Breaking the news

 

What is the state of journalism in Alaska?

By Lynne Lott

Libby Casey remembers feeling like she was in a movie as she jumped into a taxi and said, “Take me to the Justice Department!” It was her second day of work as the Alaska Public Radio Network’s Washington, D.C., correspondent. She was on her way to Congressman Don Young’s office for an interview when her phone rang.

U.S. Senator Ted Stevens had been indicted.

“I was covered in sweat and my hair was frizzed out beyond belief,” Casey recalls. Unfamiliar with her new hometown, she was surprised again when the cab dropped her just two blocks from where she’d started. Flustered but not shaken, Casey dove into the story. Less than a week on the job and she was reporting some of the biggest news Alaska had seen in decades. It was just the beginning.

Alaskans who travel frequently likely remember 2008 as the year Outsiders stopped asking “Do you live in an igloo?” and “Is it really dark all winter?” and started asking “What do you think of Sarah Palin?” Casey was one month into her job at APRN when John McCain tapped Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate.

After years on the fringe of the national consciousness, of being a dream cruise destination or the place where someone a friend knew was stationed in the military, Alaska suddenly seemed to show up everywhere.

“It changed dramatically,” Casey says of the time following the Palin pick. “Suddenly people had this heightened interest in Alaska.”

Reality television jumped on the bandwagon. Following forerunner Deadliest Catch came Alaska State Troopers, Ice Road Truckers, Sarah Palin’s Alaska and more. Alaska now draws interest, viewers and readers like never before. While that intrigue may have leveled off, Casey says, “You can’t go back to unmarked snow.”

Around the same time, Alaska newsrooms underwent a different sort of change: media began to shrink as part of a national trend. Now as the state enjoys unprecedented coverage nationally, the state of the state — at least journalistically speaking — is far less certain.

The long and wired road

When the Anchorage Daily News hired Wesley Loy in 1991, the newspaper was one of two dailies in Alaska’s largest city. Loy’s job would be covering retail businesses in Anchorage and beyond. The paper had a reporter dedicated to the fishing industry and another with the oil and gas beat. All told, Loy was one of five reporters covering Alaska business in a department with its own editor.

Today, Loy says, “there is no business editor and no business reporters. They don’t even have a reporter covering oil and gas, the lifeblood of this state.”

“There were times back when [reporters] would fly out to places and cover things at the drop of a hat if it was a big deal,” says Casey Grove, ’06, who has worked at the Daily News for two years. “But that was before my time.”

The Anchorage Daily News is hardly the exception. When he started at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 18 years ago, managing editor Rod Boyce says, the paper boasted double the number of reporters it has now.

None of the reductions happened overnight. Journalism enjoyed a heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. It was a golden age for reporters, brought on by coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Journalists enjoyed enormous popularity, and while the paycheck didn’t always match the prestige, hundreds of bright young people entered journalism’s ranks hoping to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. In Anchorage, the Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Daily News duked for the title of “best newspaper on the Last Frontier.” Pulitzer Prizes were won in the process. Yet even after the Times shuttered in 1992, Alaska’s media presence remained robust. Communities as small as Dillingham possessed both a radio station and a newspaper.

Newspaper Farewell

Newspapers have always lived on the margins — the defunct Anchorage Times stopped running long before the Internet — but the modern wired world poses new threats to paper-based media.

Then, the Internet

The rise of the web caught journalism off guard. Media outlets scrambled to build websites without a revenue model in place. Craigslist, with its free online classifieds model, poached revenue from daily and weekly newspapers. On-demand television and iTunes provided ample opportunity for music, news and information without having to go through traditional means.

With newspaper and station websites, “there was this ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality,” says Charles Mason, professor and chair of the Journalism Department. “No one bothered to think about how they would pay for it.”

 

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