In what amounts to a stunning media shakeup in the 49th state, the still-young online news organization Alaska Dispatch announced on Tuesday it has signed a deal with the nation's second-largest newspaper chain to purchase the Anchorage Daily News, a 68-year-old publication with two Pulitzer Prizes.
The $34 million agreement -- expected to close in May -- between Alaska Dispatch Publishing and the California-based McClatchy Company may be a first in an industry buffeted by rapid change, with a digital news site that prided itself as a lean symbol of journalism's future taking on the much larger and traditional operations of Alaska's largest newspaper, printing press and all.
The deal will return ownership of the Anchorage Daily News to local hands for the first time in 35 years.
Pat Talamantes, McClatchy's president and CEO, said in a prepared statement that both news organizations will benefit.
"The Anchorage Daily News is a profitable newspaper that makes us proud journalistically," he said. "We weren't looking to sell the Daily News, but after Alaska Dispatch Publishing approached us, we saw advantages to local ownership in this case and opportunities for consolidation that would strengthen both news organizations."
What the purchase means
Founded in 2008, Alaska Dispatch quickly became an important voice in Alaska's shrinking media world, emphasizing local, hard-hitting coverage over national news and playing a key role in investigative and public-service journalism. In a pivotal moment, angel investor Alice Rogoff in 2009 became majority owner, a change that, coupled with growing advertising, helped Dispatch steadily grow its newsroom to become one of the state's largest.
Tony Hopfinger, executive editor and co-founder, said Alaska Dispatch plans no changes to the Anchorage Daily News' staff, content or distribution. Also unchanged is the goal established when Hopfinger started Dispatch -- to increase news coverage in Alaska that was trimmed, in part, by editorial cutbacks at the ADN.
"We will continue to aspire to great journalism," said Hopfinger, 39.
Rogoff, 62, a former chief financial officer of U.S. News and World Report and the wife of billionaire financier David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, will remain as publisher. Rogoff has solely run Alaska Dispatch and will continue to do so without Rubenstein's involvement. Alaska Dispatch's mission with the merger will be to offer a level of reporting never witnessed in the state, she said.
"I'm doing this because I believe the more journalism in a place, the better the place becomes, it's just that simple," said Rogoff. "I view this state and the Arctic beyond it as one of the most undercovered places in the world, and I don't think that makes for good civic discussion."
The acquisition means Alaska Dispatch's staff will grow substantially, from fewer than 30 employees to more than 120. A staff that once consisted largely of online journalists and a sales staff will also now include the press operators and delivery drivers employed by the ADN.
"Right now, things will be run as-is," said Hopfinger. "We'll look at what tweaks we want to make to the combined operation over the coming weeks and months."
In addition to the Anchorage Daily News website and printing operation, the purchase also includes the Anchorage Daily News building in East Anchorage. After the purchase is completed, Alaska Dispatch will sell the building to a private local buyer as part of a pre-arranged agreement, the organization said in a press statement.
After the sale of the building, the Anchorage Daily News will continue to operate out of the building as a tenant. Alaska Dispatch also plans to retain its offices connected to a Merrill Field hangar where Rogoff, a licensed pilot, keeps a small Cessna aircraft, occasionally used to chase down stories across the far-flung state.
The roots of Alaska Dispatch
Hopfinger, his former wife Amanda Coyne -- now an Anchorage Daily News columnist -- and Hopfinger's brother Todd launched Alaska Dispatch in a spare bedroom in the couple's East Anchorage home. Hopfinger and Coyne were longtime journalists who worried that major local issues were getting short shrift as the media in Alaska -- including the Anchorage Daily News -- scaled back its reporting, including coverage of the oil and gas industry, the state's turbulent politics and rural villages struggling with critical social issues.
At the time, Hopfinger, a correspondent for Bloomberg News and Newsweek, and Coyne, who taught at Alaska Pacific University, provided most of the site's content. As luck would have it, GOP presidential candidate John McCain picked then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate just two weeks after Alaska Dispatch launched, providing a hungry and widespread audience for Alaska news.
The site's coverage of the aftermath of the state's political corruption scandal that helped bring Palin to power in Alaska -- and cost Ted Stevens his long-held seat in the U.S. Senate -- attracted the attention of Rogoff.
Smitten with Alaska as many Outsiders are, it wasn't long before she moved to Anchorage from Washington, D.C. She had first visited Alaska in 2001 during a flightseeing trip to explore the state's often-ignored villages and Native culture. In 2002, she founded the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Downtown Anchorage. In 2008, she opened the short-lived Alaska House art gallery in Manhattan to promote Native art and Alaska issues on the East Coast.
Rogoff joined Alaska Dispatch after hitting it off with Hopfinger and Coyne five years ago -- they shared similar goals of creating a site that would publish a tapestry of Alaska voices and not shy away from challenging stories. They were introduced by Roberta Graham, now a deputy commissioner with the state who is also the wife of Craig Medred, a longtime reporter and columnist for the Anchorage Daily News who migrated to Alaska Dispatch in its early days.
With Rogoff's support -- and with readership and advertising dollars increasing -- Alaska Dispatch hired some of the state's most prominent journalists, as well as new recruits raised in the state. It also led the way on some national stories, including the historic battle for an Alaska Senate seat in 2010 between Tea Party favorite Joe Miller and eventual write-in winner Lisa Murkowski.
As Alaska Dispatch grew, the Anchorage Daily News steadily shrank. The paper, founded shortly after the end of World War II, had won coveted Pulitzer Prizes for public service in 1976 and 1989, and knocked the pro-industry Anchorage Times out of business in 1992 after a long and costly brawl.
Key to the paper's success was the ownership of Kay Fanning, who had moved to Alaska in 1965, and the paper's purchase by McClatchy in 1979 that allowed the Anchorage Daily News to boost its staff in preparation for the fight with the Times.
After the newspaper war ended, the Anchorage Daily News remained a large, successful publication for a mid-size U.S. market. But the digital era that has rocked journalism around the world would eventually catch up to Alaska.
In the last decade, the loss of classified advertising from the growth of Craigslist led to a major loss of revenue and cutbacks. The reductions in staff and content didn't ease after McClatchy purchased the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers in 2006. The acquisition expanded McClatchy's stable of newspapers to 30, second in size only to Gannett in the U.S. market.
In recent months, the Anchorage Daily News has increased its editorial staff, hiring a crop of young new writers to join a core base of some of the state's most experienced journalists.
The Anchorage Daily News' employees will be welcomed at Alaska Dispatch, Rogoff said in a written statement. "We're excited to add the many talented and accomplished employees of the Anchorage Daily News to our team," she said.
Improving journalism in the Last Frontier
Will the reduced competition hurt news coverage in Alaska?
Not according to Rogoff and Hopfinger.
Rogoff said she's not necessarily interested in maximizing profits, but in "taking whatever profits we can make and putting them back into more and better journalism," she said. "And that's going to mean better results for the people of the state, as long as we're good at what we do."
Hopfinger said competition and good journalism do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. As a young Anchorage Daily News reporter more than a decade ago, Hopfinger was excited about the chance to do groundbreaking journalism at the paper.
But he was "deflated" by statements from senior leaders who said the Anchorage Daily News would never be as good as it was during the days of the war with the Times.
"This idea there should be competition to create good journalism seemed ridiculous to me," he said. "I'm not going to let that happen. Everyone needs to gun the way we've gunned all along at Dispatch."
Alex DeMarban is a former Anchorage Daily News reporter who now writes for Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.