"Write Hard, Die Free: Dispatches from the Battlefields and Barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War"
By Howard Weaver
Epicenter Press (2012). 220 pages.
When the Anchorage Times stopped its presses for the last time in June 1992, one of the last great newspaper rivalries of the 20th century came to a close. The Anchorage Daily News, having only a fifth of the circulation of the Times in the mid-1970s, overtaking it a mere decade later to become the largest daily in Alaska, now stood alone, one of the most powerful institutions in the state. The Times once had exercised enormous influence, yet now it was dead, incredible as that seemed.
As the Daily News' former editor Howard Weaver writes in his newly published memoir, "Write Hard, Die Free," the Times' fall was "a landmark event in Alaska journalism history." Letting "certain success slip away," the Times managers made "surely the worst (and dumbest) mistake in Alaska business history."
Weaver was the Daily News' chief editor for the last decade of the war and a reporter and editor at the paper for eight of the 10 years before that. He calls his book a "deeply personal view" of the war. And how! Anyone interested in a dispassionate account of a key moment in Alaska's post-pipeline history needs to look elsewhere. But anyone who writes such a history will have to read Weaver's memoir, because it is here that you get the view from inside the general's tent.
Those who have known Weaver the journalist will immediately recognize him — the intelligence, the abundant humor (few people deliver a punch line as well), his moral commitment, sense of fairness, ample writer's skills. Weaver is a son of Anchorage who became a star reporter at an early age, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service at 25. He rose through the ranks to lead the Daily News to more awards, including a second Pulitzer for Public Service in 1989, until finally, he metaphorically broke the enemy's sword across his knee.
(Full disclosure: Both I and my wife, Kathleen McCoy, whom Weaver singles out for positive mention along with several others, worked in the Daily News newsroom in the years he was the paper's lead editor -- and for some time after that.)
"Write Hard, Die Free," subtitled "Dispatches from the Battlefields and Barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War," also gives us Weaver the man. Some revelations may surprise all but his closest friends, particularly a chapter in which Weaver goes into some uncomfortable detail about his struggles with booze, which reached a drunken climax one post-party, pre-dawn morning when he stopped his Saab at the side of a residential street in South Anchorage, crouched beside it and vomited. Both his parents were alcoholics, Weaver says, and died relatively young—his father at 52, his mother at 46. His own story ends well enough—he goes clean at 35, right after those roadside heaves and a weeks-long bout of guilt, shame and visits to A.A.
Write Hard, Die Free is deeply personal in another respect, involving a key subtext of the newspaper competition, and that is the machinations of the Alaska oil industry. The Daily News' clash with the industry characterized much of Weaver's tenure and is an important theme of his book. In winning the war, the Daily News triumphed over Bill Allen and Veco, Allen's oilfield-services company, the Times' owner of record. The Times and the Alaska oil patch had been in bed together long before Allen made the marriage so explicit. Times publisher Robert Atwood, who had owned the paper since 1935 before selling it to Veco in 1989, was himself an oilman, having profited splendidly from lucrative oil leases on the Kenai acquired in the 1950s. Atwood never wasted a chance to print what Weaver calls "blizzards of advocacy coverage," promoting any cause dear to the industry or, more generally, any big development project in the state. He even served for a spell as chair of the local chamber of commerce while editing the Times.
"Whatever the journalistic logic of its boosterism," Weaver writes, "the Times' crusades were a consistent asset to its owner, who had made millions of dollars in the oilfields."
To better understand the nature of Weaver's David-and-Goliath conflict with the oil industry in Alaska, it's necessary to consider his comparatively humble origins. Weaver seems never to have forgotten that he was a kid from a "shabby" working-class area in Anchorage's Muldoon neighborhood. Nor did he forget what he learned from his father, a construction worker politically to the left of FDR. What his father gave him was concern for the ordinary citizen in that citizen's eternal confrontation with the rich and the mighty. Weaver's values of egalitarianism and of "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted"—an old and honorable newspapering tradition—derive from those paternal values. What also apparently derives from them are Weaver's belief in candor, one-on-one trust, and open government, among other values. Only those who have worked in Weaver's newsroom, or who read his book and learn of his particular theory of managerial leadership (which I'm not going to give away here, except to say that it's part Hemingway and part New York Yankees), can appreciate how his sense of fairness and basic trust made his staff of cynical newshounds willing to do almost anything he asked of them — and most of the time he did not have to ask.
