Former ADN Editor Speaks About Sale
This is my edited version of a radio interview of me by Lori Townsend of the Alaska Public Radio Network. The original transcript made for pretty rough reading, so I edited and elaborated on the original transcript. That’s what follows. Even if you heard the original radio report, or read that transcript at APRN or in the Anchorage Press, I think you will find this more detailed and different enough to be worth reading. I hope so.
Former Editor, Anchorage Daily News (1998-2014)
It has been a little more than two weeks since the Alaska Dispatch took ownership of theAnchorage Daily News. Pat Dougherty was an editor at the Daily News for 34 years. He says he retired from the job of executive editor when the sale became final for several reasons, including the fact that he and Dispatch founder Tony Hopfinger could not have worked together.
He spoke publicly about the sale for the first time with Alaska Public Media/APRN News Director Lori Townsend.
Describe the day the reporters found out about the sale.
There was a meeting called for high noon on the loading dock, which is the one part of the newspaper plant large enough to hold the entire staff. I had known for a while what was about to happen. Bob Weil, the McClatchy corporate vice president responsible for the Daily News, was there from Sacramento. After most everyone had gathered, Alice Rogoff walked in. Bob announced that the newspaper was being sold and explained some of McClatchy’s reasons for making that decision. Then he introduced Alice.
Alice made a few very brief remarks. She explained that the Dispatch, home of the “We don’t do dead trees” marketing campaign, wanted to start doing great journalism on dead trees. Then said she had to leave for another appointment. She hadn’t been there for 20 minutes, and took no questions. I was shocked.
What appointment could possibly be more important than talking to her new newspaper staff? Bob answered several questions from employees, then everyone went back to work, trying to figure out: What does this mean for me?
How about you? How did you decide to leave or was that decided for you?
No, that was my decision and I made it as soon as I learned the sale was a done deal. I’d been talking for a year about retiring. I’d always said I wouldn’t retire until my daughter graduated from college. Well, she had finished her last class just a couple of months earlier. When I first learned that McClatchy was discussing a sale to Alice, I told my company I wouldn’t work for Tony Hopfinger, and he wouldn’t want me at his paper. For me personally, it worked out great. As a result of Alice buying the paper, the decision about when to retire became easy. The sale created opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I’d just walked into the publisher’s office and said it was time for me to go. I would like to see the newspaper do well in the future, primarily because our staff did such a great job under such difficult circumstances, with real class. I want them to have the opportunity to do what they want, which is good journalism about Alaska.
You spent 34 years at the paper, how difficult was it to leave and not be in the daily mix at the newspaper?
As an editor, you’re constantly awash in information, whether it’s information coming in on the news wires or just knowing what your reporters are hearing and learning. You have a real sense of knowing a lot about everything that’s going on. Now I’m just a news consumer like everybody else. I don’t have that same insider sense anymore. On the other hand, I’ve been in the newspaper business for 40 years — 38 of that in Alaska. I’ve done a lot as a journalist. I don’t feel I have a lot of unfinished business. One of my goals was to shepherd the newspaper through the difficult times we’ve had since 2007. I think I’ve managed to do that. I’ve overseen four or five rounds of news staff layoffs as our financial circumstances became more difficult. That takes a lot out of a person, and it took a psychic toll on me. So now, as a former editor, I’m happy to focus on doing the things I enjoy with the people I enjoy. I’m happy not to have the responsibility of the newspaper. When I’m sitting at home and the phone rings, I know now it’s not going to be some crisis that will own my evening, my next day or my next week. I feel good about that.
How would you describe your initial reaction to the sale, when you found out it was done?
Well, I was . . . surprised. I was disappointed because Alice and Tony were not the stewards of the Daily News I would have chosen. But I was never under the illusion that the Daily News was my newspaper. I always knew it belonged to someone else and they would do with it what they thought best. I was there to operate it, as best I could, within the guidelines I was given by the owners. I did that to the best of my ability.
Pat, what remains your biggest concern about the sale?
There’s one thing I think is important for the community to understand — and by community I mean both the Alaska community and the journalists across the country who are trying to chart a course for the future of our industry — and that is this:
The sale of the Daily News to the Dispatch is not the story of a feisty little website that persevered and toppled the old media giant. Rather it’s the story of an heiress, married to a billionaire, who was willing to pay whatever it took to buy Alaska’s most influential newspaper and most successful website.
