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Alaska Dispatch: The risk of rattling the cages

Tony Hopfinger
Loren Holmes photo

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A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I attended the Alaska Zoo's fundraiser, a great event that we were very much happy to be a part of, thanks to an invite from Matt Larkin, owner of Dittman Research and Communications. At Matt's table, we had the opportunity to sit next to Steve Amstrup, one of the world's leading polar bear scientists and the event's keynote speaker.

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It was a pleasant evening nearly to the end. I was wrapping up my goodbyes when I heard raised voices coming from the ConocoPhillips table next to ours, where Amanda Coyne -- my wife and an Alaska Dispatch reporter and co-owner -- was talking to state Rep. Mike Hawker.

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Hawker -- who had been sitting at the Conoco table (his wife works for Alaska's largest oil producer, drawing a six-figure income, according to his public disclosure statements) -- knew who I was when I walked up. He said something to the effect of, "I appreciated your Joe Miller coverage, but you're now partisan..." I was pretty sure he was referring to our oil and gas coverage, for which Amanda has taken her fair share of criticism recently from the oil industry and its supporters over her reporting on whether to slash state taxes on the industry.

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I responded to Hawker's partisan allegation by saying I wasn't the one sitting at Conoco's table, or the one married to somebody who works for an oil company. “Good-bye,” I said, grabbing my wife’s hand.

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I didn’t handle Hawker’s remarks as well as I should have.

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What I should have done is to point out that I have no financial gain -- real or perceived -- by assigning or editing stories about oil taxes and natural gas pipelines, or companies drilling in Arctic waters for that matter. Hawker, on the other hand, is one of 60 members of the Alaska Legislature making multibillion-dollar decisions about the state's oil and gas reserves -- a longtime lawmaker who believes that Alaska should "reform" oil taxes by reducing them by billions of dollars. If the state reduces taxes, then the oil industry will develop more of Alaska's declining oil reserves. Or so Hawker and his cohorts believe.

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Because Alaska Dispatch has questioned whether such a concession to the oil industry's major players will result in more oil production -- rather than having some agreement that calls for a performance-based tax reduction -- some in the industry and its supporters are upset with us. Does that make Alaska Dispatch partisan, as Hawker and others have accused?

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It's a fair question and one that I haven’t yet answered. In the nearly four years that Alaska Dispatch has been around, we’ve been called everything from an industry mouthpiece to a commie rag. I’ve let those accusations slide, assuming that our work would speak for itself. Most of our fair-minded readers remind us daily that it does, and for that I’m grateful. Others, either because they’re new to the site or are so blinded by their own biases, find it hard to believe Alaska Dispatch -- and by extension, myself and my wife -- doesn’t embrace some ideological stance.

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So, at the risk of sounding like a politician, let me start with my voting record. I'll take criticism for not doing my part as an Alaskan and American, but I confess I have only voted one or two times in my life. By not voting, it keeps my conscience clear when it comes to making news decisions. At times, I have thought about having a company policy that nobody -- whether in Alaska Dispatch's newsroom or sales department -- can vote or belong to a political party. But that's probably taking it too far. Instead, I try not to hire anybody with an agenda and not employ lazy stenographers who either can’t or won’t try their best to unearth the truth.

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What I’ve come to understand about myself is that I am capitalist who has a passion for searching for some kind of truth, whether it be about oil taxes, the high rates of sexual abuse in Alaska, or whether a candidate is up for the job of U.S. senator. Because, ultimately, that’s how Alaska Dispatch is going to succeed, and my company’s success, more than any alliance to a party or a philosophy, is my passion.

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When I started Alaska Dispatch nearly four years ago, I chose to structure it as a for-profit company. This was (and is today) rather bold when considering that the overwhelming majority of local, online-only news startups have decided to go nonprofit. Those nonprofit sites believe that journalism grants, donations and perhaps even government money should fund reporting. I've never liked that idea, in part because a nonprofit entails having a board of directors, which in turn could set an agenda for the publication.

