Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on the Demise of Alaska Newspapers, Inc.

The announcement on July 22nd, that Calista Corp. is letting six important small-town Alaska newspapers die strikes me as sad, yet inevitable:
Alaska Newspapers Inc. a subsidiary of Calista Corp. for the past 19 years, will close its doors on Aug. 31 and its assets will be liquidated, the corporation announced today.

The decision was made at the second quarter meeting of Calista's board of directors.
ANI encompasses six weekly rural papers including the Tundra Drums, Arctic Sounder, Bristol Bay Times, Cordova Times, Dutch Harbor Fisherman, Seward Phoenix Log and First Alaskans, as well as Camai Printing.

Andrew Guy, president and chief executive officer of Calista, said that ANI newspapers have played a vital role in rural Alaska, covering more than 1,500 air miles of news, most of the towns and villages covered by the six newspapers not being accessible by road. With the increasing costs of fuel, paper and print technology, Calista has found the subsidiary is not supportive of the company's long-term financial interests.

"As a responsibility to our 12,000 shareholders, we had to take a hard look at the subsidiary and make a tough decision," Guy said. "ANI leaves behind an impressive legacy. We're very appreciative of the superb staff and extraordinary talent that have worked so hard to report on rural Alaska. We genuinely hope the communities affected by this will find a new media voice to tell their stories."

Guy said Calista would work with ANI employees to assist them with the transition and is offering preferential hiring for any job openings within the corporation they are qualified for. In addition, Calista will offer unemployment assistance counseling, severance packages and referral letters.
All ANI publications will print their final run in August.
In the 38 years I've been in Alaska, newspapers and the media have changed tremendously.   I came to Alaska, at least partially, to escape from working in Seattle media - KRAB FM radio, where at various times I had been music or news director.  I got to Cordova in May, 1973, where, unable to escape media employment, I went to work at KLAM AM.  From KRAB to KLAM.  I wondered if I might next be called to work at KODD, KARP or KELP radio.

In Cordova, the media then was KLAM and the Cordova Times.  The Times had been around since the beginning of the 20th century.  KLAM was post-World War II.  Both were and are richly important parts of Cordova's history, as well as its current community makeup.

I was able to delve into some of KLAM's history merely by going up into the attic of the station, in a building that also served as the home of the station's operator-manager.  The station's little 250 watt signal was amplified by having a very large tower, with an immense grounding system that got washed with salt water twice a day.  I had to climb that tower once to replace the red light on top.

What KLAM did that was most vital to the community, was to provide several weather reports per day.  The reports were updated by the government at 3:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.  When I first got to Cordova, very few fishermen had radios over which they could receive government weather reports directly.  Most of the gill net fleet only had CB radios in 1973.

Every evening, the station would relay messages from people in town out to remote sites on Prince William Sound, the Copper River, Bering River and beyond.  KLAM ran the World Series in the fall, and three or four religious programs on Sundays.  We wrote our own local news stories, and carried a KENI AM feed of statewide news.

We got our national news feed from an Associated Press teletype.  It chattered all day and all night, from the bathroom, where it was placed between the toilet and sink.

During the summer of 1973, I was working at KLAM part-time, and beginning to work as a commercial fisher.  One day I had to read statewide weather from the AP teletype, as part of the news.  I looked at the weather for Dutch Harbor.  It said "low - 42, high - 45, fog and light rain."  I looked at earlier weather reports from the teletype, in a basket in the control room.  For days, the reports for Dutch had read "low - 42, high - 45, fog and light rain."

I mentioned this to my boss, Dennis Harris, who was station manager.  He said, "Hmmmm?  It might be bad readings.  Or - it might just be Dutch Harbor.  Give it a few more days."

Sure enough, four days later, the report for Dutch Harbor read "low - 42, high - 44, fog and light rain."

