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Generated on 8/23/2008 12:47:26 PM by The Anchorage Press Web Site.
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Can Talkeetna support two newspapers?
By Scott Christiansen
John Moses was burning the wee-hour oil Tuesday, August 5—about 3:30 a.m. to be
more specific—when he put the finishing touches on a news story about the Talkeetna
Community Council. Then he posted it to the web site of his fledgling newspaper, the
Alaska Pioneer Press.
Moses is running a one-man media outlet in a town populated by not quite 900 souls.
Talkeeetna is not the first place you would expect a 24-hour newsroom to spring up. It’s
a tourist-trap of a town established at the site of an Alaska Railroad work camp almost
100 years ago and made famous by bush pilots who ferry the most hardcore of
adventurers to landing spots on the flanks of Mount McKinley.
Moses says he was awake after attending the council meeting, and his paper wouldn’t
publish in print for nine days. There was no reason not to post the story. “I figured, since
I was awake, why not write it and put it on the web site,” Moses says. “I wanted to get it
out as fresh and as clean as possible.”
Moses doesn’t fret about competition, but he is mindful of it. Before his story rolled off
the presses, Scott Anderson would have a bite at the council meeting in the next edition of
his Talkeetna Times. And there’s more competition at the community radio station,
KTNA 88.9 FM, which competes for Talkeetna’s attention with weekday newscasts filed
mostly by the station’s sole full-time reporter, Sue Deyoe.
Even if he beat Deyoe in a race to move his story to the web, Moses knows KTNA is the
most established newsroom in the Susitna Valley. Deyoe has Talkeetna’s ear. On the
morning after a meeting, Moses says, “I can’t beat Sue Deyoe over at KTNA.”
Can a town of 850 people sustain two newspapers and radio station? Talkeetna, a tiny
road system village where full-time reporters now outnumber supermarkets three to zero,
is going to find out.
Right now, Moses publishes the Pioneer Press monthly. The first print edition of his
newspaper came out in February. Anderson’s Times publishes twice a month. He
purchased his paper last year and arrived in June 2007. He also bought the Nenana News,
renamed it Denali Reach, and plans to expand circulation to Anderson, Cantwell, Clear,
and Healy, about 150 miles north of the Talkeetna Spur Road.
Both men plan to report news along the George Parks Highway from Houston north and
both actively seek stringers. At least a half-dozen former Times contributors now write
for Moses’ Pioneer Press. But advertisers haven’t followed as quickly. The Times August
7 edition was 16 pages.
The Press was 16 pages too, but a cursory count of the advertisements shows the Times
ahead by about two-to-one. (Both papers have free circulation, which means advertisers
—who account for the serious money in newspaper publishing — will never see
circulation audits based on paid subscriptions.)
Anderson has filled his space with a combination of his own reporting and several press
releases from government sources.
Moses eschews press releases and has all original content in print. And both face some
competition in the larger newspapers further south. Stories in Talkeetna aren’t out of
reach for the Anchorage Daily News or the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. That means four
papers are distributed in Talkeetna and the larger two (the Daily News and Frontiersman)
have newsrooms near Wasilla, just 80 miles south on the Parks Highway. By Alaska
standards, that’s a short drive.
If Alaska’s political corruption stories slow down by December, the Talkeetna Bachelor
Society’s famous Bachelor Auction and Wilderness Woman Contest might attract a media
circus.(In the interest of disclosure, I should report that Wick Communications prints
both Talkeetna-based newspapers. Wick also owns the Anchorage Press and the
Frontiersman. If Talkeetna is the site of a newspaper war — locals politely use the word
“rivalry” — it’s too early to call a winner, unless that winner is Wick.)
Moses, who held a job at the Frontiersman for seven months in 2007, says the big papers
further south have enough news to cover without sending reporters out of the Matanuska
Valley. “The Frontiersman has two big towns to cover,” he says, referring to Palmer and
Wasilla, “—three if you count Houston.”
