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With ADN layoffs, a farewell to journalists who helped define an Alaska era

A generation of the best journalists ever to work in Alaska is leaving Alaska Dispatch News.

The site and paper laid off about a third of its newsroom staff over the last week. Some of the names are ones you have been reading for three decades. They include members of the team that won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the most important award in journalism.

Besides a heavy load of survivor's guilt — feeling I shouldn't be here when people who taught me to do the job are leaving — the overwhelming feelings are of sadness and respect.

Respect comes to the top. We all knew major layoffs had to happen when ADN barely survived bankruptcy two weeks ago. Those who lost their jobs left with consummate grace.

There are even some private stories of sacrifice and heroism — imagine giving up your job because you are worried about a colleague.

Layoffs are not unique in this economy. Thousands of Alaskans have lost their jobs during this recession.

The cruel but efficient cleansing of an economy in recession has forced a generational change in our state. A large cadre of Alaskans who arrived as newcomers in the 1980s is making way for younger workers who will create their own Alaska.

But the situation at Alaska Dispatch News is unique, even leaving aside the business circumstances of a company artificially propped up for several years by a single wealthy individual.

A newspaper shapes a community's image of itself. It helps establish what is important, tells stories that move us, and sets down the first draft of history. Often, newspaper archives are the only detailed public record of the lives we live here.

That record — your record — came through words and pictures made by a remarkable group of people.

Linda Billington covered the 1969 Prudhoe Bay oil lease sale that began Alaska's modern era. Since then, she played many roles, including as a columnist and chronicler of the art world, and recently as an editor.

Rich Mauer, a leader in investigative journalism nationally and a teacher of many reporters, exposed corrupt oil executive Bill Allen two decades before the FBI sent him to jail along with a big chunk of the Legislature.

Rich was there in 1989 when our Exxon Valdez reporting team revealed that the captain of the crashed oil tanker had been drunk. I'll never forget how he took control of a huge press conference and forced the company's president to admit it had known about the drinking problem.

Erik Hill took the first photograph of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And the first picture of the oil hitting the beaches.

I was with him for that one. I remember the strange alchemy when he turned a place and a moment into an enduring icon capable of standing for a huge, long, complex event.

You will no longer be seeing the work of Dermot Cole and Doyle Woody.

Dermot wrote for decades in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, including a column that tapped into the core of that community's life. Later he came to the Alaska Dispatch and then ADN when the Dispatch merged with the Anchorage Daily News.

The magic of Dermot's writing comes from the way his delightful mind emerges on the page. He is the thoughtful, caring person you want as a friend advising you — someone you know you can trust even though you probably haven't met him.

Doyle writes sharp, insightful sports analysis as an expert who seems capable of divorcing himself from the entangling emotions of the moment. Imagine watching decades of hockey and never rooting for your team. He did that to give you the best possible eyes on the game.

Yereth Rosen, who I met while covering the oil spill, became Alaska's premier science journalist, and is the most knowledgeable daily writer about the very biggest issues facing us.

I mention these names because they are the most publicly known and the best known to me. Journalists hopefully will understand that reason for not mentioning everyone. Bright reporters of more recent vintage are leaving, too, and brilliant editors.

People with bylines are not necessarily the most important or the saddest losses.

Editor Mike Campbell developed some of Alaska's best writers. Besides his enormous skill, he is among the kindest gentlemen I have ever known.

Departing editors anonymously shaped the product and the staff.

They taught reporters to find facts and write stories and they caught our mistakes and blind spots. Editors coax the newspaper into existence as their nurture and pruning guide an incredible daily process of renewal.

Jackie Kimbrell, who helped produce the print newspaper, departs after 45 years of great work here and at the old Anchorage Times.

The usual retirement celebrations didn't happen. People just left.

But I heard of editors who came back to make sure we covered important details for the next day's paper. Writers suddenly out of a job kept working so they could finish a piece or complete an important task for the team.

We're on a mission. As journalists, we do this work because we believe in it. That's why everyone understood this had to happen and why those left behind have resolved to work even harder to bring you a great newspaper.

We won't be the first to face this challenge. During an earlier contraction, the Daily News went from more than 100 newsroom staff to around 34, said ADN editor David Hulen.

Once again we'll be working with as few people as in those skinny days (when I was not on staff). We won't be able to cover everything the same way.

As Alaska changes in these tough times, so will its chronicle.

But through the changes, the values and mission of our journalists will survive, as they always have. A talented, younger staff is here to tell Alaska's stories, a job we know must be done with integrity and dedication.

We've got great examples to follow.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A lifelong Anchorage resident, he is the author of more than 10 books, and hosts radio shows on Alaska Public Media. More at wohlforth.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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