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Alice Rogoff and Kay Fanning: Publishers who came home to the North

Craig Medred
Kay Fanning in 1968. Fanning was publisher of the Anchorage Daily News from 1967 until she sold the paper to McClatchy in 1979. Alaska Dispatch and publisher Alice Rogoff signed a deal on Tuesday to purchase the Anchorage Daily News. Steve McCutcheon / AMRC B1990.014.5.People.14.167

New Anchorage Daily News owner and publisher Alice Rogoff became an Alaskan in that strange way some people do. She fell in love. Not with any particular person or place, but that whole sense of the North so hard to capture in words.

What was it the poet Robert Service wrote 100 years ago?

"There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
   It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth—and I’m one."

For Rogoff, strangely enough, Alaska meant coming home to a place she'd only visited. Here was an East Coast socialite -- she almost visibly shudders when referred to that way in an interview but admits the tag is undeniable -- oddly at ease in an ill-kept cabin in a rural Alaska village, happy to be able to talk to the people there about life and art and almost anything else.

To understand this, you almost have to witness it. Rural Alaska is a land of culture shock for most modern Americans. Homes tend to be small and practical shelters. There may be a bloody mess in the kitchen where the butchering of a seal or caribou is in progress. There is just as likely to be the greasy parts of a snowmachine under repair scattered about the main room.

Rural Alaska is home to some of the poorest communities in the nation, but Rogoff looks right past that into the eyes of people she now considers friends.

"The indigenous people are brilliant and caring and incredibly interesting," she said. "Since it's so comfortable to me ... I can't explain why it's so comfortable. It just is."

Coming to Alaska

Rogoff first entered this particular world more than a decade ago in the company of the late and legendary pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, with whom she would become fast friends prior to his untimely death in 2010. The former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines, Smith was at the controls of a de Havilland DC-3 Otter when it crashed into a mountain in Western Alaska, killing revered former Sen. Ted Stevens and four of the eight others on board.

"He is the reason I live here, fly an airplane and love to visit every village I can get to," Rogoff would later write of Smith in a brief eulogy published in Alaska Dispatch.

Smith and his wife, Terri, introduced Rogoff to Alaska in a way few tourists ever know. The three climbed into a single-engine airplane and started exploring.

"Everywhere we landed, Terry had friends," Rogoff said. "And he knew how to function there.

"As a tourist, I was really seeing the Bush. We landed in Hughes to use the washeteria. I remember thinking, 'Hughes is beautiful.’"

Hughes is a rough-hewn community of fewer than 100 people at the base of a bluff along the east bank of the Koyukuk River in northern Alaska. The nearest outpost of urban civilization is the Interior city of Fairbanks, 210 miles as the raven flies to the southeast.

Located in an area where roaming bands of Koyukon Athabascans once met to trade with Nunamiut Eskimos, the community itself formed and coalesced around a riverboat landing in the early 1900s.

A lot about Hughes changed over the years, but even more remained the same. People in Hughes still live largely off the land, hunting and fishing to feed themselves, trapping to make a little cash, chopping wood to heat their homes because diesel fuel -- the only alternative -- costs $9 a gallon.

These are people without much money. The average per capita income is about $16,000. But they do not think of themselves as poor. And these are the sort of Alaskans with whom Rogoff first formed a bond.

"I knew I was going to come back here," she said.

An irresistible draw

And come back she did. Fate is a strange entity. Hughes, not to mention most of Alaska, wasn't just a long way from Rogoff's Washington, D.C. home; it was worlds away from her previous life.

A mother of three, the spouse of billionaire financier David Rubenstein, a regular attendee at White House functions and D.C. arts galas, Rogoff struck everyone who first encountered her in the 49th state as just about everything Alaskans are not.

"When I first met her, she was on a sky trekking trip," said Bob Kaufman, a younger Anchorage entrepreneur and adventurer who has swum across Knik Arm and Homer's Kachemak Bay. "I never knew that there was going to be something in her life that made Alaska such a special experience."

Kaufman later ran into Rogoff "berry-picking on the side of the road outside of Nome. Alaska definitely kind of fills something she was looking for," he says now. "She's stuck to it."

Kaufman is among the people who have migrated north to America's last great wilderness: young, adventurous, a little green at first. He’s like many of the people who've populated the nation's western frontiers.

Alice Rogoff, not so much.

She spent most of her life moving in refined circles. Her father, Mortimer, was a successful East Coast businessman and inventor who helped pioneer development of GPS navigation systems and cellular telephones. Her mother was an artist.

Alice attended the Dalton School, a tony preparatory academy, before university at Connecticut College and the Harvard Business School. She became the assistant to the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, then assistant to The Washington Post publisher Donald E. Graham, and finally chief financial officer for U.S. News and World Report from 1985 to 1997.

Given that Rogoff was going to work in the nation's capital city every day, one of Alice's daughters, noting that other mothers in their neighborhood didn't work, sees her mother as more of a working woman than a socialite. And Alice was -- but not in the usual sense.

