UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the reported departure of high-profile KTVA commentator John Tracy.
KTVA 11 news – “The Voice of Alaska” – is reportedly losing one of its main voices – evening anchor Emily Carlson, who the station has heavily promoted since her arrival in Anchorage five years ago.
Multiple sources have told craigmedred.news that Carlson is among four employees – about 16 percent of a 25-person newsroom listed on the KTVA contact page – laid off because of financial struggles at the GCI-owned television station.
KTVA News Director Janis Harper did not return a Friday message asking for comment, but Jerry Bever, KTVA vice-president and general manager subsequently sent this email:
“While I appreciate your inquiry, unfortunately we don’t provide comment or information regarding personnel issues. Thanks for checking in.”
Hiding behind such boilerplate has become a classic dodge for media companies that expect some level of transparency from other businesses and full transparency from government.
Former Anchorage Daily News publisher Alice Rogoff hid her company’s financial problems for almost a year before filing for bankruptcy in 2017 and leaving creditors holding the bag for about $2 million. The filing came just days after GCI – an Alaska-based telecommunications and cable company – took her newspaper to court demanding $1.4 million in payment for back due rent and electric bills for leasing space in their headquarters building.
Rogoff’s personal finances turned out to be shakier than the then-wife of David Rubenstein, one of the world’s richest men, had let on. KTVA has far better financial back up in the form of parent company GCI, but appears to be facing the same sort of financial struggles that have hit mainstream, local media across the country.
TV viewership for network affiliate news stations in 2017 dropped 15 percent for morning news and 7 percent for late night and early evening news, the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media has reported.
TV stations across the country have been forced to cut back accordingly.
Among those reportedly being laid off by KTVA along with Carlson is James Gaddis, the co-anchor of the morning newscast. KTVA is also reported to be planning to shed its 9 a.m. “daybreak hour” show and 5 p.m. Saturday newscast.
Like newspapers, TV news remains popular with old folks, but is struggling to maintain audience among younger Americans.
“Television still outranks digital as the top source for news in the U.S., but when it comes to millennials, the numbers show they consume less news than previous generations, but when they do, they turn to digital, mobile and social content most often,” reports the Knight Foundation. “Another key point from the Nielsen data is that the shrinking local television news audience is less a function of fewer 18 to 34-year-old viewers than it is a loss of 35 to 54-year-old viewers.”
The shift to digital sources of information echoes everywhere.
The news of the KTVA layoffs was first reported by Jeff Landfield of The Alaska Landmine. Landfield is a one-time Anchorage politician overactive on social media who runs a website that is a blend of digital news and social media and one of several Alaska websites now largely devoted to politics.
Landfield Tweeted that KTVA was laying off 10 staff members, which was clearly wrong. He had the layoff part right, but the number obviously wrong. Cutting nearly half the staff from a newsroom already functioning on an operational shoestring would have just about sunk KTVA as a legitimate news entity.
As it is, the station – like most other mainstream media in Anchorage – now struggles to cover too much with too few reporters. As a result, the station – like most other mainstream media in Alaska – relies heavily on crimes news largely reported by law enforcement or public-relations entities only to be rewritten by news organizations.
The station’s online home page this morning featured a shooting, a homicide with an unspecified weapon in Anchorage, and a pedestrian run down by a motor vehicle along with a salmon theft in Ninilchik, a Dimond High School investigation into a football team hazing and a feature story on pork rinds at the Alaska State Fair.
In general, the station’s content lacks for much in the way of substance, as is the case for much local media across the country these days, but it’s financial struggles are more directly tied to politics.
The Pew examination of TV news across the country points to major swings in revenue for local stations during political campaign years. Pew noted that the political revenue reports for six, publicly traded news stations revealed political advertising income up to 14 times greater in election years than in non-election years.
KTVA was reported to have made a killing in 2014 when Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan, who won the race, spent almost $20 million on their election campaigns. That was the lion’s share of $50 to $60 million reported spent on politics in the state that year.
