At the start of this year, Alaska Dispatch News owner and publisher Alice Rogoff wrote these prophetic words in her newspaper:
“Happy 2017 to one and all. For us at Alaska Dispatch News, this is going to be a year of big change….We know we’re in for quite a ride in 2017.”
What a ride it has been.
On Thursday, Rogoff found herself sitting at a table in the federal Bankruptcy Court in downtown Anchorage explaining to creditors why she decided to take the Dispatch/ADN.com into bankruptcy and leave them holding the bag.
Her long, dark blonde hair was tied back. She wore a simple sweater. She sat to the left of her lawyer and friend Cabot Christianson, facing bankruptcy trustee Kahtryn Perkins. On her left was Dispatch/ADN chief financial officer Erin Austin.
Rogoff’s back faced the 30 or so people who half filled the courtroom in the old building with its horrible acoustics. Her facial expressions were hidden. She was unapologetic.
Sometimes what she said was hard to hear. Sometimes it was confusing. Sometimes it was bluntly clear.
Asked to explain her only known means of support – a “spousal agreement” with billionaire husband David Rubenstein – she answered very clearly: “I’d rather not. It’s private.”
Friends and former friends of Rogoff’s say she gets $5 million per year with Rubenstein picking up the taxes. None of these sources are willing to have their names put on record.
The Rubenstein-Rogoffs have tried very hard to keep their finances private, and Rubenstein is a powerful man. A friend to presidents, he moves easily among the country’s ruling elite.
According to Politico, he and Rogoff used to host President Jimmy Carter at their old, Nantucket Island home and that was just the beginning of Rubenstein’s involvement with presidents.
“In 2000, Rubenstein, Rogoff, and their three children (two daughters and a son, now grown) accompanied Barbara Bush and her grandchildren on a safari. That same year, Rubenstein and Rogoff attended Barbara Bush’s 75th-birthday party, in Kennebunkport. Rubenstein has admitted that his relationship with the Bush family affected his politics, but he also developed strong ties with the Clinton administration.
“Last year, when President Obama visited Anchorage, he had dinner with Rogoff at her home,” reporter Alec McGillis wrote. Rogoff’s newspaper dismissed the sitdown as a non-political meeting with some Alaskans.
“Rubenstein has maintained a good relationship with President Obama,” McGillis continued. “In 2012, at the urging of the White House, Carlyle (Rubenstein’s private equity firm) took a majority stake in a troubled Sunoco oil refinery near Philadelphia, the largest refinery on the East Coast. A few months later, Rubenstein defended Obama against charges that he is anti-business, telling Reuters, ‘Generally I think the administration is quite open and accessible.'”
When Obama left to be replaced by President Donald Trump, Rubenstein met the with the President-elect at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. In a May interview with CNN, Rubenstein defended Trump as good for business.
All indications are that it was Rubenstein’s money, in the form of that spousal support, that subsidized the day-to-day operations of the Alaska Dispatch News almost from the minute Rogoff took over the Anchorage Daily News/ADN.com from The McClatchy Company
She paid the California-based news chain $34 million for Alaska’s biggest news operation in April 2014. The Daily News/ADN.com was partially rebranded as the Alaska Dispatch News/ADN.com on July 20 of that year.
Rogoff had big dreams.
“To that end, one initiative in the works is to expand our footprint,” she wrote in announcing the name change. “We already have reporters based in Mat-Su, Fairbanks and Juneau, but we now want to add reporters to some of the state’s hub towns. Our first rural Alaska bureau will be opening shortly in Bethel. We are also eyeing Nome, Barrow and other towns where we can base reporters.”
The Juneau coverage – all of Southeast Alaska, actually – eventually faded away. Coverage of Nome, Barrow and other towns never materialized. A plan fostered by AlaskaDispatch.com founder Tony Hopfinger to partner with reporters for small newspapers and public radio stations still hanging on in rural Alaska never fully materialized.
And from the day the Daily News became the Dispatch News, it was losing money.
Hopfinger argued for cutting costs. Rogoff preached the mantra that “we can’t cut our way to prosperity.” The two eventually suffered a nasty divorce. They are now locked in a dispute over the money Rogoff promised Hopfinger for his remaining interest in the combined business – if ever the businesses were fully combined.
