoff and Obama for dinner along with a few others actively involved in Arctic development projects. It is possible this was a “non-political event,” but a rational individual would find it hard to believe that Arctic development, a political issue, was not discussed.
That the Dispatch rolled over for the boss should be journalistically unconscionable, but for the Dispatch it has almost become standard operating practice.
That Rogoff’s behind the scenes political maneuverings and lack of transparency while preaching openness have caused credibility problems for her newspaper that far outweigh issues of political balance or lack thereof cannot be ignored.
Former Dispatch President and Executive Editor Tony Hopfinger, a man now in a legal dispute with Rogoff over promised but undelivered payments for the purchase of his interest in Dispatch.com at the time of Rogoff’s Anchorage Daily News purchase, used to worry incessantly about Rogoff being caught out in her behind the scenes dealings with Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
Fortunately for Hopfinger – who as editor at Dispatch.com had a contract guaranteeing him a big pay day if he was fired or quit because Rogoff tried to interfere in editorial decisions – he was gone from Alaska Dispatch the newspaper rather quickly. Whether the original Dispatch contract guaranteeing editorial control meant anything is hard to say.
Only later would people – many people – learn that Rogoff knows how to sign contracts, she just has trouble keeping contracts. She does, however, know how to peddle influence.
Rogoff was one of Mallott’s biggest Alaska fans, and she was a friend of Walker, though she in May 2015 downplayed the latter relationship at a meeting of the Alaska Resource Development Council where she claimed “I have met Bill a few times.” This reporter, a former friend of Rogoff’s, attended parties at Rogoff’s home with Walker in attendance more than a few times prior to May 2015.
More than that, Rogoff was one of those who played a part in putting together what was called the “Unity Ticket,” which in 2014 saw Mallott, the then-Democrat candidate for governor, abandon his party to run with Walker, an independent.
Her newspaper then helped promote the ticket.
“It’s official: Walker-Mallott will take on Parnell-Sullivan in bid for Alaska governor,” the Dispatch News headlined in a Sept. 2014 story.
“Their arms raised and hands clasped in a victory embrace, Bill Walker and his new running mate, Byron Mallott, declared at a rally and press conference Tuesday that their race for Alaska’s chief executive would be nonpartisan and inclusive,” reporter Rich Mauer wrote in the story below.
“Walker, a Republican until just a couple of hours before the event, and Mallott, the Democratic nominee for governor until he resigned from the ticket a short time before, declared they were running as independents to repair the state’s economy, energy, policies, education practices and the state’s relations with rural residents.”
The reality was that Walker, an unsuccessful candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial Republican primary, had more than a year earlier abandoned the Republican party and announced his plan to run as an independent.
Alaska Dispatch.com reporter Alex DeMarban at the time described the independent run as “a strategy that ensures he won’t face Gov. Sean Parnell in the Republican primary.” Walker, DeMarban wrote, said he was following the advice of Alaskans who urged him to make the switch.
The Unity Ticket squeaked out a victory over incumbent Parnell with 48 percent of the vote. And Walker was indebted to Rogoff. She was soon offering him fiscal advice both publicly and more often privately.
The advice came not from the view of a politician, but from the view of a ruling elite trying to carve out a bigger kingdom.
Queen of the Arctic
At a time when former Alaska governor and failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was still scurrying back and forth across the country trying to win the hearts and minds of working people, and soon-to-be President Trump, a rich guy from New York City born with a silver spoon in his mouth, was plotting how to cast himself as a populist, Rogoff was waiting to ascend to the throne of ruler of Alaska media.
Actually, the idea of ruling Alaska media was hatched by Hopfinger but in a slightly different form. He wanted to create a network of Alaska news partners working cooperatively with Dispatch to make it the go-to source for Alaska news.
Hopfinger’s vision was to unseat the Associated Press as the entity supplying Alaska news to the rest of the world and replace it with Alaska Dispatch. Rogoff was more interested in having a say in everything that happened in Alaska without needing to answer for anything that happened in Alaska.
“I’m just not going to do it,” she said.” I’m a private citizen. If you don’t mind, we’ll just leave that subject for me to talk about with Nat Herz someday.”
Herz was and is a reporter working for the Dispatch News and thus under Rogoff’s control. The arrogance of his boss – but even more the failure of the top journalists at the newspaper to push back against this sort of arrogance – blew big holes in the credibility of the whole organization.
It must be added here that the author is admittedly not without sin.
“In an embarrassingly overwritten profile of Rogoff, Dispatch reporter Craig Medred adoringly explained how the plucky heiress from Washington, D.C., despite her short residency in the north, embodied the very spirit of Alaska (she flies her own plane, for God’s sake!) and would now take her place as a woman, like former Daily News publisher Kay Fanning, forging a trail to great journalism on the Last Frontier,” former Anchorage Daily News editor Patrick Dougherty wrote in the Anchorage Press shortly after being jettisoned from his office at the old Daily News after the Rogoff purchase.
Dougherty was largely right. The profile was written in 2014. Rogoff and I were pretty friendly at the time. I enjoyed her whacky ideas. She appreciated my old-school journalism. I should have dug around more before writing. She was then heavily involved in the Alaska Natives Arts Foundation, a state entity which would turn out to be a hole into which the state poured about $6 million before deciding Rogoff’s idea of turning art into big business for rural Alaskans wouldn’t work.
Journalists should be very careful when writing about friends. Friendship skews one’s perspective. But there are a lot of things about which journalists should be careful these days and aren’t, most especially molly coddling colleagues who screw up or lie and ignroing bosses who mislead.
As Dispatch grew and expanded and morphed into the Alaska Dispatch News, these responsibilities just seemed to slip farther and farther away. Reporters asked fewer and fewer questions of anyone. Journalism become less and less a profession and more and more a club.