This is not unlike the media atmosphere during the 1980s in the San Francisco Bay Area
where Moses honed his skills as an editor. Moses became city editor for the San
Francisco Independent, a weekly paper with a circulation of about 40,000 that had just
been purchased by new owners. San Francisco had two giant newspapers at the time, the
Chronicle and the Examiner. The twin giants had been in a joint operating agreement since
1967, Moses says. They still had competitive newsrooms and six-figure circulation
numbers, but the news-front was a battle to cover stories on citywide politics,
professional sporting events, and national and international affairs.
Neighborhoods can get ignored in those battles. The Independent grew to a circulation of
530,000 each week, partly by adding two editions and becoming a thrice-weekly paper.
They did this, Moses says, because they found neighborhood-level stories not covered on
TV or in the major dailies. “I was going to board of supervisors meetings that no other
reporter would go to— because that’s the nuts-and-bolts. That’s where everything
By the time Moses left in 1992, the Independent had a ten-person newsroom and had won
awards for their coverage of lead contamination in housing projects and urban parks.
“Frankly, these neighborhoods were being ignored and not getting the coverage they
deserve,” Moses says. He thinks the same is true today for communities along the Parks
Highway from Big Lake to Nenana. “There is a niche, if you give these small towns their
Some Talkeetna residents will tell you that the larger papers can be counted on for a
handful of stories. If a train derails, a car crash closes the Parks Highway or a climber
dies on Alaska’s most famous mountain, Talkeetna might be mentioned. The occasional
murder is covered. A truly odd crime can become infamous. Readers all over the state
learned about the Halloween robbery of 2007, during which grown women used a real
handgun to hold-up costumed children. Investigators on the Halloween case uncovered a
theft ring. (The story is ongoing. Nearly a year later it’s updated as prosecutors take the
women and their boyfriends in court.)
“We get covered a lot. We don’t get interviewed that often,” says Ed O’Connor, who
teaches middle-school science. He seemed to be only half-joking. Like many small-town
media outlets the Times and the Pioneer Press sometimes seem dominated by meeting
coverage. But those meetings—the community council, the water and sewer board, the
road service board—are where the locals talk about local issues, and they can be captured
So what happened at the council meeting that was so urgent it required Moses to post his
story at three in the morning?“The railroad was telling ATV riders and other trail users
that they needed to find another way across the river, rather than use (the railroad’s)
bridge,” Moses says.
Most area residents know the long-held views of officials at the Alaska Railroad: there
ought to be a safer way to cross the Talkeetna River than the pedestrian catwalk attached
to the railroad bridge where trains roll by several times a day. The Pioneer Press article is
a snapshot of a years-long conversations about trails, roads and railroad access to Chase,
an unincorporated community about nine miles north of Talkeetna. (Talkeetna itself is
unincorporated.)Hardly anyone lives in Chase, (the state of Alaska estimates 30 full-time
residents and some 90 homes) but people do live around Chase and use the Alaska
Railroad’s bridge to get to Talkeetna and the road system.There are also plans for double
tracks through Talkeetna to handle increased train traffic, and — perhaps vital to more
residents — an ongoing search for a new crossing-site to access East Talkeetna by car. T
he neighborhood has just one road leading in. A train could block it. An emergency in East
Talkeetna could turn into a tragedy given the wrong set of circumstances. These are the
kinds of nuts-and-bolts stories that outside papers aren’t going to cover. Or at least not
until such a tragedy strikes.
Moses wrote about those issues on his web site, and later explored them in print. He
doesn’t have an editorial column, but his writing in The Pioneer Press is aggressive in a
way the Times — founded in 1999 as The Talkeetna Good Times — hasn’t been.
Some residents are cautious, but optimistic about the chance to read more community
news. Like readers in many small towns, they worry about news stories if they believe
the story might muddle the public forum.