Voice of the Times
Who Weaver is — at least what his memoir conveys about the man — explains to a large degree why some pages fairly drip with revulsion at the Times' lack of basic journalistic ethics. But he reserves his most pointed attacks for Allen's personal behavior. Allen, Weaver reminds us, patronized young prostitutes, including teenage girls, and later was caught bribing state lawmakers while at the same time lavishing contempt on them. Words Weaver uses in connection with Allen include "pervert" and "sordid." Perhaps the biggest regret of Weaver's career at the Daily News, he tells us, is that he feels Allen managed to irrevocably stain the Daily News. Here's how that happened.
In his book we learn how the Voice of the Times, the defunct paper's editorial remnant, managed to secure a toehold on a daily half page opposite Daily News editorials and opinion columns for nearly 15 years.
The manifest story, of course, is that Allen negotiated with McClatchy Newspapers, the Daily News' owner, to close his paper and sell most of its assets to the Daily News for an undisclosed sum — a "not large" amount, writes Weaver, who does not disclose the selling price here. A key part of the arrangement was that Daily News would publish Voice of the Times for five years, a contract renewable every five years, giving Allen the conservative and decidedly pro-oil editorial presence in the state's largest paper that he craved.
But where did Allen come up with such a peculiar notion? Weaver tells about a lunch he had a few months before the Times' end with "Big Ed" Dankworth, lobbyist, former legislator and an associate of Allen's who had known Weaver since the early 1970s when he was a young cop reporter for the Daily News. The conversation turned to the topic of the Times giving up the ghost because "you boys are bleedin' ol' Bill Allen pretty good," Dankworth said. Weaver responded that the bleeding could end easily. "All he has to do is quit."? Never happen, Dankworth said. "He wouldn't give up his editorial page."
Weaver let Dankworth know that a newspaper war in Shreveport, Louisiana, ended with the victor giving the vanquished paper an editorial page in the interest of publishing a diversity of views. "Things like that can be worked out," Weaver said.
A few months later, the Times initiated the proposal that McClatchy would buy it out and thereby end the hemorrhaging of Allen's millions. Negotiations over the general shape of the deal went smoothly for the most part. The sticking point was Allen's demand for an editorial page in the Daily News, a proposal that worried Weaver and Daily News publisher Jerry Grilly, who pushed for tighter control over Voice of the Times than the Daily News ultimately got.
After the FBI videotaped Allen bribing Alaska lawmakers and he turned state's witness to avoid criminal charges, and after he proved himself a Grade A creep in the matter of teenage prostitutes, Weaver found himself full of regret.
"… I wish I'd had more doubts or reservations at the time of the deal, or that my cautionary arguments had been more persuasive," he confesses. "Instead I now live with the knowledge that the idea probably originated with me — that the seed got planted in Allen's conniving mind on account of my conversation with Big Ed.
Guts and errors by the competition
How did the Daily News defeat the much larger and wealthier Times?
How did the "quest for decent journalism," as Weaver defines it, succeed "against imposing odds"? This is a story with appeal for almost anyone, journalist or not, because it is a compelling and cautionary tale in itself, and Weaver tells it well and does not make the result seem inevitable.
To start with, the victory took guts. Publisher Kay Fanning simply refused to give up, even when the Daily News was on life support, tethered to the Times in a miserable joint-operating agreement. Having her back to the wall only seemed to stiffen it. Her courage would later inspire the future editor. In 1975, she sent Weaver and another reporter — that is, a third of the paper's entire reporting staff — to go snooping around the Teamsters, thereby taking on one of the most powerful forces in the still-raw state at the time the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was under construction. The resulting exposé won the paper its first Pulitzer.
C.K. McClatchy, head of the family newspaper chain headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., plays the role of the cavalry in this tale. He was another gutsy fighter in the war. C.K. threw Fanning the lifeline the Daily News needed in 1979, purchasing 80 percent of the paper — the deal set up by nothing more, so the story goes, than a handshake. Soon McClatchy was pouring millions into Daily News and the paper began hiring dozens of reporters, editors, photographers and illustrators. The battle was fully engaged.
