While a federal bankruptcy court judge is trying to decide how to help a family of Fairbanks entrepreneurs save the Anchorage newspaper – Alaska’s largest – an iconic newspaper on the other side of the continent is taking an unpredictable leap into the future.
The Village Voice – the famous, New York City, alt-weekly that writer Norman Mailer helped start in 1955 – announced today it was done with putting words on paper.
The business, owner Peter Barbey said in a statement, “has moved online — and so has the Voice’s audience, which expects us to do not just once a week, but every day, across a range of media.”
If you want to read, it you’ll have to view a screen grab of the words on paper themselves:
Welcome to the strange world of journalism as it works online and off today. Even as words once recorded in ink on paper transform into electrons in the tubes, there is a nostalgia for the older form as if it carries more significance.
The harsh reality is those times are over. These are the digital days. Digital news has far surpassed print as the way in which people gather information, and it is rapidly gaining on TV.
“TV remains the dominant screen, followed by digital,” the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media reported last year. “Still, TV news use is dramatically lower among younger adults, suggesting further shake-ups to come.”
Americans under age 50 already get more news online than from TV, according to the Pew research, and the number for the 18-29 age group is startling: 50 percent report they often get news online. The numbers fall to 27 percent for TV and only 5 percent for newspapers.
The bulk of those who often get their news from ink on dead trees is now over age 50. And even there, those in the 50-64 age group report going online more often than to the newspaper for news although the vast majority – 72 percent – report they often get news from TV.
Habits die hard. Among the old folks, it would appear, the 1970s ritual of sitting down to watch the nightly news on the big screen remains. But the kids have gone mobile.
“One of the most prominent distinctions between those oriented towards mobile devices for their digital news and those oriented towards desktops is age. Fully seven-in-ten of those ages 18-29 either prefer or only use mobile for getting their digital news, compared with 53 percent of those 30-49, 29 percent of those 50-64 and just 16 percent of those 65+,” Pew noted. “When it comes to news attitudes and habits, the two groups are quite similar. This includes loyalty to news sources, trust in information from news organizations, discussion of news with others and level of engagement with news on social media.”
“Trust in information from news organizations” might be one of journalism’s biggest selling points, or liabilities, going forward. And a lot has changed since 1973 when a national poll concluded CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.
Trust has been an issue in Anchorage where Alice Rogoff, the wife of billionaire financier David Rubenstein, went from investing in the online internet startup AlaskaDispatch.com to buying the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s large newspaper, to bankrupting the combined Alaska Dispatch News in a matter of a few years.
The Binkleys – James, Ryan and Wade along with Kai Binkley Sims, the children of former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Binkley – are now trying to save the operation. A bankruptcy judge Monday approved a loan of up to $1 million from the Binkley Family Company to the Dispatch News, which was so desperately short on cash it skipped payments on health-insurance premiums and was in danger of missing payday this week.
The Binkleys are expected to formally offer the bankruptcy court a plan for buying the company for up to $1 million at a hearing set for Sept. 11 in Anchorage. Cabot Christianson, a local bankruptcy attorney and friend of Rogoffs (they co-own property in the San Juan Islands of Washington state) has said other bidders for the property might emerge at that hearing as well.
Back to the future
The Binkleys and partner Jason Evans, who oversees a trio of weekly newspapers in Western Alaska and has the only real newspaper experience in the group, are on record saying “Alaska deserves and needs a robust and healthy paper of record as much as it needs any other public utility or infrastructure, particularly in these uncertain times.”
But what Alaska deserves and needs, and what the Alaska market will support are not necessarily the same thing. And what Rogoff proved, if nothing else, is that a newspaper can’t last if the market doesn’t support it.
After paying $34 million for the paper, she swore under oath in bankruptcy court that she proceeded to lose $17 million over the course of the next three years. The losses only kept growing as she editorialized on how the newspaper was in “investment mode.”
For Rogoff, it was a pretty quick trip from the owner of an internet startup that shaped Alaska’s political history by revealing the shenanigans of Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller, a seeming shoe-in to the U.S. Senate who lost in an unprecedented write-in election, to making big waves as the first owner of an internet news website to buy a major newspaper to rising to the position of media mogul with direct access to an Alaska governor to tumbling as the head of a bankrupt company on the ropes.
She’d still be in business if she’d stuck to the AlaskaDispach model. She lost more in her first year in the newspaper business than in all her years as the head of an online-only news organization.
Having spent most of the summer in the warm embrace of Halibut Cove at the south end of the Kenai Peninsula, Rogoff now appears to have left the state. Whether the move is temporary or permanent, no one seems to know. The Binkleys, meanwhile, are trying to clean up her mess.
Whether that means going to back to AlaskaDispatch.com roots or even farther back to Anchorage Daily News roots remains to be seen.
The only certainty is that things will change. There has been a lot of change already.
At the start of the decade, the AlaskaDisaptch.com was a feisty, internet start-up – a small online newsite just starting to grow. And the Anchorage Daily News was a profitable newspaper so thin a zephyr would blow it out of your driveway.
At the start of the month, Alaska Dispatch News was the state’s by far biggest news website and produced a regularly hefty newspaper the Anchorage market couldn’t support.
Where it goes from here, remains an unknown. It could become almost anything. A reasonably sized daily, a three-day-per-week publication, an online only operation, an online operation producing a fat Sunday paper, some other variation of any or all of these, or it could die as did the once dominant Anchorage Times, which went out of business in 1992.
The Times was once far more influential in Alaska than the Daily News of the late ’90s and early 2000s, which was far was more influential than the Dispatch News of the last three years.
Times change. Life on the planet adapts or dies. Technology marches on. But the human demand for information remains. The big question facing journalism today is how to build a financially viable model for delivering that information.
The Village Voice is gambling on survival online. There is no guarantee of success. Its play could be the beginning of the beginning or the beginning of the end. It is an experiment. They are underway all across the country.
If the Dispatch News emerges from bankruptcy, Alaska will see another such experiment. The old model clearly didn’t work. That dictates a new model. Journalism has a future out there somewhere.
“Maybe the old has to die for the new to be born,” Richard Murphy, the former Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage has observed. That’s not a pleasant thought for anyone in the business today, but the Encyclopedia Britannica notes the phoenix of ancient Egypt “was very long-lived—no ancient authority gave it a life span of less than 500 years. As its end approached, the phoenix fashioned a nest of aromatic boughs and spices, set it on fire, and was consumed in the flames. From the pyre miraculously sprang a new phoenix….”
One can hope. On many fronts.