As news spread Tuesday afternoon about the purchase of Alaska's largest newspaper by a young online upstart, shock seemed to be the predominant reaction close to home. Gain some distance beyond the state's borders, and the view of Tuesday’s announced acquisition of the Anchorage Daily News by Alaska Dispatch morphs into a precedent-setting event in the era of modern journalism.
“Local ownership is a good thing ... we are seeing a turning away from the chains and the chain ownerships,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst who concentrates on what his website Newsonomics describes as the “transformation of consumer media in the digital age."
“We are starting to see a pattern where local owners are emerging and saying (newspaper) values are beaten down from where they were 10 years ago, but they are seeing enough relative stability and enough reasons to believe that they can finish a transition to the digital age,” Doctor said.
Prioritizing exceptional local journalism
People with money are entering the market as owners, with both a business and a civic aim -- and, in many cases, a solid commitment to a strong editorial product. This goal to prioritize exceptional, locally-owned journalism over big profits is something Doctor considers encouraging.
And it's not that the Anchorage Daily News' owner, the McClatchy Company, wasn't a good steward, he said. But McClatchy has been struggling to pay off debt that came with purchase of the Knight Ridder chain of newspapers when newspaper profits began eroding. The $34 million sale to Alaska Dispatch will certainly help McClatchy pay down that debt.
“Alice will be a very fine owner of a great newspaper. She will be balanced. She will be fair, and the newspaper will be very good at the important role that good news organizations play in their home communities,” said Don Graham, whose family purchased the Washington Post out of bankruptcy in 1933. Graham himself is a former reporter, publisher and executive of that paper, and is now CEO of Graham Holdings Company, the company formed after the Washington Post sold last year to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The Washington Post has struggled to leverage its digital audience and grow revenue, something that many people believe Bezos can turn around.
“This is a really exciting experiment. I am not aware of any other acquisition of a legacy newspaper of the Anchorage Daily News' reach and stature by a digital new entrant. It is notable that Alaska Dispatch has been built on old-fashioned journalistic values, so it is not coming at this purchase from some perspective of compromised journalism,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. “It's the opposite. It's a very serious shop.”
For Coll the question is, “What can a digital-bred organization do with a legacy property to make both of them stronger? If it works, it could be a model -- and even an inspiration -- elsewhere in the country.”
New era with links to nostalgic past
In it is the promise of a new era shored up by the nostalgia of a past era, of harnessing the digital age while reviving the role that local news franchises played in communities during the post-war period across the United States, Coll said.
“Alaska Dispatch is already home as it takes this on," he said. "I really think that there is a chance for the new enterprise to create a model that can really show potential acquirers of newspapers elsewhere in the U.S., and new digital entrants, how to build something sustainable on a local level. That's the holy grail of what we're looking for, so we are hopeful.”
Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute is also among the optimists. He notes that it's not unusual for a smaller competitor to buy the larger in two-newspaper towns and, like Doctor, sees capable local owners as an asset in nurturing the unique and important relationship that the news industry as a business has with its community.
“They really want to do it because they believe in what newspapers do and they want their town to have a good one,” Edmonds said of recent investors who have purchased publications like the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. It's also smart business, he said. Newspapers that also operate online collect 80 to 85 percent of their revenue from the print product, he said.
'Took the building by shock'
Meanwhile in Alaska, a stunned community was trying to digest news of the sale. “It definitely took the building by shock,” said Carolyn Kuckertz from the state legislative offices in Juneau, the state's capital. Kuckertz, press secretary for the Alaska Legislature’s Senate majority, said for a town where secrets are difficult to keep, people were surprised they hadn't heard rumors about or earlier discussion of the sale. On the upside, people were buzzing that local control for the paper was a good thing, but grousing that the state's media might get even more liberal. In Juneau, the Anchorage Daily News has a reputation for being left-leaning. Some consider the Alaska Dispatch even more so.
“You are always concerned when media ownership falls into fewer and fewer hands,” said John Tracy, a former career news director for NBC affiliate KTUU, who left the news business for advertising and most recently has helped shepherd the revitalized CBS-affiliate KTVA into a more powerful broadcast competitor.
“I didn't see this one coming. My impression was that the ADN was for the first time in several years adding staff, and recent changes to revamp the look were positive. I thought that they were on the rebound,” he said.
As a longtime newsman, Tracy has watched as journalism standards, especially online, have seemed to blur the lines between news and commentary. He hopes standards for journalism and objectivity will be nurtured, particularly when there is a dominant source for print and online news.
“The Dispatch is going to have to prove itself to all Alaskans that this was a good move,” he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.