After Hopfinger filed suit against Rogoff demanding the rest of his money, her attorney issued a statement saying that it involved “Alaska Dispatch Publishing, LLC, a now-defunct online news outlet.”
At the bankruptcy hearing Thursday, it was revealed that at least financially Alaska Dispatch Publishing remained alive until the bankruptcy. Bank accounts for Alaska Dispatch Publishing and the Alaska Dispatch News were being used to fund the daily operations of the newspaper, which was portrayed as something being run sort of like former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s now infamous bloggers “sitting in the basement of their parents’ homes.”
Somewhat like those kids, the Dispatch News depended on Rogoff, the mother, for support.
When the newspaper/website ran short on money, Austin said, “we would let her know.”
Rogoff would then transfer funds to the Dispatch News account. Rogoff herself seemed unsure of what some of the money was being used to pay.
When Perkins asked the reason for $25,000 the Dispatch News owes Columbia University in the city of New York, Rogoff said, “I don’t know.”
Austin offered that it was for an “annual sponsorship.” The question of what is being sponsored was never answered. The Dispatch News sponsors a fellowship at the Columbia Journalism School. But Rogoff is also on the Board of Advisors for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).
“One of the more fascinating local media experiments in America is playing out in Anchorage, AK, where, last week, the sale of the Anchorage Daily News was finalized,” CJR’s Sara Morrison wrote after the Daily News sale.
She then added this:
“If the leaders of the new operation can find a sustainable business model, manage the merger of two newsrooms in an insular media market, and sustain a high level of editorial energy even with one less competitor out there, the state could be better served than ever. But if they stumble, Alaska’s news consumers could be worse off than before.”
CJR has yet to revisit the potential for “worse off,” although every indication is that in the wake of the Dispatch News bankruptcy that is where Alaska news coverage is headed.
Alice Rogoff, Inc.
Few can question Rogoff’s good intentions in first funding the internet startup Alaska Dispatch and then buying the Anchorage Daily News. She many times over the years opined on how valuable she thought journalism.
“We at Alaska Dispatch News are more committed than ever to publishing news, opinions, voices and community information that make all our lives more informed,” she wrote in the January 2017 missive. “In fact, after the turbulent election year just past, we’ve come to see this mission as more vital than ever.”
She might have been too committed.
The Thursday hearing left room for a reasonable person to wonder whether Alaska Dispatch Publishing and Alaska Dispatch News existed as businesses or simply as extensions of some sort of Alice Rogoff, Inc.
At one point in the hearing, Rogoff told Perkins, “well, I’m the debtor.”
It appeared a misstatement, at least in legal terms. The debtor in the case is the Alaska Dispatch News, a limited liability company, and not Rogoff herself. She is destined for nothing but big trouble on a personal level if the string of LLCs – Alaska Dispatch News, Alaska Dispatch Publishing, and The Moon and the Stars – standing between her and her personal life are torn down.
GCI, the company that bought the old Daily News building from Rogoff and has hosted her only functioning printing press there for far longer than desired, is already in state court trying tear down her “corporate veil.”
“Rogoff’s conduct pierces the corporate veils of ADN and AK Publishing, making Rogoff personally liable for both companies’ debts, obligations and judgments to GCI,” the company argues in its state court filings.
If the Alaska courts were to side with GCI and declare Rogoff personally liable, she could be looking at responsibility for more than $2 million in debt, not counting what she might owe Hopfinger.
She told the bankruptcy court she has only $1.7 million to $1.8 million in a personal investment account at Wells Fargo Bank. But then there’s that spousal agreement.
The exact terms there – including how long Rubenstein is expected to pay – are unknown. And then there is the possibility of divorce. Rubinstein is now worth an estimated $2.5 billion to $3 billion.
If Rogoff were to get her hands on half of that in a divorce settlement, her debts in Alaska would become a mere pittance. And even if she were to get only a tiny fraction – say $100 million, her known personal obligations in the 49th state would amount to only three or four percent.
But no one can begin to guess where the twisted and tangled story of Rogoff’s involvement with AlaskaDispatch.com, the Anchorage Daily News, the Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska itself might go next.