Less than a month after leaving Alaska’s largest news organization behind in federal Bankruptcy Court, the estranged wife of billionaire financier David Rubenstein is hard at work rebranding herself on the global stage.
Billed these days as “Publisher, Arctic Now,” Alice Rogoff Rubenstein is scheduled to be a major player at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland, Oct. 13-15. Originally on the agenda only to introduce Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, R-Alaska, Rogoff’s role has been significantly expanding in recent days.
All indications are that she is battling her way back into action with the gusto of “Yosemite Sam,” as she was known to the staff of AlaskaDispatch.com back in the day. For a brief period in time, Dispatch was Rogoff’s one, shining, business success even though it never managed to turn a profit.
“Since its inception in 2008, Alaska Dispatch, the state’s sole online-only news organization, has been on the forefront of reporting on climate change, issues facing rural Alaska, politics and the oil industry, and its staff has won numerous awards for doing so,” The McClatchy Company of California echoed in an April 24, 2014 press release announcing it had sold the Anchorage Daily News/ADN.com to Rogoff for $34 million.
ADN was at that time the 49th state’s by-far dominant news source. And Rogoff rode its influence to a peak when she hosted President Barrack Obama for dinner at her posh Campbell Lake home in the late summer of 2015.
Less than two years later, the $34 million ADN was reporting losses of $500,000 a month, and Rogoff and her attorney were in bankruptcy court asking to leave about 200 creditors stuck with about $2 million in bad debt so she could escape from a major business fiasco.
The courts eventually turned the ADN over to the Binkley Company, a Fairbanks family of long-time Alaskans who said their only goal was to save the state’s largest news organization. They paid $1 million. The money went to Northrim Bank, which Rogoff still owed $10 million on a loan that helped her buy the ADN.
Small creditors were left with nothing, and major job cuts soon came at ADN as the Binkleys took the painful but necessary steps to stabilize a company badly bleeding money.
“We are fortunate that this legal (bankruptcy) process exists, giving a company like ours protection from creditors while reaching for a solution to the most urgent challenges,” Rogoff wrote of all this in her sign-off column at ADN.com. “Of course, I am deeply sorry there are vendors whose bills will go unpaid. And I dread the prospect of layoffs at the paper that will be necessary for it to survive under its able new owners. These are the hard realities of business gone bad.”
And then she moved on.
Back on track
Rogoff and Vladimir Barbin, the Russian ambassador for Arctic Affairs, will take the stage during the Assembly’s opening session on Oct. 13 to chat about ” The Future of the Arctic – A Russian Vision,” according to the revised agenda.
Later that day, Rogoff will chair a gathering of ambassadors from China, Korea and Japan to discuss “The Arctic Engagement of Asia” before introducing Murkowski, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowksi is slated to talk about U.S. Arctic plans with Jane Harmon, the president of the Wilson Center.
The Center is a Congressionally chartered, non-profit, non-partisan global policy forum. A nine-term Democrat Congresswoman from California, Harmon resigned her seat to take over the leadership of the Center in 2011.
Rogoff is back on the Assembly stage on Saturday when she joins a panel on “Expanding Arctic Indigenous Collaborations” to offer her thoughts on the “Importance of Community-Based Development.”
For that session, the agenda describes her as the “Arctic Now, Founder.”
Arctic Now was a subsidiary of the ADN until recently. How Rogoff managed to fold the Dispatch News, stiff creditors and leave with Arctic Now remains unclear.
So, too, the relationship between website and the ADN. The Arctic Now contact page directs inquiries to David Hulen, the editor of the ADN, and Krestia DeGeorge, a New York-state based editor for the ADN.
The website, which aggregates copy from news organizations reporting on the Arctic, was once heavy with ADN-produced stories, but the only link to an ADN story on the website today was small and old. At the very bottom of the page, a tiny photo and a single headline about disappearing permafrost tracked back to a story reporter Dermot Cole wrote on Sept. 8.
A longtime Alaska reporter in Fairbanks, Cole was among those who lost their jobs in September.
Messages sent Hulen and DeGeorge have yet to be answered.
Rogoff’s community-based development experience includes “Alaska House” in New York City, the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, AlaskaDispatch.com in Anchorage, the Arctic Circle Assembly at which she will appear, and finally the Alaska Dispatch News newspaper, also based in Alaska’s largest city.
Four of the five failed. AlaskaDispatch.com – the only one that came close to a success – never made money. And the last failure – Alaska Dispatch News – was spectacular and very public. As with Alaska House, it started well and went quickly downhill.
Alaska House, envisioned as something of an Alaska visitor center in Gotham, opened amid much fanfare in 2008.
“Alaska House, a Soho cultural center and gallery billed as the state’s embassy in New York, opens on September 15, and Gov. Sarah Palin was supposed to be there. But now, maybe not,” New York Magazine reported at the time. ‘We had a verbal agreement that she would attend, but now they said they’re meeting with (Republican Presidential candidate John) McCain’s people and have to get back to us,” says executive director Tracey Foster.
“The center was founded by Alice Rogoff, the wife of Carlyle Group honcho David Rubenstein, and it’s supported by other wealthy lefties like Steve Rattner and Daisy Soros. The pro-conservation theme of the opening party will be ‘Life Without Ice.’ ‘I don’t know how that’s going to get bridged when she’s speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign,’ Rogoff says. But she’s still hoping Palin will show. ‘She told me she’s really fond of Mike Bloomberg,’ Rogoff says. ‘He’s interested in seeing her, too.'”
