Former ADN Executive Editor Pat Dougherty speaks on newspaper’s sale
It’s been a little more than two weeks since the Alaska Dispatch took ownership of the Anchorage Daily News. Pat Dougherty was the Executive Editor of the Daily News and had been with the paper for 34 years. He’s speaking publicly about the sale for the first time. He says he retired from that position when the sale became final because he and Dispatch founder Tony Hopfinger wouldn’t have been able to work together.
Dougherty says he was surprised when he first heard that Alaska Dispatch publisher Alice Rogoff was buying the paper. And he says there’s one thing about the sale he wants the community to understand.
Describe the day the reporters found out about the sale.
[There was a] meeting called on the loading dock, it’s the one part of the building that is large enough to hold the company staff, so we went down to the loading dock. I knew what was going to happen. Bob Wile, who is the corporate VP for McClathy who supervises the Daily News, was there and Alice came in. Bob announced the company was being sold and explained some of the reasons for that and introduced Alice.
Alice made a few remarks, very briefly, then said she had another appointment and left. It was kind of a shocking event. Then she was gone and Bob answered some more questions for a while and then people 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, actually I had been talking for some time about the possibility of retirement, but I’d always said I wouldn’t retire until my kid got out of college. Well, she finished last December so that was an important milestone for my life that made that possible. Then when I found out the Dispatch was buying the paper, I knew I wouldn’t want to work for Tony, I knew Tony wouldn’t want me to work for him, so it actually worked out that by virtue of them buying the paper, it made my retirement easier. It gave me some opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d just walked in and said I’m leaving. So it worked out well for me. I would like to see the newspaper do well and particularly because the people who were there working for me have done a great job under difficult circumstances with real class, so I want them to have good opportunities to do what they want professionally, which is good journalism.
You spent 34 years at the paper, how difficult was it to leave and not be in the daily mix at the newspaper?
One thing you get accustomed to is always being awash in information, whether it’s been published or just what reporters are hearing or finding out, so 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, so I don’t have that same insider feel, but I’ve been in the newspaper business almost 40 years and 38 of that in Alaska. I’ve done a lot, I don’t feel like I have unfinished business. One of my goals was to be a steward of the newspaper through the difficult times we’ve had since about 2007. I think I’ve managed to do that. I’ve been through 4 or 5 rounds of layoffs at the paper as financial times got more difficult. That takes a lot out of a person. It took a psychic toll on me so I’m very happy to be focused on doing the things I enjoy doing with the people I enjoy doing them with and not having the responsibility of the newspaper. When I’m sitting at home and the phone rings, I know now it’s not going to be a crisis that’s going to own my evening or the next day, so I feel very good about that.
How would you describe what your initial reaction to the sale was, when you found out it was done?
Well, I was……surprised. I was in some way disappointed because these were not the stewards of the Daily News I would choose. But I never thought I owned the newspaper, I always knew it belonged to someone else. That I needed to operate it as best I could within the guidelines I was given by the owners and I certainly did that to the best of my ability.
Pat, what remains your biggest concern about the sale?
The one thing I think is important for the community to understand and I mean that for the Alaska community and journalists who are trying to figure out what the future of what our industry is going to be and that is that the sale of the Daily News to the Dispatch is not the story of the feisty little website that persevered and toppled the old media giant. This is the story of an heiress, married to a billionaire, who was willing to pay whatever it took to buy the state’s most influential newspaper and most successful website. That’s all that happened here. The Alaska Dispatch was not a financially successful or viable product, but Alice Rogoff had the money and the will to buy the newspaper and so she did.
Many Lower 48 news outlets characterized this as a win for online journalism, topping the giant, you answered this but give me your take again.
Well, I think some of what I heard Alice say in her interview with Charles Wohlforth is correct, that where we are in this business is a time of transition and convergence, where you have print, which is a successful business, although far less successful than it was, with lots of continuing pressures, you have local television stations which are in the same situation, they’re profitable, but lots of what drives their profit is campaign spending. Their business is not as good as it was and their future is uncertain, and then you have online, that is not now a viable business but it is in part and maybe a huge part, where we’re headed. You’re going to end up with news operations doing audio, video, text, data bases, all merged into one place. But you have the digital triumphalists who think every sign of adversity for newspapers is sort of the evidence of triumph of digital over print. It’s much more subtle than that, it’s part of what I find disturbing in watching this whole process. This idea that it’s a simple black and white thing, that digital will prevail, that print will go away. These black and white scenarios and it’s still taking shape. At McClatchy Company, and I’m right with them on this, print has a future that will continue for a considerable time. But we’re never going back to the best of the good old days for newspapers. I think there [are] growing digital audiences, but how to make money from those audiences is not clear. Quality journalism is extremely expensive to produce so you have to have a business model that makes sense that will work in order to produce good journalism.
