The fading significance of Alaska’s legacy media is broken down by the numbers in the September issue of the state Department of Labor’s Alaska Economic Trends, and the picture isn’t pretty.
An industry that employed nearly 1,200 people at the start of the new millennium has 20 years later shrunk to about a quarter that size due to a market lack of interest in the product.
While Alaska media has been busy telling Alaskans what a great job it is doing, Alaskans appear to have been turning away. And it doesn’t look like anything is likely to get better anytime soon given a fall in wages almost as bad as the decline in jobs.
Labor reports the average Alaska newspaper job now pays $38,719 or about 70 percent of the average newspaper job Outside. Television pays better in the state at $55,555 per year on average, but that is only about 54 percent of the national average in that business.
For reference sake, the $600 per week pandemic stipend the U.S. government was paying out of work Americans this summer amounts to $31,200 per year, and the poverty level for an Alaska family of four is $32.750.
Low wages have market consequences. As one former Alaska journalist, who preferred not to be named for fear his comment might hurt the feelings of former colleagues, summed it, “all the smart kids have left the business.”
It doesn’t take an accounting degree to figure out the future in legacy media is grim. Better to take a job writing for government, which is the retreat to which Labor reports the greatest percentage of 900 “displaced newspaper workers” have taken refuge since 2009.
One of them is former Anchorage newscaster MJ Thim, who became the voice of the Anchorage Police Department. The Labor report does not go into the implications of journalists trading private sector jobs as government watchdogs (no matter how weak they might be at that job) for public sector jobs where they pretend to act like they are still journalists.
But the Los Angeles Times is now raising questions about one powerful government entity, the police, taking on the job of covering itself.
The story notes the many civilians, “including former journalists,” across the nation joining police “information teams” that selectively release information to spin media coverage.
“The media play a significant role in amplifying statements by police and allowing law enforcement sources to be the primary- and sometimes the only – voices in a story,” the Times noted. “And even as news organizations are trying to revamp their coverage of police, cuts in the industry mean there are fewer journalists to respond to scenes and develop diverse sources, at a time when there is more pressure to provide instant news.
“Many police officers feel misrepresented in the media. But unlike victims of police shootings, law enforcers have public funding at their disposal to generate favorable narratives about themselves.”
APD runs a Facebook page devoted to little else. One of its posts went viral on the global scale after police left a donut on the ground in their parking lot and then shot a video of the red squirrel that grabbed it.
“Drop the doughnut! Sneaky squirrel is caught on camera stealing a tasty treat from Alaska POLICE,” England’s Daily Mail reported, apparently believing Anchorage cops regularly leave the donuts they plan to eat on the pavement in the parking lot because APD Facebook page claimed “he (the squirrel) stole a perfectly good donut. FROM A COP.”
No matter how entertaining, a video of a squirrel grabbing a donut left on the ground in the parking lot of the police department is not news; as the Times noted, it is an effort to generate a favorable narrative as in “we’re the fun-loving APD.”
“The police force were happy to throw in some more levity in the comments section of the video, responding to one person lamenting the loss of the doughnut: ‘We are aware we are never getting that donut back. It was just too delicious,”” the Independent, another English news organization reported of that Anchorage squirrel.
How much Thim is getting paid these days to run these promotions for APD is not readily available, but it is surely more than the $55,555 average in the broadcasting business. The 2017 average for all employees of the Municipality of Anchorage was $89,600.
Given these kinds of wage differentials, someone would have to be almost insanely devoted to the idea that legacy news matters or foolish to stay in the journalism business in Alaska.
Nothing in the Labor report should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Anchorage media for the last couple of decades.
The downward slide became weightily obvious a decade ago when the Anchorage Daily News, then the state’s industry leader, went from a four-section, advertising-stuffed log that was thick enough and heavy enough to beat off a black bear to a two-section wisp of a newspaper that even when rolled up was too limp to swat and kill a fly.
There was in the mid-2010s a brief interlude in a steadily downward trend that actually dates all the way back to the death of the Anchorages Times in 1992. The Labor report shows the media slide flattening in 2012 and even ticking up ever so slightly before its next nosedive.
This was the period when Alice Rogoff – a wealthy Washington, D.C. socialite and then-wife of billionaire financier David Rubenstein – showed up in Anchorage to pump money into the Alaska Dispatch, an online-only, news startup begun by Tony Hopfinger and then-wife Amanda Coyne.
Rogoff poured money into the website, and it generated enough traffic to spook The McClatchy Company into partially reinvigorating the Daily News. McClatchy eventually ended the competition by selling the newspaper and ADN.com website to Rogoff for a now hard-to-believe sum of $34 million oin 2014.
