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Calista Corp. announces it's closing Alaska Newspapers

Richard Mauer

Alaska Newspapers Inc. will publish its last weeklies in August then shut the doors on Bethel's Tundra Drums, the 97-year-old Cordova Times and four other rural publications, its corporate owners announced Friday.

With newspapers everywhere struggling for survival, Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation for the Bethel area and the owner of Alaska Newspapers since 1992, said the small chain wasn't making enough money to support the spread-out operation.

Calista spokesman Thom Leonard said the closure will affect 38 employees, including three part-timers. They will be offered employment counseling and other assistance, and could get preference for jobs in other Calista operations if they're qualified and there are openings.

Calista said it was "liquidating" the operation.

In addition to the Drums and the Cordova Times, the newspapers that will be shuttered are the Arctic Sounder in northern Alaska, the Bristol Bay Times, the Seward Phoenix LOG and the Dutch Harbor Fisherman. The bimonthly magazine First Alaskans will also cease publication. The company's printing business, Camai Printing, which produced the newspapers and other publications, is also targeted for sale or closure.

The shutdown will leave most of the communities served by the chain without newspapers.

"Just having newspapers in general is a challenge these days," said acting managing editor Alex DeMarban, "but when you add in the extra challenge of having to run newspapers in economically depressed areas and in far-flung areas, and in areas with all the other challenges that rural Alaska faces, including weather, it was definitely an uphill battle, probably from the very start."

In a way, said DeMarban, who began working for Alaska Newspapers in 1998, the climate for newspapers now is a lot like the weather -- there's not much anyone can do about it.

Final publication dates for the weeklies have not been determined, but the last editions will be published sometime in August, Leonard said.

The decision to shut down the papers was made Friday at a quarterly meeting of the Calista board, Leonard said. Employees learned of the decision in the afternoon, just after they attended annual Calista summer picnic catered at corporation's warehouse.

Calista had looked for a buyer for all or some of the newspapers, but could find none, Leonard said.

In a prepared statement, Calista president Andrew Guy said the board couldn't continue to subsidize newspaper operations.

"As a responsibility to our 12,000 shareholders, we had to take a hard look at the subsidiary and make a tough decision," Guy said. "ANI leaves behind an impressive legacy. We're very appreciative of the superb staff and extraordinary talent that have worked so hard to report on rural Alaska. We genuinely hope the communities affected by this will find a new media voice to tell their stories."

Though his title sounds like he's management, DeMarban said his job is a lot like that of every other journalist on the small chain, a combination of reporter and photographer for one of the newspapers. In his case, he primarily works for the Arctic Sounder, mainly covering Kotzebue and Barrow.

Over the years, the chain has tried to figure out the best balance in coverage, sometimes having staff centered in Anchorage, sometimes in the communities, DeMarban said. Currently, Alaska Newspapers journalists live and work in Bethel, Seward, Unalaska and Cordova. The outlying staffers were called about the closure after the Anchorage crew were brought together for the bad news in their offices in the Calista Building near Dimond Boulevard, DeMarban said.

"People were disappointed, but we could at least speak with pride about what we had done in terms of telling the news," DeMarban said. "There were a lot of stories that we covered that no one else covered."

Reporters would show up for events in communities that hadn't seen a journalist in months, he said. "At the same time, we covered a lot of really big stories," like the disproportionate number of suicides in the Bush, or the hunger crisis in the Lower Yukon after years of poor salmon runs.

The newspaper chain has had many business crises over the years, even when newspapers elsewhere were raking in money. In the early 1990s, shortly after its takeover by Calista, it had a round of layoffs, pay cuts and a newspaper closure attributed to "growing too fast." Its effort to create a general-interest weekly in Anchorage, the Chronicle, failed in 2005 after less than three years of publication. And another round of cutbacks at its rural weeklies in 2006 resulted in more centralized operations in Anchorage.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

Read the Calista Corp. announcement
By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com