At the Daily News, that’s what we were about, is trying to figure out how to produce the best journalism that we could and how to operate our business as efficiently and effectively as possible. There was this whole period of time where people in Anchorage, I would hear this refrain constantly, “oh the newspaper is going out of business,” and I’d say, “no it’s not going out of business but it is changing and it’s not going to be like it was because times have changed too much to permit that.” People would look me in the eye and say, “that’s not true,” and I would say, “but this is my career and life, I understand this really well, I’m telling you, the newspaper is not going out of business,” and they wouldn’t believe me. Well here we are, at least I’ve stopped hearing that. People understand now the paper is not going out of business.
In fact, if you look at what happened in Anchorage with the sale of the Daily News to the Alaska Dispatch. By virtue of what the Dispatch paid for the Daily News, the Daily News is the most valuable newspaper of its size in the United State. Now does that sound like an unsuccessful business? If it was an unsuccessful business, why would the Dispatch buy it? So, there’s a, it’s frustrating when you’re immersed in a topic like this and you really understand it and try to explain that to people and they just refuse to believe it.
Tony Hopfinger, who co-founded the Alaska Dispatch and basically 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 on its face, but that’s the spin he needs to offer otherwise he’d have to say, the point of this sale was to reduce competition for news in this community. That’s what happened, it’s not complicated, it’s obvious, so he is just trying to sell a line that’s not true.
Hopfinger and Alice Rogoff, the publisher, also have said this deal returns the Daily News to 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, which I have huge respect for, is a company based in California. They own 30 newspapers from the East to West Coast from Florida to Alaska so they’re very much a national company in their overall outlook. The thing that made McClatchy unusual was that it really did let the local executives operate the papers the way they thought they should be operated within certain financial responsibilities – the need to make money. And that was always the case from when McClatchy first got involved. So it’s not locally owned but it was operated by people like me. I’ve been at the newspaper for 34 years, I’ve been at the Anchorage Daily News longer, by a considerable margin than Tony Hopfinger and Alice Rogoff combined and I’m the editor of the paper. So it wasn’t locally owned, but it was operated by people with deep roots in the community and a lot of institutional knowledge and people who are unquestionably Alaskans and I’m speaking on the news side primarily. So it’s true and it’s not true, that’s my take on it.
Pat, you worked for Kay Fanning, she sold to McClatchy. How did that transition compare to this sale?
Kay Fanning sold the paper to McClathy, she was just weeks from going out of business otherwise. McClatchy bought the paper in late 1978, the first McClatchy version came out April 2nd of ‘79. I came to work in 1980, so I wasn’t there in the immediate months but I think it was fairly seamless. The paper was only about 13 people when McClatchy bought it. So McClatchy brought in lots of people, helped with the hiring, loaned staff to the Daily News because when McClatchy bought the Daily News, we didn’t own a press, we didn’t have a building, we didn’t have an advertising department, a circulation department, classified. We had an accountant not a business office. So there was huge work to be done to get that launched. So that transition was like a fire drill to get this tiny little buildingless-newspaper a press and a building and get it operational. In this case, the business is all sitting there, the question is integrating the two staffs and communicating the new owner’s vision of what they’re trying to accomplish and how they want to go about that with a staff that is used to doing something different.
So managing that kind of change is difficult and a challenge, but Tony Hopfinger talked about that in the interview with Charles Wohlforth and he talked about that and recognized that as the primary challenge that he had and I think there’s a lot of interest in the legacy Daily News staff in seeing a good transition there and from a news stand point, it’s a great thing. The number of reporters is doubling over night. That’s a huge infusion of energy and ideas so I think, all and all it will be a good thing and I think in some ways, may be easier than the previous transition, I don’t know it’s a little hard, I’m not there now as I was for the previous one that happened almost 40 years ago.
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 that I had thought or proposed that the Daily News do. They talked about changing the name of the paper to reflect its statewide focus. At one time, maybe before Tony worked for the Daily News or while then, I proposed changing the name of the paper to the Alaska Daily News, McClatchy didn’t want to do that because they believe in the brand of the Anchorage Daily News, that’s the historic name of the paper and not something you would change lightly. The name plate doesn’t define the content of the newspaper, the content does. The Anchorage Daily News doing statewide coverage is the same as the Alaska Daily News, people will understand what they’re reading so if you’re providing statewide coverage, people will understand the brand of the Daily News includes a statewide orientation. It was always the focus of the Daily News from the get go. We’ve had varying amounts of resources available to execute that vision, but that has always been the vision.
At the moment at least, there are many more reporters there. Does this benefit or does the math not work out overhead wise?