Mike Sterling, who lives ‘up the tracks’ near Chase, felt as if Moses headline, “AKRR
Wants Trail Users Off Bridge” was a bit much. “When you get further into the story, you
see that what the railroad really wants is to start a conversation,” Sterling says.
But Sterling, a retired teacher, recognizes the role of local media. He’s a leader of a
freshly-minted education group that plans to marshal expertise within the community
from outside the schools to work with teachers. The new association, with no name as
yet, held three meetings and invited people from Talkeetna and the surrounding area. The
meetings benefited from coverage by the Times and KTNA, Sterling said. “We held three
symposiums and I think we had about 80 people at each one,” Sterling says.
Readers of the Anchorage Daily News or The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman certainly won’
t get that same window into a Talkeetna happening, except maybe as a calendar entry.
“They’d do it once. But I think we had the local newspaper there for all three meetings,”
That’s the benefit of having more journalists than grocery stores in a small town. Larger
papers—reliable for tragic highway accidents, train derailments or the occasional violent
crime—won’t necessarily show up for a meeting some teachers want everyone to attend.
These meetings can grow and snowball, perhaps spawn a movement, and maybe make
the town a better place.
Scott Anderson is white-haired and heavy set. He carried a camera around booths at
Houston’s Founder’s Day event Saturday, chatting up people he met and scoring a brief
talk with April Moore, a Republican State House candidate who lives in Trapper Creek.
Moore is running for District 15, which stretches along the Park Highway.But mostly,
Anderson was practicing what’s called “refrigerator journalism.” He was waiting for
Houston’s parade to begin so he could capture photos readers will want to save. There’s
an old cliché in community journalism that’s used to motivate newsrooms: “Nobody ever
hangs the real estate advertisement on their refrigerator.” Anderson re-sells the photos
online. Services like this compliment his small-town newsgathering.
“I think the really good journalists, even at the national level, have got community news
experience,” Anderson says.
In July, Anderson committed a gaffe in the Talkeetna Times that managed to make
headlines at the Daily News. His paper ran an anti-catholic advertisement from a little-
known Florida-based church. (Anderson isn’t alone. The little known church, the Eternal
Gospel Church, once successfully placed an ad in the Miami Herald.)As the flap settled,
Anderson devoted Page One space in his next edition to a pair of articles that explored
what happened and how his paper would change. Stringer Lisa Peschel-Hoerter wrote the
articles. She interviewed Anderson and sources who said they were surprised at the Daily
News for doing the story.
Anderson also published an editorial with the title, “Yes, Newspapers—and Publishers—
Err, Too.” Anderson wouldn’t discuss the advertisement flap on Saturday, except to say,
“We’re human, too.”
Deyoe, at KTNA, didn’t cover the brief controversy, and says she advised a Daily News
reporter that it wasn’t much of a story. “I think most people saw [the advertisement], and
went right on to the next page,” Deyoe says.
Anderson talks about bolstering the Times presence with new media, adding audio, still
photos, and one day video to the web site. “A true multi-media outlet,” he says. He doesn’
t think the Internet is ready for a lot of locally-produced news on video, yet. He also
defends his press release-heavy newspaper. The press releases are updated every few
days on the web site. Recent examples involve the prosecution of an Anchorage pimp, the
case against U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and the sentencing of one of Talkeetna’s
Halloween robbers. Alaskan stories, certainly, but not the kind of thing you’d probably
find hanging on a refrigerator in Talkeetna or Trapper Creek.
“I have had many people say, ‘Thanks, because we don’t read the Anchorage Daily News
or the Frontiersman’,” he says of the press releases.
