One of the more fascinating local media experiments in America is playing out in Anchorage, AK, where, last week, the sale of the Anchorage Daily News was finalized. ADN, owned by McClatchy since 1979, was bought for $34 million by Alice Rogoff, a veteran media executive and wife of the billionaire David Rubinstein, who already holds a majority stake in the online-only news site Alaska Dispatch. The newsrooms have already merged, under the leadership of Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger; soon, the websites will merge, too. The two outlets, once rivals, are now one.
The obvious question: Why?
“Simply to be able to gather up enough advertising and customer support resources to do far more journalism than the two of us separately have been able to do, on issues that Alaskans care about,” Rogoff told CJR.
Elsewhere, the sale has been framed as a case of a still-young digital outlet taking over the legacy print dinosaur (“Salmon swallows whale”: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), or as another example of the trend of billionaires buying up newspapers at bargain rates (“Business moguls continue to shake up the world of newspapers, this time to the far north”: The New York Times.)
The Anchorage Press, a local alt-weekly, was more cynical, writing of the digital-native Dispatch’s move to print: “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.”
The reality is somewhere in between. The deal would have been impossible without the deep pockets of Rogoff, an East Coast native who has long taken an interest in all things Alaska, and it allows the Dispatch team to take advantage of ADN’s established operations and perhaps gain some leverage with advertisers, rather than grinding away to compete with the paper. But it also wouldn’t have been feasible if the Dispatch, founded in 2008, hadn’t established itself as a credible source of state news and watchdog journalism.
And the deal does create an exciting opportunity for Alaska media—though not one without risks. If the leaders of the new operation can find a sustainable business model, manage the merger of two newsrooms in an insular media market, and sustain a high level of editorial energy even with one less competitor out there, the state could be better served then ever. But if they stumble, Alaska’s news consumers could be worse off than before.
The announcement of the deal came as a shock to most ADN staff, who weren’t aware that their newspaper was even up for sale. That’s because it wasn’t, until Rogoff made McClatchy an offer it couldn’t refuse: $34 million for a paper with a weekday circulation of just over 40,000, plus the building in which it’s housed (which Rogoff intends to sell, offsetting some of the cost). Compare that to The Boston Globe, which was purchased by Red Sox owner John Henry for twice that amount but has six times the circulation—not to mention the building and the Worchester Telegram & Gazette, both of which Henry intends to sell.
With Rogoff’s purchase comes turnover at the top. Pat Doyle, ADN’s publisher and president, has retired, as has the paper’s editor, Pat Dougherty. Rogoff is now the publisher, and Hopfinger, the Dispatch’s co-founder and executive editor—and a former ADN reporter—has taken over for Dougherty, running the merged newsroom. (Managing editor David Hulen is staying on, though the top of the new newsroom’s masthead is otherwise dominated by Dispatch people.)
By the time they spoke to CJR, a few weeks after the announcement but before the deal closed, several ADN reporters were still understandably nervous about the changes. They were also hopeful about the future—especially those who were at the paper during McClatchy’s deep cuts to the budget and staff in the late 2000s (as documented by the Dispatch). Over the last year, ADN seemed to be coming back from those losses, hiring several reporters and adding sections. But having an owner willing to invest real money into the paper is surely welcome.
“I’m going into this with an open mind, I want it to work. I love the newspaper. And we put so much of ourselves into it,” said Lisa Demer, who has been at ADN 20 years as of this month.
“Long-term, I think Alice owning the newspaper is probably a good thing,” said Kyle Hopkins, a 10-year ADN vet.
While she has deep resources, Rogoff doesn’t intend to prop up the news organization as a philanthropic gesture. “This has to make money,” she said. Detailed figures are not available for either outlet, but the for-profit Dispatch operated at a loss—the result, Hopfinger says, of re-investing its revenue to build up its still-nascent newsroom. ADN, on the other hand, was profitable—and was making, Hopfinger says, more than the Dispatch was losing. “There’s a lot of profitability to work with,” he said.