Rogoff lavished even more money on the new operation – the Alaska Dispatch News/ADN.com – in the belief expanded coverage would bring more business. She at one point wrote a commentary with a footnote quoting Amazon founder and Washinton Post owner Jeff Bezos’ description of losing money on that newspaper as “‘Investment mode’*”
“*Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos used these words recently when addressing staff of The Post. He was distinguishing between operating at a financial loss versus making a planned choice to invest in future growth.”
Rogoff’s investment turned out to be a disaster. The Dispatch News was bankrupt in less than four years. Rogoff later claimed to have loaned the ADN $23 million to keep the operation afloat.
The newspaper and website were sold to the Fairbanks-based Binkley Company for $1 million. It almost immediately began downsizing to what the market could support and the job loss in the news business again accelerated.
As Rogoff was leaving and the Binkleys entering the Alaska news business, it became obvious KTVA-TV was facing problems similar to those Rogoff encountered.
GCI Inc. – the state’s telecommunications behemoth – had purchased the TV station in 2013 and poured millions of dollars – some estimate tens of millions of dollars – into its news operations in an effort to unseat longtime Anchorage news powerhouse KTUU.
The GCI investment looked to be a good one when the 2014 race for an Alaska seat in the U.S. Senate turned into an extremely costly battle in which tens of millions of dollars were spent on media advertising.
“Incumbent Mark Begich (D) was defeated by Dan Sullivan (R) in the general election, putting an end to the most expensive campaign in state history at that time,” Ballotpedia recorded. “Given that a combined total of $39 million of satellite spending was used to target approximately 500,000 potential swing voters, the race was also the most expensive race, per capita, in the 2014 election cycle.”
KTVA was reported to have raked in enough of the money to a pay off much of the cost of its fancy new digs and, according to some company insiders, it settled on the idea it could use election earnings every two years to subsidize continuing losses outside the election cycle.
“Local TV establishments have historically generated more revenue in election years, and annual television broadcasting employment and wages were both up 12 percent in 2014,” the Labor reports says. “Growth flattened out in the second half of 2015 as the recession began, and the industry lost a modest number of jobs in 2016 despite increased viewership from the presidential election.
“TV employment continued to fall for eight straight quarters during the statewide recession. Losses slowed temporarily in 2018, another election year for Alaska’s governor and U.S. House representative, then accelerated during the first three quarters of 2019. In the first quarter of 2020, employment in television broadcasting hit an eight-year
low of 313 jobs.”
KTVA in the summer of 2108 jettisoned high profile commentator and strategy adviser John Tracy along with other staff including evening anchor Emily Carlson, who the station had heavily promoted since her arrival in Anchorage five years earlier.
This year, GCI sold the station to Atlanta-based Gray Television, the owner of rival KTUU and a company once in discussions about partnering with Rogoff’s Alaska Dispatch.
Many TV stations, like many newspapers, have been slow to adjust to the influence of digital news in the marketplace. Almost from the get-go, KTVA treated its website as an afterthought instead of using it to drive eyeballs to its TV news.
But there’s no telling if that strategy would have worked all that much better with all media now being battered by a social media juggernaut that allows almost anyone to dance like a reporter, and a media credibility crisis that has turned some to their Facebook “friends” and other social media contacts for trusted news.
Even radio, which had been undergoing a resurgence at the start of the new millenium, has suffered and is likley to suffer more as the pandemic changes the way Americans work and reduces those trying to figure out how entertain themselves during drive time.
Alaska “radio broadcasting employment has declined each year since 2013,” the Labor report said. “By the first quarter of 2020, employment had dropped 19 percent, from 421 to 315.”
Rick Rydell, once the voice of morning talk in Anchorage, is one of the media types gone off to government work. He is now an aide to the Commissioner of Fish and Game.
And talk radio in Anchorage is about as untalked about in general conversation as the local newspaper. There appears no reason to believe anything is going to get better in the Alaska media business, either.
“Like the rest of the world, Alaskas have upped their internet use to unprecedented levels in recent months” with the pandemic raging, the Labor report said.
But there is no indication anyone is turning much of that attention to local news. Much more time seems to be devoted to social media of various forms where specialization is the order of the day.
The Facebook page “The Alaska Life,” which focuses on pretty scenes and wildlife, has about three times as many followers as the ADN’s Facebook page. And there are special-interest Facebook pages devoted to everything from the Alaska state budget to Alaska hiking to saving the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) to politics in all its many and varied forms to endlessly, endlessly more.
So much information is available, albeit much of question quality, that more than a few ponder #whoneedsthenews,” which doesn’t make the news any easier to sell. And no business can survive long without sales.