It makes for a stronger product. If you do a good job of marketing, you 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, unless you’re incompetent, that’s just not that hard to do. But the question in my mind is the business plan for this newspaper. These have been difficult times for the newspaper business and they’re not over yet. The challenges for producing a profitable newspaper is hard and will get harder, the classified advertising business is hugely diminished and that’s just gone and not coming back. You’re now operating a newspaper that used to have 28 pages of classifieds a day and now you have 6 or 5, that’s a big deal and that’s not reversible. I heard Alice say, it’s going to be up to advertisers to rally around this new and revised newspaper.
That suggests to me that Alice doesn’t understand advertisers. The advertisers are not in the paper because they want to rally around the news product. They’re there because they have goods and services they want to sell and they’re looking for the most effective and most economical way to do that. You need to understand the business.
So I don’t think you can count on advertisers to just jump into the newspaper because they think Alice has high journalistic ambitions. It’s a cutthroat world for that business and it’s not going to get easier. I also heard Alice and Tony were asked a question about the paywall at the Daily News. I heard Alice say that we, the Alaska Dispatch came to this sale, with no knowledge whatsoever, I believe those were her exact words, of the paywall and how it worked. I was listening to that and thought, if I were about to pay $34 million for a business, I would have a better understanding of how that business works than is suggested by that answer. These are difficult, complicated questions about running this business and I’m not hearing a lot that suggests that the people that bought it really understand that.
They had, at the time of the purchase, they had probably the most talented print advertising executive in the state working for them. She’s since left and became the publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner; that was a huge blow in a very critical area of that business. I know from a lot of experience that finding a good advertising executive to run the advertising department is not easy and we were fortunate to have found Marty. So again, I have to wonder, how can you let this happen if you’re really going to try to meet the challenges of the business that you’re in? Time will tell.
Alaska Dispatch has owned the paper for about two weeks, what are your thoughts when reading it?
Well, I see that they have decided to use all local stories on the front page. I think that’s reasonable, it’s not exactly the decision I would have made. My preference is to publish a balance of local and national, leaning to the local, but it’s perfectly reasonable thing to do. In fact, I redesigned the Daily News and put all the local news in the A section and had a national and international B section. That represents an ideal way of putting the paper out, so that makes sense.
I also had been urging the company for years to eliminate participation in the Associated Press which I think is an anachronism and is not helpful for the newspaper and replace it where needed which is primarily in sports and it would save a lot of money that could be put into local reporting and the company didn’t think it was a good idea and wouldn’t let me do it. I know Tony feels the same way. He’s trying to get out of his AP contract. It’s a little surprising that he didn’t realize until after they bought the paper that there is a two year cancellation on the Associated Press. He thought he could walk in and cancel it, turns out he has to wait two years unless his lawyers can figure out how to break it early. I think he and I are of similar frame of mind about that. I would have done that years ago if I’d had the opportunity.
Two other things. One is they’re going to get rid of the signed editorials; I think that’s a mistake. One of the things that makes that editorial page important is that you have one institution in the community that is willing to stand up and take oppositional positions on the conventional wisdom on the economic and political elite of the state so. It’s only the Daily News that’s going to say, ‘wait a minute, why are we cutting oil taxes with no guarantee of some result in exchange for that?’ You’re not going to hear that from the Chamber of Commerce, you’re not going to hear that from the people who run the legislature or the Governor. So even if you don’t agree with that opinion, isn’t it valuable to have an institution in the community that constructs the argument and shares it with the community so there is at least the opportunity for a debate about a public policy that is as important as that? So, just eliminating that institutional voice, to me, is a mistake. Another thing they said, is they will not do political endorsements. That I agree with. I’m not very big on political endorsements by the newspaper myself. Particularly not in high profile races.
Now, arguably, it’s valuable to the community to have an editorial board, an editorial page where the school board candidates come in and make their case and then the newspaper makes a recommendation on that because you’re not going to have a lot of information as a voter otherwise on a race like that. So, I could go either way on that. On the other hand, if you’re having a Senate race like we’re having this year, you don’t need the newspaper’s endorsement to help guide you in your decision about who to vote for. You’re going to have more information than you’d want as a voter. So that would be my take on it.
Have you heard anything about how Daily News reporters are handling the change so far?
I think they’re enjoying the infusion of energy and staff. It spreads out things like who has to work on the weekends, that improves your quality of life. Or maybe you’re able to provide more depth on the first story you’re working on because someone else can pick up the second story you would have done otherwise. So I think from their standpoint, initially it’s a good thing. My impression is, it’s working out fine and 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?