Alice had to work -- not because the family needed the money, but because she needed to stay busy. She thrives on work for all it brings out in people. Now 62, she remains driven by the belief that life is about learning the next new thing. 

"I came back six months (after Hughes) to fly the Iditarod with (Smith)," she said.

She has since become a big Iditarod fan. She devours information on sled-dog racing. But she is even more deeply involved in a wide range of Arctic issues from polar shipping to oil development to where the nation should build its first Arctic port. And she has been active in trying to promote one of the few legal businesses that can be found functioning in almost every Alaska village -- art.

Patron of Alaska art

Less than a year after that first Iditarod trip, she started the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in an effort to help Alaska Native artists market and promote their work. The foundation gave her a perfect excuse to keep going back and forth from Alaska to the East Coast until Alaska became the place she had to be, though she contends she wasn't thinking that at the time.

Almost everywhere she went in rural Alaska with Smith, who knew the state well, Alice said, "I was approached by people who wanted to sell (art) stuff."

Much of it, carved of walrus tusks or ancient whale bone, was very good art. Most of it was being sold at cut-rate prices. Alice talked to friend and art collector Barbara Overstreet, and they thought they could change that dynamic.

"We thought, 'We can help,'" Alice said. "There was, of course, a healthy bunch of skepticism. Here come a couple more East Coast white ladies who want to help."

Alice refused to be swayed by the naysayers. She got the arts foundation started and was a driving force behind it for more than a decade before an overloaded schedule finally forced her resignation from the board this year.

Sharing a worldview from the Last Frontier

In this desire to make a difference in Alaska, it is easy to see in Alice some of Kay Fanning, the late editor and publisher of the Anchorage Daily News, a Smith College grad who also came north later in life, although under somewhat different circumstances.

"I wanted adventure, the outdoors, the sheer beauty of the place," Fanning once said. "I liked the general feeling of energy, the feeling that it was the frontier, the sense that it didn't make any difference that you came from a family with a big name. What mattered is that you had something to offer."

The big-game hunting Rogoff -- whose visiting East Coast friends sometimes appear shocked to see a bolt-action, high-power rifle leaning against a wall in a corner at her house -- shares those sentiments. But where Fanning often leaned toward the idealistic, Rogoff trends more toward the practical.

"Alaska needed an alternative voice to the often strident, big-business-building polemics of The Anchorage Times," Fanning wrote in "Kay Fanning's Alaska Story: Memoir of a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper Publisher on America's Northern Frontier," published in 2006. "Alaska was on the march to development. Professional people had surged into the state after the (Good Friday 1964) earthquake -- people with a wide range of motives. There were those who just wanted to make a fast buck, but on the other end of the spectrum, there were idealists who, on this new frontier, wanted to make decisions in accord with those ideals in a way that didn't seem possible in the Lower 48."

Fanning would almost certainly have supported the creation of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation as an idealistic act. But there was a bit of Times publisher Bob Atwood's business-first attitude behind what Rogoff did in setting up the art cooperative.

"Art is a job in a village," she said, and she values the worth of a job. 

The chance to encourage a discussion about how to keep Alaskans working might, as much as anything, be what brought her to Anchorage to take over as publisher and financier of Alaska Dispatch, a fledgling website founded by journalist Tony Hopfinger, 39, Amanda Coyne and Todd Hopfinger in 2008.

'There is nothing normal here'

But as with so many things in Rogoff’s life, the full story is not quite that simple.

"I had the empty-nest syndrome," she said. Her children were grown and gone from the house. She was tired of constantly commuting between Alaska and the East Coast, and, she said, "my husband was never home anyway.

"So I was just going to get an apartment in Nome," she said, "and that was going to be home."

Rogoff has a special place in her heart for the Bering Sea city, and an extra-special place for the Iñupiat King Islanders, the former residents of an offshore island nearby who now call Nome home.

Alice was staying in Anchorage with the Smiths while looking for a place in Nome when she discovered a house nearby was for sale. She bought the lakeside structure thinking she might stay in it one day. It soon became home.

What followed was a predictably unpredictable chain of events.

"I tried to start something called Alaska Native TV," she said, as a spin-off from the arts foundation. That idea never fully got off the ground. Someone suggested that if she wanted to get back into the media business, where she'd spent most of her professional life, maybe she should start a website.

An Anchorage businesswoman suggested that maybe it would be easier to team up with Hopfinger and Coyne, who were already operating Alaska Dispatch. A meeting was arranged. Soon, Rogoff was making a big investment.

"There is nothing normal here," she said. "I didn't come here expecting to have a whole new career."

But she ended up with one. With Rogoff’s backing and Hopfinger’s leadership, the organization grew quickly. An online media war between Dispatch and the website of the Anchorage Daily News ensued. Negotiations concerning a possible Alaska Dispatch purchase of the ADN began last year.

A deal was concluded in April. Alice Rogoff has now truly locked herself into the Alaska she loves. She seems happy about that.

Craig Medred is a former Anchorage Daily News reporter who now writes for Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.