At that time, The Cordova Times was as going of a concern as any small town newspaper in Alaska.  There were as many as three people in town, writing local stories.  Their cute little building, which had been there a long time, is still there, I believe.  Back then, the paper's editor and family would be housed in a little World War II-era quonset hut that sort of overlooked Eyak Slough.  I remember when young Fuller Cowell came in to take on the job.

In the fall and early winter of 1975, the new Alyeska Pipeline Service Company wanted to spread money and goodwill around to the local media.  Cordova had been the focal point of legal battles against the pipeline's construction, so the money was probably intended to mend fences.  The station had just been bought by Doug Bechtel, who had fallen in love with Cordova while stationed there in the Coast Guard.  Doug had me create a program based on what happened on each day of the year, sometime in Cordova's past.

I spent many hours at the Cordova library, writing out information by hand onto legal pads, for each day of the year from many years in Cordova, dating back to almost the town's beginning.  The older papers had been put on microfiche.  There was so much fascinating detail from times in the town's past - the oil, copper and gold mining eras; the beginnings of fox farming; the building of the railroad from Cordova to Kennicott; the competition with Valdez; the rapid rise and even more rapid demise of nearby Katalla; the battles against fish traps; the World War II worries about possible invasion.

And, of course, each microfiche file for an edition had all the ads and want ads from those earlier eras.  They were as much a glimpse into the character of the town's past as were many of the articles.

I'm so glad I got to do that project in 1975.  What a rich legacy of Alaska's past will pass with the demise of the Tundra Drums, Arctic Sounder, Bristol Bay Times, Cordova Times, Dutch Harbor Fisherman and the Seward Phoenix Log.


John Greely said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I happened to be the AP correspondent in Juneau from 73-76. Filed copy to Seattle which then returned it on the broadcast wire to KLAM and other stations. Seems like the technological dark ages now! Dennis Harris, by the way, is driving taxi in Juneau these days. Me? Editing for a non-profit in Juneau. Appreciate your blog, Phil. Keep up the good work.
John Greely

Philip Munger said...

Thanks, John. So good to hear from you. Dennis is a dear friend, and we stay in touch. If there are any errors in my remembrance, I'll be hearing from his soon.

Scott Coughlin said...

A very evocative post, thanks for this, Philip. As a fellow news, information and radio guy - and former fisherman, I can relate. I mourn the passing of the papers as well, and hope the folks involved find new channels through which to communicate. For what it's worth, and where fishing-related writing is concerned, I would welcome their participation at Alaska Waypoints.

-Scott Coughlin

Anonymous said...

Email Margaret Bauman Scott! Her email appears on any story she writes/wrote.
Thank you Phil- very good post.
Losing the papers rally makes me sad. Also, have been hoping a plan will be announced for retention and care of archives ... anyone hearing anything about that?
Alaska Pi

Anonymous said...

In the late 1950s, I was an announcer for KLAM. I was a junior and senior at Cordova High and the owner/manager (Charles Buck, who put KLAM on the air in 1954) needed some help. So he hired me. When Chuck went to work for the Egan administration in the first state government, he promoted me to "acting station manager." Announced, sold and wrote the ads, wrote the local news, etc. I loved the work. I can relate to the tower story. Chuck offered me $50 to climb the tower and change the light, but my Mom vetoed that one.

I also wrote for the Cordova Times, edited at the time by Harold Bonsor (sp?). I wrote general news and about high school sports (which, at the time, was only basketball). By the way, the 1958 special edition celebrating Cordova's 50th Birthday was photographed and written by my brother, Frank. After graduation in 1960, I remained active in radio (and still host a monthly show, "PeaceTalk," on KTOO here in Juneau). Good times. Thanks for the remembrances.

Phil Smith

Philip Munger said...


I'm reading Jim & Nancy Lethcoe's History of Prince William Sound. Best book on the Sound's history since The Copper Spike - maybe even better, as it covers much more territory and a greater time span.

There must be thousands of Alaska media tales out there, like the ones you, John Greely and I wrote here. Waiting to be told. Or not.