Then vice-presidential candidate, Palin didn’t make the opening, but her husband, Todd, dropped in the following spring with his wife still a hot political item. The New Yorker was on hand then to cover “a program called Alaska Benefisheries. The program works like this: Every spring, salmon across the Pacific are seized with an urge to swim to Alaska, to spawn in the tributaries of the rivers where they were born. But, before they get there, most are caught by fishermen and sold to restaurants all over the world. What’s not sold is canned and shipped to countries that have food shortages—Bolivia, Laos, Cambodia, among others.”
At the time, Rogoff herself was trolling for beneficiaries. With the U.S. economy in recession, Alaska House was floundering, and Rogoff turned to the state of Alaska to bail it out. She asked Gov. Sean Parnell, Palin’s successor, for $600,000 in assistance, promising the state a public-releations windfall and marketing in return.
“”I did this because I thought it was really important, not just for the state in the big picture but for the sake of village life and subsistence and Native people whose livelihoods are dependent on so much of this state’s economy continuing to flourish,” she told a reporter for the McClatchy News Service at the time. “Well, I can’t afford to keep New York open anymore so we’re either going to close it or we’re going to find funding for it.”
Parnell turned down Rogoff’s request. The move would later come back to haunt him. By the time he ran for re-election in 2014, Rogoff owned the ADN, and she devoted considerable funding to litigation aimed at forcing Parnell to release documents concerning investigations into a possible Alaska National Guard sex scandal. Parnell’s misguided decision to take time vetting files before releasing them made it look like he was part of some sort of coverup.
“She printed too many columns and news stories to count, hyping a National Guard scandal Mr. Parnell had very little to do with. But it was the only thing Ms. Rogoff had that came close to resembling dirt on the guy so she ran with it,” long time Alaska news radio commentator and columnist Dan Fagan would later write. “It worked. And oddly enough the day after the election, the daily flood of National Guard stories that were apparently so important to ADN readers magically and suddenly disappeared. Poof! They were gone forever. It was the single most transparent journalistic hit job I’ve seen on a local level.”
Bill Walker, a friend of Rogoff’s, and Byron Mallott, an even better friend of Rogoff’s, won the election.
Rogoff claimed in her good-bye column in the ADN that “story assignments and selection were, and still are, managed within the newsroom without exception. The publisher had no knowledge of stories in progress or the timetable for their publication.” That claim, and some others, were untrue. This reporter talked to Rogoff about her personal involvement in pushing the Parnell coverage and has knowledge of her intervening in at least one decision regarding the placement of Parnell advertising in the ADN that went against Parnell.
At Alaska House, AlaskaDisaptch.com and the ADN, Rogoff was losing her money – or Rubenstein money she obtained as part of a spousal separation agreement – in the pursuit of risky business propositions, but at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, she was playing with other people’s money.
No state accounting of the now-defunct ANAF has ever been undertaken, but Internal Revenue Service filings indicate the adventure lost more than $3 million in state funds, possibly well more. Supported by state grants, the ANAF was a noble idea that annually racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and sometimes reported negative income.
A program designed to encourage rural Alaska artists and help them market their work, the ANAF’s best year came in 2011 when it reported $92,085 in net sales, according to federal documents. Business expenses that year totalled $558,849.
The next year, ANAF reported a mere $27,652 in art sales.
The Foundation, which traced its roots back to Rogoff’s pre-Alaska life in Bethesda, Md., with Rubenstein, attracted very little scrutiny in Alaska, although Juneau Empire reporter Pat Forgey did undertake some coverage of the issue before he was hired by AlaskaDispatch.com
“Rogoff told the Alaska Legislature in 2007 the foundation’s philosophy is to pay artists more for their work than others do, and then mark those prices up by 100 percent to defray the foundation’s costs,” Forgey reported in the Empire in 2010.
“‘That’s why we’re here. This is first-person economic development, as we like to say,’ Rogoff told the Legislature.”
Most of the organization’s money, however, was going to administrative costs, not artists. Forgey reported that as of 2009, the ANAF had received about $3 million in state funding but bought only about $1 million in art.
How much federal and private grant money was funnelled to ANAF is not clear. The Foundation, Rogoff wrote for the Smithsonian Institute, was started in 2002 by “a dedicated group of Alaska Native leaders and prominent Washingtonians…(who) travel regularly to remote villages to meet artists, buy their work, introduce them to the notion of ‘e-commerce’ and post their works for sale on our website.”
Like most of Rogoff’s business ventures, the ANAF was socially well-intentioned and an economic failure. As the ANAF was stumbling toward its eventual demise, Rogoff joined former President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former Premier of Greenland Kuupik Kleist and others in forming the Arctic Circle Assembly.
It is still going strong as one small part of a broad Icelandic effort to boost tourism that has upped visitor numbers from 781,000 in 2013 to 2 million in 2016, according to Elaine Anselmi at Arctic Deeply. Tourism is now the island nation’s biggest industry, topping fishing and aluminum smelting.
The Arctic Circle is a business built around talking about Arctic business. For Rogoff, talking about business in the Arctic has proven a lot easier than making business work in or near the Arctic.