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Funding a journalism outfit with online advertising is a risky proposition, and no doubt Alaska Dispatch is on the forefront nationally of trying to prove that such a business model will prove successful in the near future. But with risks comes rewards. If we succeed, we very well may be the first local, online news site to do so. That's why I started Alaska Dispatch. Yes, I also want to fill the gap that the Anchorage Daily News, KTUU, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Anchorage Press, Juneau Empire, The Associated Press, and others have left in the wake of slashing and burning their news staffs in the 2000s. But I also want to show that there is some hope for local journalism in this nation -- where the majority of Americans get their news -- that online-only news can pay for itself and maintain the highest journalistic values.

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Fortunately for us and all Alaskans, we found an investor to help make my dream a reality.

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Her name is Alice Rogoff. She came to Alaska in the early 2000s, falling in love with the state, buying a home, learning to fly, and diving into the vast and complex issues facing the nation's only Arctic state. She's had a number of ventures over the years in the state, but Alaska Dispatch is very much something she had a vision for before we ever met.

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Alice worked for The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report, the latter where she served as the chief financial officer for more than a decade. She's a news junkie with a great appreciation and eye for high-quality journalism. In short, she's the best kind of investor for such a bold operation as Alaska Dispatch. Like me, she can't be bought or sold. At the same time, she also believes journalism must pay for itself. And Alice still believes that day will come soon in America for local, online-only news sites such as Alaska Dispatch.

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We met in mid-2009. Over buffalo burgers, Amanda and I agreed to sell Alice 90 percent of our scrappy news site that was less than a year old. In turn, Alice made a huge investment in Alaska Dispatch -- likely the most money spent on a new journalism outfit in Alaska in decades, from what I can tell.

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Along with the deal came a contract that gave me full and unfettered control of the news product. This was important to us. Alice is married to David Rubenstein, the co-founder of Carlyle Group. Although there was nothing but positive energy from the first time we met, I wanted to ensure our newsroom would remain untarnished -- that whatever decisions were made, good and bad, were made by myself and my team. Neither did I want to have an owner, publisher or editor telling me to lay off on, say, the oil industry, as happened with me toward the end of my career with the Anchorage Daily News when I was reporting on BP, its workers and the company's lack of maintenance at the Prudhoe Bay oil field -- one of the reasons I left the paper in 2002.

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At the time when we sold Alaska Dispatch to Alice, my lawyer John McKay said, "You probably have the best contract of any editor in the country." What he meant was that we had retained full control over the decisions of the newsroom. A contract is one thing. Actions mean more. Not once has Alice ever interfered in our decisions in the newsroom. She gives us feedback, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but compared to the newspapers I worked at in Idaho, California and Alaska, this is by far the longest leash I or any other editors I know have ever been given.

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But back to Hawker and whether you’re a liberal partisan if you challenge the oil industry's claims over taxation or whether the oil companies will ever build a fabled natural gas pipeline. The last I checked, the oil and gas we're talking about belongs to the state, and thus we Alaskans have a rightful say in how those resources are sold.

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In my view, we're “Alaska Inc.” We're the owner of hundreds of billions of dollars of petroleum and mineral resources. Companies pay us for rights to extract those resources. They make their money selling what they extract. In the case of oil companies, they make something to the tune of $5 billion a year in profit from selling Alaska crude. They’re trying to make more. They’re capitalists. They want the best deal for their shareholders. I, as a shareholder of Alaska Inc., want the best deal for our state. (Don't take it personally; it’s just business, as the saying goes.)

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If Exxon, BP and Conoco are committed to developing enough additional oil to make up for the billions of dollars of loss to our state treasury, I, and no doubt the rest of the state, would be willing to give them a fair hearing. They haven’t yet done so. Until that happens, I and some on my staff will keep questioning Gov. Sean Parnell’s push to “reform” state oil taxes. In doing so, I know that Alaska Dispatch risks losing advertising dollars. I also know my staff and I risk the snickers and the labels that go along with questioning the industry.

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But Amanda and I won’t blink at being yelled at by a legislator during a zoo fundraiser. I'll do all of this not because I’m partisan, but because I believe that doing the job that the public expects us to do -- rattling cages, watching for truth to fall out -- is good business, and it will be the reason why Alaska Dispatch will survive.

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Contact Tony Hopfinger at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com

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The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch staff. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.