If you can write, if you have a heartfelt sense of commitment to an informed society, and if you harbor a burning desire for adventure, the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska has the bargain of a lifetime for you.
Chair Larry Persily – the former editor and publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel in the state’s Panhandle, a one-time Deputy Commissioner of Revenue for the state, a former editorial page editor for the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) and the present owner of the Skagway News – is looking to give away that iconic, small-town biweekly.
Yes, that’s right. If Persily thinks you can cut it as a small-town, Alaska journalist, he is willing to sign the newspaper over to you.
“…The business is available for free for the right person(s) who wants to live in a small Alaska town, write and produce the newspaper, which publishes every other week, and build up its online presence,” he wrote in a solicitation to journalists and friends on Monday. “I bought the Skagway News this past spring from an absentee owner, wanting to rebuild its quality and restore its finances. The paper has gotten better, but what it really needs now is to return to the traditional model of a small-town paper, where the owner is the general manager is the editor is the reporter and photographer. That’s not going to be me — I am 68 years old and have already done that twice. I am looking for someone with the energy to take over and produce a quality newspaper (print and online).”
As always with a deal seemingly too good to be true, there is a catch or two or, in this case, more.
You must be skilled in spelling and grammar. You must be willing to accept that you’re not going to make a lot of money. You must want to become part of the community. And you must, in the words of the present owner, relish “being the voice of news and reason, education and information in a small town in Southeast Alaska.”
The emphasis in the last line would be on “small.” Skagway is a very small town except for a few months each summer when you must be able to deal with life in a city overrun with mobs of tourists dumped out of cruise ships to explore the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the community’s main industry.
Not to worry though, for most of the year, Skagway makes the fictional town of Cicely in the old TV series Northern Exposure look big. Northern Exposure was premised on the struggles of a New York-raised doctor sent to a remote practice to pay off a student loan due the state of Alaska.
The smallest town in Alaska with a regularly published newspaper, Skagway is too small to warrant a physician. The nearest doctor is a 14-mile boat ride away in Haines. It’s a nice trip when the weather is friendly. If it’s not, you get to learn why roads are a wonderful luxury.
A community of about 1,000 year-round residents, Skagway does happen to be one of the rare Southeast Alaska communities connected to the North American road system. You must understand, however, that the nearest place to which you can drive is Canada, and there isn’t much to be found in Canada until you reach Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, about 110 miles to the east.
Hello, Sgt. Preston
A frontier city of 25,000 with an international airport (how many cities of similar size can boast that?), Whitehorse is a virtual metropolis compared to Skagway. While awaiting the visit of England’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge there in 2016, Ben Barrett-Forrest of The Globe and Mail of Canada was moved to observe that contrary to the views of most Canadians “Whitehorse is a creative, cosmopolitan hub full of hip cafés and shops, with gold-rush era history and a vibrant arts scene.
“It is a long trip to get here – a 2.5-hour, 1,500-kilometre flight from Vancouver,” he conceded, “but the remoteness and rugged landscape provide creative inspiration.”
Barrett-Forrest also confessed to a little bias. He grew up in Whitehorse, and then he got out.
Skagway in summer is a cosmopolitan tourist attraction with crowded shops and cafes, and in winter its remoteness and rugged landscape can be inspirational to the tune of overwhelming.
Once these were attractions, Persily said. He and his late wife Leslie Murray were lured north to Wrangell, another remote Pandhandle city, from Chicago in 1976. They were a pair of adventurous, twenty-something urban journalists who over pizza one evening noticed the Sentinel for sale in Editor & Publisher, a once well-known trade magazine.
“There was a newspaper in Alaska for sale and it was only $8,000 down,” Persily said Monday. “We had $8,000.”
Before video games and virtual reality, Alaska was where twentysomethings went for adventure. So it wasn’t long before Persily and Murray found themselves the publishers, editors, reporters, photographers, janitors and more for a weekly newspaper in an isolated, rough-and-tumble Alaska mill town. They ran the newspaper for eight years before handing it off and moving on.
Persily would now like to find a younger version of himself and Murray to take on the historic Skagway operation that he bought earlier this year to save it from going under.
“There’s got to be someone,” he said. “It’s just finding them.”
Barring the appearance of the magic couple, Persily, who now lives in Anchorage, said he needs to hire a new reporter/editor to keep alive the operation he has been subsidizing since he took it over.
He plans to keep doing that until he can find a new owner.
Though the newspaper has a yearly circulation of only about 500. Persily said the revenue stream is enough to support a committed couple willing to lead a simple lifestyle.
The newspaper now largely supports the one, full-time reporter/editor and a three-quarter-time bookkeeper, advertising salesperson and newspaper layout assistant, he said.
“This is a good time to turn over the operation to someone, or a couple, who will fill both roles and pay themselves instead of paying employees,” he said “Or keep one employee, as needed.”
Persily estimates the revenues would allow a newspaper couple to “easily pay themselves $50,000 to $55,000.” That’s not a lot of money, but given the tax advantages of running your own business, it can be made workable in these tough times for journalism.
The state’s littlest newspaper is in better shape than the ADN was only two years ago when then-owner Alice Rogoff took it into bankruptcy, and in better shape than the ADN’s previous owner – The McClatchy Company newspaper chain – which is now reported to be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Finding housing in Skagway can be difficult and someone with lots of kids or lots of dogs would “make it tougher,” Persily admitted, but what’s an adventure without a little struggle?
Whatever happens, he said, he has to find someone.
“I have to have someone in town,” he said. “I can’t do it from here (in Anchorage). They don’t have to be great writers, but they have to be able to spell and use the right words. They have to be able to cover everything from volleyball tournaments to the (local) assembly.
“Somewhere there’s got to be somebody willing to do this,” he said. “Just like we did in Wrangell or the Paulsons in Sitka or the Williamses in Ketchikan.”
The Paulsons are Thad and Sandy who took over the Sitka Daily Sentinel in the island community of Sitka in 1979 and have been at it ever since. The newspaper celebrated its 75th birthday in 2014 with their son, James, now the staff photographer and pressman and a couple general assignment reporters among the staff.
“It’s all we know how to do,” a then 79-year-old Thad told local radio station KCAW in 2015. “We talk about that sometimes. What if we weren’t here? What if we had something? Well, what else can we do? This is the path we’ve charted for ourselves, so here we are.”
The Ketchikan Daily News is another island newspaper. The late Lew Williams Jr., whose father owned the Sitka Sentinel in the late 1930s, took over the News in 1976. As a publisher and columnist, Williams’ voice grew to be way bigger than the newspapers 4,000 circulation. He was well-known throughout the state in the 1970s and ’80s.
“He wrote columns for one of the smallest newspapers in the state – the Ketchikan Daily News – but Lew Williams Jr.’s reputation for a strong editorial voice commanded the respect of lawmakers in Juneau and Washington, D.C., and university leaders in Fairbanks,” the Associated Press reported after his death.
Just because a news operation is small doesn’t mean it can’t have a significant voice. Persily is offering the platform.
And despite his own history as a cheechako from Chicago, he said he would like to find “find an Alaskan to takeover – someone who knows the ferry system has nothing to do with Tinkerbell and that the Yukon is a territory in Canada not just a big river.”