That’s all that happened. The Alaska Dispatch was a money-losing website that was going to remain that way as far as anyone could see into the future. Alice Rogoff had the money and the will to buy the profitable newspaper and its website and so she did.
Many Lower 48 news outlets characterized this as a win for online journalism, toppling the giant, you answered this but give me your take again.
Well, some of what I heard Alice say on the radio is correct: the news business is in a time of transition and convergence. We have print, which is a stressed but still profitable business — although far less profitable than it once was, and with lots of continuing pressures. You have local television stations, which are in a similar situation, still profitable, but not as profitable, and increasingly dependent on even-year political advertising. And then you have online, which is not yet a viable, stand-alone business but which will be a huge part, and probably the dominant part, of our future. We will end up with news organizations producing audio, video, text, databases, all merged into one place. Of course you have the “digital triumphalists” who see every bit of adversity for newspapers as conclusive evidence of the triumph of digital over print. The reality is so much more subtle than that, and that triumphalist glee is part of what I find disturbing in watching this whole evolution in news media. I don’t like black and white thinking: digital will prevail, print will go away. At the McClatchy company — and I’m right with my old bosses on this — we believe print has a future. We understand that we’re never going back to the good old days. Yes, there are growing digital audiences, but how to make enough money from those audiences to support news is not clear. Quality journalism is extremely expensive to produce. Most news consumers have absolutely no idea what it takes. So you have to have a business model that works if you intend to produce good journalism over the long term.
At the Daily News, that’s what we were doing: trying to figure out how to produce the best possible journalism while operating our business as efficiently and effectively as possible. For a long time in Anchorage, I’d hear this constant refrain: “Oh, the newspaper is going out of business,” and I’d say, “No, it’s not going out of business. It’s changing and it’s not going to be like it was. Times have changed too much to allow that.” People would look right at me and say, “That’s not true.” And I would say, “This is my career and my life. I understand this really well and I’m telling you, the newspaper is not going out of business.” But I was contradicting the conventional wisdom and they wouldn’t believe me. Well, here we are, at least I’ve stopped hearing that. No one is running ads saying, “We don’t do dead trees.”
In fact, look at what just happened here. By virtue of the $34 million that Alice paid for the Daily News, the Daily News is likely the most valuable newspaper of its size in the U.S. Does that sound like an unsuccessful business? If it were so unsuccessful, why would Alice buy it? The irony is that the Dispatch was the failing business. The Dispatch had to buy the Daily News in order to survive.
Tony Hopfinger, who co-founded the Alaska Dispatch and replaced you at the paper, has said he doesn’t think the deal does anything to dampen competition among journalists in Anchorage. Do you agree with that?
No, it’s obviously false. That’s spin. A consequence of this sale is a reduction in competition for news in this community. It’s not complicated, it’s obvious.
Hopfinger and Alice Rogoff, the publisher, also have said this deal returns the Daily Newsto local ownership. Do you think that’s true and do you think the paper lost something when it was bought by an outside newspaper corporation?
I don’t know. The McClatchy company, for which I have huge respect, is a company based in California. Before the sale, it owned 30 newspapers from the East Coast to the West, from Florida to Alaska. So it’s a national company in its overall outlook. But McClatchy was unusual in that it really did let its local executives operate the papers the way they thought they should be operated — within certain financial requirements. That has been true since 1978, when McClatchy first got involved in Anchorage. So, no, the Daily News has not been locally owned but it has been run by people like me. I’ve been an editor at the Daily News longer — by a considerable margin — than the combined Alaska residencies of Tony Hopfinger and Alice Rogoff. I edited the paper. No, the newspaper wasn’t locally owned — and it’s accurate to say that it now is — but the newsroom was run by people with deep roots in the community and a lot of Alaska experience, by me and other people who are unquestionably Alaskans. So it’s true and it’s not true; that’s my take on it.
Pat, you worked for Kay Fanning, who sold the paper to McClatchy. How did that transition compare to this sale?