Would the Dispatch have been better served if it had remained free of all this baggage? Yes, and there are other things it could have been better without.
One could get into the Berkowitz-Demboski mayoral shitshow the newspaper produced in Anchorage, and the litany of foolishly messed-up stories the ADN ran with in the last couple years from the moose (not) born in a parking lot to the heart-wrenching story of the dog (not) on the leash killed by a (not) hit-and-run driver while being “trained” as a service dog by a deaf boy to many more.
None of those missteps helped.
Money, money, money
But at the end of the day, the story of the failure of the Alaska Dispatch News really isn’t about its credibility – which has taken a signifcant hit at the paper the last couple of years – or its politics – which the left-leaning Anchorage Daily News brought along to the marriage with Alaska Dispatch.com.
At the old Daily News, it was always a bit of a joke for politically independent (God forbid maybe even a closet conservative) reporters and editors to attend the regular “diversity” meetings where the basic topic of discussion was how to find people of color who thought just like everyone else at ADN. A fundamentalist Christian of color would have stood out in the newsroom even more than a white bread fundamentalist Christian. The old Daily News was pretty unabashedly liberal in its view of the outside world.
But it was staunchly committed to market capitalism in the building.
Now a publicly fire-breathing liberal, Dougherty – he of the Twitter post “SenDanSullivan, you gutless political hack, keep doing nothing” – barely batted an eye when orders arrived to first cut and then slash the size of the Daily News newsroom.
(Sen. Dan Sullivan, for those who don’t know, is a former assistant Secretary of State, a former Alaska Attorney General and then Commissioner of Natural Resources, and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S Marine Corps reserves steeped in the Corps values of honor, courage and committment. Sullivan’s crime in Dougherty’s eyes appears to be that Sullivan is a Republican.)
When Dougherty started at the Daily News, he told students at his Baylor University alma mater in 2011, there were 104 people with jobs. Dougherty axed 70 of those people.
“In this tough environment, the paper has had to adapt,” the Baylor Lariat reported.
In a story written for the Anchorage Press, Dougherty described his job as managing “expense reductions in the news department.” Somebody had to do it. I was at the ADN at the time. I couldn’t watch what was going on and took (asked for actually) a buy-out to save somebody else’s job. Dougherty was not happy. He didn’t like reporters or editors making their own decisions.
He was a less-than-perfect boss, an I’m-in-charge-here-manager so self-involved he was incapable of thinking about how to get the best out of any of his employees. But he had journalistic principles, and he had some balls when necessary, and he most clearly understood the simple rule by which all businesses live or die:
You have to make more money than you spend or you are in trouble.
Over the short-term, you can borrow against the future if you have a good plan for how you will increase your income stream once you get there. But to borrow against the future if you have no plan is lunacy.
Rogoff never really had a plan beyond hope, and she refused to do any of those “expense reductions” as Dougherty describes. Laying people off is a pretty painful process for most people, but when you’re in an overloaded lifeboat, there is no alternative.
You can slip the weakest overboard to save the rest, or you can let everyone die.
Hopefully, the outcome for the Dispatch News now will not be death for the editors and reporters at the newspaper and website, though it might feel like it, or for the community. Hopefully, someone will buy Rogoff out and start to run the Anchorage newspaper as a functional business so it survives.
That will mark a difficult transition for the Dispatch employees, many of whom have worked long and hard, some of whom have devoted their lives to newsgathering, and a bunch of whom are so uninterested in politics as to be fairly described as apolitical.
Likely, a new owner will acquire only the assets of the organization – computers, desks, printing presses – and then hire back the staff it needs to run a newspaper sized to the market. If this happens, and hopefully it will, the number hired back will be a fraction of those working there today.
The ADN has way more employees than its revenue stream can support. That’s a sad reality.
And it is the fundamental reason the newspaper is failing. Forget politics. Forget credibility. They are fluid. They are sometime important but not always so.
The country just elected a president who sometimes can’t seem to tell fact from fiction, but he is president. Strangely enough, he has some things in common with Rogoff. He believes what he believes is the truth solely because he believes it. So does Rogoff.
The Dispatch News was going to be huge. It turned into a huge mess.
Facts are sometimes irrelevant in politics. Politicians can get away with bending or distorting a lot of them. People in business don’t have that luxury.
The bottom line is a concrete floor. It doesn’t bend. If the numbers don’t pencil, you’re either out of business or spending someone else’s money to keep the business afloat. Rogoff for years spent the money of billionaire husband David Rubenstein, one of the richest men in the world. She could afford to subsidize Dispatch.com because it wasn’t losing much money.
She found out the hard way she couldn’t subsidize the Dispatch News with a newspaper costly to print, a 40 or 50 percent larger newsroom, high rental costs for one printing plant, high start-up costs for a new printing plant she desperately needed, and a continuing decline in the advertising revenue that had been falling for years.
She simply couldn’t afford to lose several millions dollars a year on hobby no matter how good it felt to be powerful. When it finally got to where it was costing her more than she could afford to pay, so she simply stopped paying her bills.
Now she and the newspaper are in real trouble.
She made a bad decision in buying the ADN for $34 million in 2014. The price was too high. And she followed that bad decision with bad decision after bad decision after bad decisions. Politics were the least of them.
It would be easy to feel sorry for her, but she’ll probably emerge from this fine. The wealthy usually do. Mainly the little people will pay the price for her mistakes. Some of them already are. None of the building, electrical, snowplowing or other contractors hounding Rogoff to pay her debts are rich. The employees of those contractors are even less so.
These are all people who put in a hard day’s work only to be victimized. The plight of any one of them would make a good human-interest story. But don’t expect anyone at the Dispatch News to write it.
And that’s the saddest verdict one can render on where Alaska journalism is today.