Well, that’s a good question. Alice Rogoff has an MBA from Harvard, so that’s certainly good training. She worked as an assistant to the publisher of the Washington Post, 30 years ago for a year or two. She had no operational responsibilities in that job. She was the CFO at U.S. News and World Report. Which is an operational job, but again, that was 20 years ago. I can’t emphasize enough how much the world of journalism and publishing has changed in the last 20 years. She created a gallery for Alaska Native art in Manhattan, which she underwrote, which rocked along just fine as long as she wrote personal checks to cover it. But she couldn’t sustain that indefinitely because there wasn’t a business model behind it. She went to the legislature and asked them to pay for it and they weren’t interested so that went away. So there’s not a lot of newspaper experience there. She ran the Dispatch, which again was not a profitable business and was as far as I can tell, was never going to become profitable.
Tony Hopfinger was a newspaper reporter, worked for me in fact. Left, wanted to come back, although he now tells the story that he left over some ethical issue where his good journalism was suppressed by the editors of the Daily News, I can say definitively that that is not true. He left and tried to come back and we were not interested in having him come back as a reporter. He then went to the Anchorage Press where he was an editor for a couple of years, maybe, for that weekly. Then went to the Alaska Dispatch where he’s been, I think for about eight years, running a money-losing website. So, those are not resumes for what I would think are great qualifications to run a substantial business in very difficult financial circumstances, but they have a lot of ideas and they describe themselves as being very experimental with what to do with the Daily News. So, maybe they will experiment and hit on some formula, that people who have spent their entire lives in newspapers trying to make them as successful as possible couldn’t come up with.
Given this transformation in local journalism in Alaska, what do you think the future holds?
I have been asked that a lot and I have addressed it but never terribly successfully. The reality is nobody knows where this is headed. The digital triumphilists say print is going to die, television is going to die and everything will be on the internet. I think newspapers are going to be around for a while. They’re money making businesses. But they’re not like they once were. Newspapers were hugely profitable. It’s worth keeping in mind that the period of newspapers being hugely profitable was a relatively short period in the long history of newspapers. The more common history for a newspaper was, newspapers were being born and dying all the time. It was a brutal, Darwinian world for newspapers, where they barely made money, they went out of business, somebody started a new one and that went on for decades – many decades. I think the golden age of newspapers is over, but it doesn’t mean that newspapers are over. They existed before the good times and I think they’ll exist afterwards. I’m not in love with newspapers, even though I spent my life with them. I’ve spent as much time hating that big piece of iron called the printing press as I did having any affection for it.
What we do, people like me in my career, is we go out and collect information, we vet it, we package it and we distribute to people. And I don’t really care if we do that on a fax machine, on a computer, on a telephone, on a piece of paper or the radio. Because the core task is not about the means of distribution, it has to be distributed, but it doesn’t have to be distributed in any particular way. When you think about it, how crazy is it to print the news on a piece of paper and give it to a guy in a four wheel drive truck and have him drive it to everyone’s house. That’s a business that can only exist in the absence of alternatives. Even so, I think reading on a piece of paper is a qualitatively different experience than getting it other ways. There’s a kind of pleasure in it that people like, they enjoy it. It’s really, really hard to improve upon type on paper for transferring information into the brains of human beings. So, I think that’s going to be around for a while yet, but I think you’re going to see newspapers doing a lot more video. I think television stations and radio stations are going to have to get better at doing text presentations. I think the power of still photography that newspapers has owned all to itself for a long time is now going to have to be shared among all of these media. But it can only work in the context of some sort of successful business, unless we think that everybody’s news is going to come from some form of non-profit organization. So at the bottom of all of it is, how can we do this public service that’s very important and pay for it in a way that is sustainable for a long time and creates the kind of independence that a newspaper needs, whether it’s from advertisers, the government or philanthropic organizations. How is that going to be done in the future. Everybody is struggling to figure that out but nobody really knows the answer yet. That’s a long way of saying I don’t know what the future for the news business is.
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 being the editor of the paper is time consuming, lots of demands on your time. Any given day, fair amount of stress involved in that. I’ve done enough of that. I don’t need to continue to do that. I do enjoy my recreational pursuits, first among them fishing, and I intend to do that. I’ve lived in Alaska for 38 years, 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 because there’s so many great things to do. When you’re working, there’s only 19 weekends and every one of those that goes away, there’s 5 percent of your summer that’s disappeared. In the future, I’m going to be looking for interesting things to do. Things I have passion about. I have interest in the non-profit world and the things that non-profits are doing that I think are important in communities. So maybe I’ll volunteer. I also may have the opportunity to do some strategic marketing, strategic communications consulting. Which I have developed a lot of expertise and I would like to share it with organizations that would like me to do that. I’m just about 62-years-old, will I be bored? I don’t know. I’ve never had the opportunity to be bored, so I’m going to give it a chance and see whether life will feel like it does now, where it still feels like there is more to do than I can get to, or whether at some point, I don’t feel like I’m profitably using my time, so we’ll see but for now I’m really going to enjoy the summer.