Kay Fanning sold the paper to McClatchy when she was just weeks from going out of business. McClatchy bought the paper in late 1978. The first “McClatchy edition” came out on April 2nd of ’79. I came to work in January 1980, so I missed the first few months. The paper was only about 13 people when McClatchy bought it. McClatchy brought in lots of people, helped with the hiring, loaned staff to the Daily News. When McClatchy bought the News, it didn’t own a press, didn’t have a building, didn’t have an advertising department, a circulation department or a business office. There was huge, frantic work to be done just to get a paper out the door. That transition was a fire drill to get a tiny, buildingless-newspaper a press and a place to put it. In this case, a very functional business was sitting there. The question is integrating two separate staffs and communicating the new owner’s vision of what she’s trying to accomplish and how she plans to go about it.
Managing that kind of change is certainly a challenge. Tony Hopfinger talked about that in an interview. He saw that as his primary challenge. I think there’s a strong desire among legacy Daily News staff to help with a good transition. From a news standpoint, the transition is a great thing. The number of reporters is doubling overnight. That’s a huge infusion of energy and ideas. This transition is probably much easier than the earlier one.
Another focus of Hopfinger and Rogoff is statewide news instead of primarily covering Anchorage, do you think that’s a good thing?
I do. Several of the ideas I heard them articulate are ideas I’d had or even proposed for the Daily News. Alice and Tony talked about changing the name of the paper to reflect a more statewide focus. Quite a few years ago, I suggested to McClatchy that we consider changing the name of the paper to the Alaska Daily News. McClatchy didn’t want to do that because it believed the Anchorage Daily News brand had a lot of value, and the historic name of the paper is not something you would change lightly. The nameplate doesn’t define the content of the newspaper. The content does. The Anchorage Daily News offering statewide coverage is the same as the Alaska Daily News doing it. Regardless of the name, if the paper provides statewide coverage, readers will recognize that. People will understand that statewide coverage is part of the Anchorage Daily News brand. Maximum statewide coverage was certainly always our desire. In the past, we’ve had more resources to execute that vision, but that was always the vision.
At the moment at least, there are many more reporters there. Does this benefit or does the math not work out as the overhead rises?
It absolutely makes for a stronger product. If they do a good job of marketing, they can make hay with that. It’s a boon for readers. But the key questions around the newspaper business these days are not: Can you spend a lot of money and produce good journalism? The answer to that is yes. The question in my mind is the longer-term business plan for the newspaper. The newspaper industry has been through difficult times and they’re not over yet. The challenge of producing a profitable, high-quality newspaper is great, and may become greater. The print classified advertising business is hugely diminished. A big chunk of that revenue is gone and will never come back. The owners now operate a newspaper that used to have 28 pages of classified ads in a day and now has five or six. That’s a big deal and it’s not reversible.
Alice said it’s going to be up to advertisers to rally around her new and improved newspaper. That suggests to me that Alice doesn’t understand advertisers.
Advertisers are not in the paper because of their passion for journalism, or to rally around the newsroom’s efforts. They’re hard-nosed businessmen and women looking for the most economical and effective way to sell their goods and services. Surely Alice understands that.
So I don’t think Alice can count on advertisers to pump additional dollars into the newspaper because they admire her journalistic ambitions. The competition for advertising dollars is cutthroat and won’t get easier. On the radio, Alice and Tony were asked a question about the “paywall” at adn.com. That’s the requirement that readers pay something to access the website after they hit a certain threshold of use. I heard Alice say that even after the sale she and Tony had “no knowledge whatsoever” of the paywall and its role in the paper’s business strategy. I thought to myself, if I were spending $34 million to buy a business, I’d have made it a priority to understand the business’ key revenue streams. Whether and how to have a paywall are difficult, complicated questions. I’ve yet to hear the new owners articulate a single concrete idea for strengthening the business.
At the time of the purchase, the new owners had the most talented print advertising executive in the state working for them. That was Marti Buscaglia. She has since left the Daily News to become publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. From where I sit, that was a huge loss in a critical area of the business. I know from experience that it’s tough to find a strong executive to run an advertising department in Alaska. We felt fortunate to have Marti. So again, I have to wonder: how can the new owners let this happen if they’re going to meet the challenges of the business? Time will tell.
Alaska Dispatch has owned the paper for about two weeks, what are your thoughts when reading it?