The Brookings Institution later reported Alaska ranked sixth in the nation in political spending in 2014 and was the Alaska-size national leader in spending per voter at $120.59 per vote. Back in second, New Hampshire didn’t even come close at $50 per vote.
Hotly contested gubernatorial and state House races accounted for another $6.5 million in spending in 2014, according to the website Follow the Money. Unfortunatley for Alaska media, the spending spree didn’t last.
Political spending in the recession-hit Alaska of 2016 fell to about a third of what it was in 2014, and 2018 is looking even worse for news organizations hoping to feast on campaign dollars. Candidates for Alaska offices have to date reported raising only about $5.3 million in a year lacking a big Senate contest.
And some spending on political advertising, as with much other advertising, is now shifting to the internet. As the Los Angeles Times noted earlier this year, a storehouse of social-media data now makes it possible for political campaigns and candidates to target specific voters.
Advertisers of all sort can arrange for their ads to pop up in conjunction with the websites you read. And some political candidates have moved their campaigning to low-budget lists of targeted “super voters,” the people who can be counted upon to show up at the polls. Unsuccessful Alaska gubernatorial candidate Mead Treadwell, the state’s former lieutenant governor, appeared to devote much of his 2018 campaign effort to flooding former supporters with email pitches to vote for him as governor.
Outside of politics, TV stations, like other local mainstream media, have faced difficulty in recent years generating revenue in a market saturated with lower cost digital alternatives.
KTVA’s release of Carlson and Gaddis would save it money on what are believed to be two of its higher paid employees. KTVA commentator John Tracy – the one-time, long-time anchorman for Anchorage’s KTUU-TV, then with the ad agency Brilliant Media and now the marketing and communications counsel for The Foraker Group, a “capacity building organization for nonprofits and tribes across Alaska,” – is another high-paid talent. He is now reported to be parting ways with KTVA at the end of September.
The other KTVA layoffs are reported to be Tyler Swann, a video editor, and George Brandenburg, a producer.
They are among the many to have lost jobs in a tumultuous time for Alaska’s local, mainstream media. The state was on the verge of losing its largest newspaper – the ADN – until Binkley Company from Fairbanks snatched it off the junk heap in federal Bankrupty Court for $1 million, about 3 percent of what Rogoff paid just three years earlier in a complicated deal that involved GCI.
To help Rogoff – a former Washington, D.C. socialite – swing a $34 million deal for the then-California-owned newspaper, GCI agreed to pay her $15 million for the massive, 125,000-square-foot Northway Drive building The McClatchy Company built to house the ADN in 1985 at the height of the company’s media success. McClatchy made tens of millions of dollars in Alaska before the media industry began to fracture.
Its last Alaska action was to offload the ADN to Rogoff at an inflated price. Cash-strapped and in debt to Northrim Bank to the tune $13 million after the ADN purchase, Rogoff would never recover from the loss of the building which housed the newspaper’s press and a significant, rent-paying lease holder – KTVA.
GCI bought the television station in 2012. It subsequently moved the operation onto the top floor of the ADN building. McClatchy’s then shrinking newspaper downsized its operations to the lower level of the two-story building.
When Rogoff took over the ADN, she moved the offices of the newspaper out of the building to a rented space in midtown and agreed to rent back from GCI the space in the building that housed the newspaper’s press.
That lasted until Rogoff stopped paying the rent after deciding to build her own printing plant in an old, oilfield services warehouse in Anchorage. The printing-plant plan, which turned into a fiasco, followed her rejection of two different schemes to abandon the old ADN press and arrange for the newspaper to be printed elsewhere under contract.
After buying the newspaper, one of the first things the Binkleys did was move the printing operation to the Matanuska-Susitna valley where they have a printing contract with Wick Communications, the publisher of The Anchorage Press, the MatSu Valley Frontiersman and a number of other publications.
Rogoff, meanwhile, remains in negotiations with a Bankruptcy Court trustee still trying to untangle the financial mess left in the collapse of her Alaska Dispatch News.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story was edited to correct a math error.