The two met in 2005 while working at The Weekly Dig in Boston. They wanted to have children, and running a news business together had some strategic advantages. “It’s tough in journalism to find a job that pays enough to justify the cost of not being home,” says Lissa. In 2007, Lissa got pregnant by artificial insemination (a longtime friend is the biological father). After the birth in 2008, Julia adopted the child, and the family of three moved up to Lissa’s father’s house in the Catskills to begin building The Watershed Post. For those first few months, they “lived like church mice in a tiny room,” says Julia. “It was very startup-py, in the we-aren’t-going-to-spend-a-dime kind of way.”
They’ve come a long way since then—into their own apartment, for one thing. And they won the “new business of the year” award from the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce. More important, when Hurricane Irene ravaged the Catskills, Lissa and Julia became local heroes, coordinating relief efforts via the site as part of their coverage. A card recently arrived in the mail with hundreds of thank yous from people in the community. “It feels like having a mission as a couple,” Lissa says. “Our lives are a lot bigger than just spending time together.”
What happens when two passionate, married journalists discover a story in their own backyard that involves corruption, money, politics, drugs, and underage prostitution? “An obsession,” says Amanda Coyne.
When the FBI and IRS raided Alaska State Senator Ted Stevens’s home in 2007, Tony Hopfinger, 37, and Amanda Coyne, 45, went digging. A political kingmaker, Bill Allen, whose company, VECO, had renovated Stevens’s home, was suspected of bribing politicians to keep oil taxes low. When an off-the-record source mentioned tales of Allen’s love for underage, crack-addicted girls, Tony and Amanda were on it. The eventual scoop couldn’t have come at a better time.
Two years before this story came into their lives, Amanda and Tony had both, within weeks of each other, quit their jobs at the Anchorage Press. At first, they struggled to find enough freelance work, and worried that they had made the wrong move. Amanda got a job teaching writing at Alaska Pacific University. Tony took a gig moving boxes for FedEx at the airport, and eventually found correspondent work with Newsweek and Bloomberg.
As Tony and Amanda went deeper into the corruption saga, they found they had great stories to sell. But weary of getting scooped by the local daily, they were apprehensive about querying editors there, and while the national publications Tony wrote for were biting, they were only interested, he says, in tidbits and crumbs. The full story was going untold. “We weren’t getting paid by anybody,” says Amanda. “We were going in the backwoods to track people down, driving country roads late at night, looking through court documents.” It was a competitive story, and the pair knew they were way out in front. “We were hot to get things out quickly,” says Tony.
So they decided to start a website and publish stories on their own. They launched Alaska Dispatch on August 13, 2008. The timing couldn’t have been better: By the end of the month, John McCain had picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, and interest in Alaska exploded. They sold their corruption story as a book, Crude Awakening: Money, Mavericks, and Mayhem in Alaska, to Nation Books.
For the first year, the couple wrote the bulk of the stories for Alaska Dispatch, worked on the book, and kept their teaching and correspondent jobs. They soon realized they couldn’t sustain the site by themselves, and started looking for investors. They met Alice Rogoff, the former CFO of US News & World Report, a woman with a passion for local journalism. In 2009, Rogoff purchased 90 percent of Alaska Dispatch—a for-profit fueled by advertising and sponsorships—allowing Tony and Amanda to hire a staff and mold it into a full-fledged news operation. Within two years, Alaska Dispatch was able to call itself the second most-trafficked news site in the state.