Well, I see they’ve decided to use all local stories on the front page. I think that’s reasonable decision. My preference was to publish both local and national stories on A1, with a distinct tilt to the local, but I think what they’re doing is perfectly reasonable and arguably better. Five or six years ago I redesigned the Daily News so that the A section was almost all local, and the national and international news was all in the B section. When we had to eliminate a section a few years ago, we killed the nation/world B section and moved that content back into A. I don’t disagree with how they’re organizing the content, although I think it could be done a little better.
For years, I’ve been urging the McClatchy company to let me end our participation in the Associated Press cooperative. I think the AP, as it operates now, is an anachronism that is expensive and hurtful to its newspaper customers. AP content can be replaced where essential — primarily in sports — and doing so would save the ADN a lot of money that could be put into local reporting. McClatchy disagreed and wouldn’t let me dump the AP. I’ve heard that Tony Hopfinger has a similar view. Apparently he’s trying to get the Daily News out of it’s AP contract.
Two other things. The new owners have eliminated the paper’s “unsigned” editorials. Those are the no-byline, view-of-the-ADN, institutional editorials. I think eliminating them is a mistake. One of the things that makes the editorial page valuable is the fact that one institution in the community — the newspaper — is willing to stand up and disagree with the economic and political powers that be. That’s more meaningful than just another columnist with an opinion or a paid advocate writing an op-ed. It’s the institution of the Daily News in a role it takes very seriously. No other business leader in the community is going to say, for example, “Wait a minute, why would we cut state oil taxes with no guarantee of some benefit in exchange?” You’re not going to hear that from the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Alaska, the people who run the legislature or the governor. Even if you don’t agree with the editorial board’s opinion on a given matter, I say it’s valuable to have such a visible institution construct the argument and share it with the community. To me, eliminating that institutional voice is a mistake.
They also said they won’t do political endorsements. That I generally agree with. I’m not big on political endorsements by the newspaper. Particularly not in high-profile races.
Now, arguably, it’s valuable to the community to have an editorial board where, say, school board candidates can come in and make their cases after which the newspaper shares its recommendations with voters. Why? Because most voters are not going to have a lot of information about minimally visible races. On the other hand, if you have a U.S. Senate race like we’re having this year, the newspaper’s endorsement isn’t going to affect who you vote for.
Have you heard anything about how Daily News reporters are handling the change so far?
They’re enjoying the infusion of people and new energy. More staff has practical benefits like spreading out weekend duty, which improves people’s quality of life. It allows a reporter to add more depth to a story because someone else picked up the second story she would have had to do otherwise. My impression is, it’s fine so far. At the same time, people are waiting to see how things play out in the long run. It’s only been two weeks.
Pat, do you worry that the Dispatch staff doesn’t have enough experience to run a newspaper?
Alice Rogoff has an MBA from Harvard, so that’s a great credential. She worked as an assistant to the publisher of the Washington Post, 30 years ago, for a short time — though without operational responsibilities. She worked for an investment firm in D.C. She was the chief financial officer at the business magazine U.S. News and World Report for about 10 years. That was an operational job but, again, it was 20 years ago. I was in the newspaper business for 40 years until two weeks ago. I can’t emphasize enough how much the world of journalism and publishing has changed in the last two years, much less the last 20. Alice’s resume includes creating a gallery for Alaska Native art in Manhattan called the Alaska House. She underwrote the project, which I thought was great for Alaska and for Native artists. The gallery operated until Alice was no longer willing to shoulder the cost. You may recall that she went to the legislature to try to get state funding to keep it going. Legislators said no, and that was the end of the Alaska House. Alice bought the Alaska Dispatch, which I always expected to come to an end similar to the Alaska House’s. So, from where I sit, Alice has essentially no relevant newspaper experience.
Tony Hopfinger was a daily newspaper reporter. He worked for me at the Daily News, in fact. He left the Daily News on his own initiative. He tried several times to come back, but that wasn’t going to happen.
In the last year or two, I’ve heard him say he left the paper for ethical reasons, that his good journalism was suppressed by editors at the Daily News seeking to curry favor with oil companies. That is simply not true. I can say that definitively, categorically. It never happened. If Tony left for ethical reasons, as he claims, why did he try so hard to come back to work for the same unethical people? It’s a made-up story, and that raises some ethical questions about Tony.