Weaver credits a McClatchy consultant, a Harvard Business grad, with the creation of the big-picture strategy that gave the paper's managers and editors a steady focus on their ultimate goal of publishing a great newspaper. In practice, that meant reporting and editing and photography and design that put readers first, giving them interesting, well-crafted, attractive stories about Alaskans like themselves as opposed to telling them what a good job the oil companies were doing.
And then the Times itself helped to dig its own grave by being, as Weaver puts it, "an awful newspaper — lazy, partisan, and vindictive. Lucky for us, it was also smug, lifeless, and dull." The Times could have checked the Daily News' rise. It could have changed to morning distribution, for one thing, going head-to-head with the News; afternoon papers had been dinosaurs since at least the 1970s. The Times also could have taken Daily News' journalistic standards seriously and perhaps broadened its own news coverage. Instead, its managers refused to believe the Daily News was gaining on them until it was too late.
A much-reduced Daily News
Today, 20 years after the Daily News' victory over the Times and 15 years after Weaver left Alaska "mainly because it broke my heart" through its continuing embrace of Big Oil, the Anchorage Daily News is, if not a shadow of itself, certainly a much reduced version. It employs about a third of the reporters and editors it did in its heyday. It enjoys few of the investigative resources it wielded with great effect in the 1980s and 1990s. Where it had once set the agenda for many news organizations across the state, today it regularly reacts to events — which is what the great majority of newspapers do anyway. But compared with the initiative the Daily News took under Weaver (blessed with the financial and moral backing of C.K. McClatchy, who died in 1989) and compared with the enterprise stories and investigative projects the paper once pursued, the Daily News today cannot be called the same newspaper. Reading Weaver's chapter on the People in Peril series — stories and photos that informed the state, with real impact, about the suicide epidemic among Alaska Natives and its causes, which won the paper the 1989 Pulitzer — is to more fully appreciate that wildly expensive and audacious enterprise as a genuine miracle but, sadly, one that's probably impossible to pull off today.
Disappointingly, Weaver says little about the massively scaled-back replica of the paper he once led. He does allude, briefly, to what is perhaps the greatest force withering newspapers everywhere: the rise of online media that have dragged the Daily News into "the most turbulent period in its history." And Weaver reiterates what he has said in other contexts, that the practice of good journalism translates well from newsprint to digital forms, a positive prognosis that we can only hope turns out to be true in Anchorage and worldwide.
But is the Daily News' status today as a lesser news-gathering organization the result only of an Internet-driven retrenchment? Did McClatchy's corporate decisions play any part? Weaver departed Daily News and Alaska in 1995 and eventually became vice president for news for McClatchy Newspapers, a position he held until he retired in December 2008.
He must have a view on how well the company has responded to the competitive pressures of digital media and the drastic loss of advertising revenue occasioned by the nationwide recession that hit areas where McClatchy published its biggest papers particularly hard. He must have considered whether the enormous debt incurred through McClatchy's purchase of Knight-Ridder Newspapers in 2006 has hobbled a newspaper like the Daily News, whose profits, all but guaranteed through draconian cost cutting, flow relentlessly to Sacramento. Weaver is silent on these questions. His memoir, of course, is meant to cover his years as a journalist in Alaska, not the aftermath. Still, besides reminding us that recent years have been turbulent, hasn't he anything else to say about Daily News today? The rest of us are left to wonder what local stories are not being covered if, in fact, they're even known to exist.
The Daily News' position today is doubly, bitterly ironic. The newsroom has shrunken to a corner on the first floor of the large Daily News building in East Anchorage. Upstairs, an oilfield services company presently occupies offices carved out of the former newsroom where People in Peril and countless other stories were planned and written.
In an epilogue, Weaver indicates that his next non-fiction book will tell the "story of [Alaska's] disappearing frontier and eroding culture," a deterioration reflected in the country as a whole and whose supreme representative, Weaver says, is Sarah Palin.
For the time being, "Write Hard, Die Free" reminds us that Weaver's tenure at the Anchorage Daily News was a Camelot moment in Alaska journalism — a battle fought vigorously and with the highest standards for a worthy cause, and which ended in a rare victory.
Peter Porco, a former Daily News reporter and editor, is writer and teacher living in Anchorage.