Dispatch searches for its digital roots

In better days: Tony Hopfinger and Alice Rogoff in this USA Today photo labeled “handout.”

STOP THE PRESSES

The Alaska Dispatch News newspaper enterprise started out as the homegrown Alaska Dispatch internet news startup, with scrappy Amanda Coyne and brooding Tony Hopfinger working out of their home, pounding out long-form stories, and beating the stuffing out of the McClatchy-owned Anchorage Daily News.

The Dispatch was compelling, edgy, but unprofitable as an online publication, until Alice Rogoff discovered Alaska, discovered the Dispatch and discovered she could wield a heap of influence in our frontier outpost. She became its angel investor and majority owner in 2009.

They staffed up. They made waves and the media establishment across the country paid attention.

By May 2014, Rogoff couldn’t see how to be profitable. So she bought out the Anchorage Daily News at the price of $34 million, and they merged the operations. Little Digital had purchased the Big Print news operation. It was quite a story, and the media world was enchanted.

[Skip over this section if you can tell this enchantment story in your sleep.]

Soon thereafter, Coyne left to continue blogging independently. Hopfinger stayed for a while, but he was losing influence in the newsroom as executive editor. He left and much of the brilliant original digital media staff is now elsewhere. The print mafia had won.

CHECKING FOR A PULSE

It has been a bumpy three years.

First, Rogoff needed to move her presses out of the old Airport Heights building, which she had sold to GCI. But there was nowhere to put the behemoth offset, and so she began paying premium rent to GCI to keep her presses housed.

At some point this year, the millionaire publisher will get her new press from Indiana running down on Arctic Blvd at her newspaper’s new location, and will remediate her way out the door of the GCI building.

Second, Rogoff and Hopfinger are now in a nasty business divorce that will head to trial in August or, more likely, be settled in July.

Meanwhile, the print circulation of the Alaska Dispatch News appears to still be flagging, although no accurate numbers are being made public any longer. The industry has gone into its shell, hoping no one will notice.

Wikipedia calls the circulation at between 57,622 daily and 71,223 on Sundays, but others say the number is less than that by tens of thousands.

Must Read Alaska calculates the actual print circulation at about 18,000 daily based on old audits and a 6 percent average yearly decline in print readership nationwide. Add in the 10,000 Wednesday mailbox stuffer, and Rogoff might claim 28,000 readers.

The online circulation is falling too, although the ADN is still the top digital news property in the state.

UP AND DOWN THE PAYWALL

Rogoff started out at the Daily News-Dispatch  by taking down the Dispatch paywall, which required a paid subscription in order to access the site. She told KUAC radio in January of 2015, ““It’s just not something that we have ever thought made sense.”

It would have been one thing, she said, if news readers had always paid for online news. But to get them to suddenly start paying for what they were used to getting for free just wasn’t likely. “And the way your news product gets seen by the people you want to see it, and read it, is by letting it be out there for free.”

But information dessemination is a cruel business. By January of this year, the paywall was back up. Sort of. It’s an on-again, off-again paywall, which some readers encounter and others do not. There is no real logic to it, but in any case, former Dispatch reporter Craig Medred has publicized ways to defeat it, and such information is readily available to those who know how to use the Google search function. Otherwise, it’s $9.99 a month.

This month, the Dispatch was thrown a lifeline to help it get its digital act back together. It’s a Rogoff walk-of-shame back to where she started in news in Alaska. The Poynter Institute announced that the Dispatch would be among 21 news companies that will get help learning to lead with their online foot first.

Or for Rogoff, relearning.

Poynter’s Local News Innovation Project, funded by the Knight Foundation, is a three-year program. There will be seminars and coaching involved. Perhaps there will even be targets and milestones to meet.

Coincidentally, three years is the same amount of time it took the Dispatch to dismantle itself to where it is today. It went from being a digital news leader, with talent like Coyne, Hopfinger, Craig Medred, Scott Woodham, Sean Doogan, and Kyle Hopkins (all now off doing other things) to this: Going Outside for help in rebuilding that digital pioneering spirit it dismantled when it combined operations.

LOOKING FOR HER MOJO

But will it be profitable? Rogoff certainly would like that.

Of course, it was a headier time back in 2014, when she was quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review saying, “This has to make money.”

This January, when she announced the paywall was going back up, she realigned expectations: “We don’t need to make money, but we have to stay afloat.”

 The return to its digital roots may not solve the company’s core problems.

Today, the economy in Alaska is mired in a deep economic recession.  Advertising is going to remain soft for some time.  And, from the department of just desserts, an argument can be made that the Alaska Dispatch News, with its focus on changing public policy, had something to do with crashing the economy by pushing for the election of anti-oil, tax-it-if-it-moves Gov. Bill Walker and slanting the news coverage against the state’s primary economic engines.

The format may change and the company may limp forward with digital.  But the larger question remains: does the Dispatch understand its readers or is it mired in journalistic hubris that “knows better” than the people it would serve? Remaining stubbornly misaligned with the economic interests of its readership seems a poor way to turn the circulation corner.

And finally, will three years of remedial digital therapy with the Poynter Institute bring profitability, or has the spine of the Dispatch business model been broken beyond repair?

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