Tony went to the weekly Anchorage Press as a writer and later served as the editor for several years. He then created the Alaska Dispatch, where he’s been, I think, for about eight years. After eight years, he had a money-losing website with an audience less than a tenth the size of adn.com. He’s never edited a daily newspaper or a successful website.
I think it’s reasonable to question whether Alice and Tony have adequate qualifications to run a complicated business in difficult financial circumstances. They say they have a lot of ideas and will be very “experimental” with the paper. So maybe they will experiment and hit on a formula for success that we all missed. Of course, they never were able to find a successful formula for the Alaska Dispatch – other than Alice’s checkbook – but this is a new day. A lot more people will be watching this time.
Given this transformation in local journalism in Alaska, what do you think the future holds?
I’ve been asked that a lot and I’ve addressed it — but never terribly successfully. The reality is nobody knows where the business is headed. The “digital triumphalists” say print is dying, television is dying, only the internet will survive. Of course, experts said newspapers would disappear when radio came along, and radio would disappear when television came along. I think newspapers will be around for a while. They still make money, just not as much. And for some reason rich people still want to own them. It’s worth keeping in mind that the period of newspapers being hugely profitable was a relatively short one in the long history of newspapers. More typical was a brutal, Darwinian struggle for survival, in which newspapers barely made money, regularly went out of business, and were frequently replaced by new entrants. The golden age of print newspapers is over, yes, but that doesn’t mean that newspapers are over. They existed before the good times and I believe they’ll exist after them.
I never loved that big hunk of iron called a printing press. At best, it was a love-hate relationship. But what journalists like me do actually has very little to do with printing presses. We collect information, vet it, make it comprehensible, package it and distribute it to people. I never really cared whether we did that on a fax machine, a computer, a telephone, a piece of paper, over the radio, or something else. The job of journalists is only slightly defined by the means of distribution. Information has to be distributed, but it doesn’t have to be distributed in a particular way.
When you think about it, how crazy is it to print information on a piece of paper and give it to a bunch of guys to drive to the homes of individual readers? Such a business can only exist in the absence of a reasonable alternative. Even so, a lot of people like the experience of reading from a piece of paper. It’s really hard to improve upon type-on-paper as a way to move data into the brains of human beings. Newspapers will be around for a while. You’ll see newspapers doing a lot more video. TV and radio news operations are going to have to offer better text presentations. The power of still photography, which newspapers and magazines have had to themselves for a long time, will belong to all news media.
But all of this is only sustainable in the context of successful businesses, unless we think news will eventually come from non-profit organizations. The question is: How can we perform this important public service and pay for it in a way that is sustainable for the long term and allows the kind of independence that a newspaper requires — whether it’s independence from advertisers, the government, a philanthropic organization or something else. How will that be done in the future? People who care about journalism are struggling to figure it out, but nobody really has the answer yet.
That’s a long way of saying: I don’t know what the future of the news business will look like.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Daily News, the Dispatch, but what about you? What’s next? More fishing? Less work?
I wasn’t really trying to stop working. What I wanted was more control of my time. The job of editing the paper is relentless and time consuming, with a lot of unplanned demands on your time. On most days, there’s a lot of stress — whether it comes from a complicated story, a pissed off advertiser or a mechanical problem with the press. Forty years is enough of that for me. I do enjoy my recreational pursuits, first among them fishing, and I intend to do a lot more of that. I’ve lived in Alaska for 38 years, but I’ve never had a summer off. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to get up, every day of the summer, and do whatever I wanted. Other than fishing, l’ll be looking for interesting projects — things I’m personally passionate about. I’ve become interested in the non-profit world and the important, innovative things non-profits are doing. I also would consider consulting with companies on strategic marketing and strategic communications. I’ve learned a lot in 40 years and I’d like to share that with companies that could benefit from it. I’m 62 years old. Will I be bored without the newspaper? I don’t know. I’ve never had the opportunity to be bored. What I know is there’s more to life than work and, for me at least, the newspaper business isn’t as much fun as it used to be. You don’t lay off people you’ve worked with, side by side, for decades without losing some of the joy. So I’ve had a great career, but it’s time to try other things.
Fishing out of Deadman’s Cay in the Bahamas in March 2014.
[This article has been cross-posted from Pat Dougherty's new blog FishHawk907 . You should visit and bookmark.]