Haines’ local newspaper has a new owner.
Kyle Clayton, who is an Army veteran who has been in journalism about five years, takes over for longtime Chilkat Valley News reporter Tom Morphet, whose recent foray into local politics is now challenged by a recall campaign.
Morphet has been trying to sell the newspaper since last fall, when he was elected to the Haines Borough Assembly.
At that time, the paper’s political reporter, Karen Garcia, quit because she didn’t want to work for the paper when its owner was on the Assembly.
“I didn’t foresee that I would lose my main reporter just then, and I scrambled,” Morphet said. “I spent a lot of my personal money paying interim editors to keep the paper afloat while not taking a salary from the paper myself.”
Morphet sought out interested buyers for the paper. But he didn’t want to take an offer from someone out-of-state.
“I got so stressed out between doing the paper and doing the Assembly in March, end of February, that I was about to resign my Assembly seat,” Morphet said. “Kyle said I’ll come down and I’m interested in buying it. So Kyle really was a savior.”
Kyle Clayton, 32, was in Anchorage at the time, freelancing for the Alaska Dispatch News and Anchorage Press.
“I just called him and said ‘Hey, do you still need somebody?’” Clayton said. “I kind of was interested in buying it, that wasn’t my main … I didn’t know if I wanted to. But I thought I could go try it out.”
Clayton started reporting at the Chilkat Valley News in March. That’s right around the time that the political tension in Haines began to boil over, and at its center was Clayton’s boss, Morphet.
“Kind of in the eye of the hurricane I guess, the recall happened just a couple weeks after I got here,” Clayton said. “There’s so many things that have happened since I’ve been here.”
A group of Haines residents is trying to recall Morphet and two other Assembly members, Tresham Gregg and Heather Lende.
Clayton has reported in Petersburg, Bethel, Anchorage and back in his home state of Indiana.
Haines is the most divisive place he’s worked, he said.
“Everyone keeps telling me this is the most contentious time they’ve seen Haines,” Clayton said. “I was pretty skeptical about wanting to make this my home. But it keeps things interesting. I guess it’s better than apathy. A lot of people care about this time and they express it in various ways that we’ve seen over the last several months.”
Morphet is in the middle of the current conflict. He’s said it’s another Haines controversy, like the many he’s covered in his 27 years as a Chilkat Valley News reporter.
“That’s the passion and that’s often makes for difficult public meetings and hurt feelings and generations of people who don’t like other people,” Morphet said. “The newspaper’s got to be in the middle of it. And that’s hard. I’ve seen friendships dissolve over political questions. And that’s the price you pay as a reporter and editor and publisher, is witnessing that stuff.”
The newspaper is not what Morphet calls a “booster paper,” instead it’s known for aggressive accountability journalism.
That kind of reporting in a small town sometimes burns bridges.
“I’m delighted that Kyle is the new owner, because the guy has dodged real bullets,” Morphet said. “The guy has courage.”
Clayton was an Army combat medic for four years, serving in Iraq.
He got into journalism afterward because he wanted to write for a living.
Clayton said one of his first projects is to bring the newspaper more fully into the digital age. He updated the website and plans to use social media more.
“Be a mirror for the community, I guess, is one of the goals of a newspaper,” Clayton said. “Whether it’s a kid playing sports or on an Easter egg hunt or talking about conflict of interest with the manager or police funding. Everything is Haines, from the little kids running through the grass to some of the more controversial stuff. And I don’t plan on shying away from doing the heavy-hitting stuff but you have to reflect everything, the positive too.”
Before Clayton fully immerses himself in newspaper management, he’s headed to Bristol Bay to fish for about a month.
When he gets back, he’ll cover the recall election that will determine whether his predecessor at the newspaper gets to keep his seat in Haines politics.
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