Unlike Moses, Anderson does write regular editorials. The most recent, published Aug. 7,
outlines his free speech values and gives an oblique accounting about conversations he
had at another job seven years ago about the First Amendment. It doesn’t jump off the
page as local copy, but it does give a window to how he sees an issue. He writes that our
free speech rights are in jeopardy, as is the freedom to travel freely around the United
Anderson has owned two community papers before, the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times in
Washington State and the Clearwater Progress in Kamiah, Idaho. He’s also a past editor
of the Kodiak Daily Mirror, he says. He worked most recently at Western Washington
University, editing the faculty and staff newsletter and doing “pretty much the same thing
(as community journalism) only for the government,” he says.
The Times August 7 edition reaches out to the community on two fronts. On his editorial
page, Anderson calls for submissions from clergy and church leaders. On the front page
he announces the Times is forming an advisory board. Board members, the notice says,
may be called upon “on occasion” for suggestions on “how to handle a particularly
sensitive news story” and other issues.
Anderson says he wants a minimum of five people for the board. As of Saturday, he had
three prospects. Some community newspapers would never consider such a board, he
says. “In my opinion, the ones that never consider having a board sometimes commit
blunders that maybe they wouldn’t have, had they formed a board,” he says.
In media circles, there’s a school of thought that argues that print is dead, or at least
dying. But you wouldn’t know it in Talkeetna, where the Press, on the off chance it finds
its way there, would have to compete for readers with four separate publications, two of
Nature writer Robin Song is writing for both of them. She’s taken a middle ground, and
has been living in Anchorage for the summer, on sabbatical from Talkeetna so she can
work here at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center. Her columns for the Times are
generalist nature writing. The articles she submits to Pioneer Press focus on birds.
“I didn’t know it had turned into a quote, ‘rivalry,’” Song says. “I don’t think we have to
be a one-paper town.” Song has also lived in Homer, a town that has sustained two
newspapers for more than a decade.
The Pioneer Press’s Denali correspondent Bill Rodwell came to Alaska ten years ago,
giving up a professional life to become a dog handler and learn mushing. “I went from
being a shirt-and-tie engineer on the East Coast to shoveling dog poop in Talkeetna,”
He’s since moved up the highway to Healy. He’s a former contributor to the Times who
now writes for Moses. Rodwell says he didn’t make a conscious effort to quit the Times
after Anderson took over. Rodwell just heard about Moses’ work from friends and Moses
replied promptly the first time Rodwell introduced himself via email. “I just heard good
things about John. I don’t know much about Scott,” he says. “I think having local writers
is important and that seemed to be the direction John was going.”
Moses published stories this summer by Rodwell about the work of mountain rescuers
and about foreign laborers, many from Eastern Europe, who work at businesses on the
edge of Denali National Park. The immigration story delves into how young students find
work in Alaska and the bureaucratic hoops they jump through to get here.
Rodwell caught the journalism bug with the Times and says he has often thought that the
small communities along the Parks Highway constituted a market unto themselves, a
market that wasn’t being served. “I’ve wanted to do stories that interest people in the
communities up here, and down there and anyone who travels in between,” Rodwell says.
And he thinks the competition will lead to better news in that vein. “I think having two
newspapers in Talkeetna will create one or two better newspapers.”
Talkeetna’s readers do seem hungry for both the public conversation and the refrigerator
journalism that these community news outlets provide.
“This town has a lot of writers,” says Stephanie Pijuan, a barista and gift shop clerk at
Tanner’s Trading Post. “With two papers, you get various opinions and more letters to
Pijuan is 18. She and her peers grew up under the watchful eye of the Talkeetna Good
Times, in which local news often appeared in the form of school sports and theater. “I
could open it up and say, ‘Look mom, I’m on page seven,’ and she’d say ‘You were just
on page four last week.’”
She also wants the hard news and says some stories she’d read right away, if they were
posted to the web.
“If your friend’s house is burning down, you would want to know more about it.”
Generated on 8/23/2008 12:47:26 PM by The Anchorage Press Web Site.
Copyrighted. All Rights Reserved.
|Originally Printed in the Anchorage Press in August 2008. The
Pioneer Press Reprints This Article In It's Original Form.