Wednesday, March 03, 2021

New owners of newspaper in tourist town on Alaska's Inside Passage struggle to survive and thrive during pandemic

Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff
(Photo provided to Columbia Journalism Review)
Columbia Journalism Review recounts a rural Alaska newspaper owner's quest to find the right kind of successor for his paper, and how the new owners dealt with not only learning the newspaper business, but doing so just as the pandemic began.

Larry Persily, owner of the twice-monthly Skagway News, announced in 2019 that he wanted to give the paper away to one or two people with the gumption and grit to handle reporting in an Alaskan port town of nearly 1,200, Lauren Harris reports. He had taken over the paper in 2019, working from Anchorage nearly 800 miles away, but quickly realized the town needed someone local to properly cover the town. He only considered applicants willing to move to Skagway long-term.

"You gotta be part of the town," Persily told Harris. "You gotta go to the basketball games. You gotta be a trusted part of the community. . . . Small-town papers need small-town editors. I wanted an owner who was going to live there happily ever after." After months of intense phone interviews and an in-person visit, in January 2020 the paper went to Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, teachers in Anchorage who co-wrote a blog for Alaskan families.

Munson, Wehmhoff and their families were able to move to Skagway just before pandemic shutdowns would have made that all but impossible, Harris reports. With the local economy largely dependent on tourism—ships cruising the Inside Passage bring more than a million visitors each year—times quickly became tough during the pandemic, and local businesses didn't have much money for advertising in the Skagway News or its summer-only tourist publication, The Alaskan.

Skagway, Alaska (Wikipedia map)
The new owners worked hard to adapt to the new reality. "When the pandemic began, Munson and Wehmhoff had quickly suspended subscription fees so struggling local residents could still get news. They also stopped paying themselves," Harris reports. "Revenue from The Alaskan vanished completely, and the paper had to return some funds to advertisers. The paper’s printing press, located in Canada, was cut off from Skagway when the border closed, so the women had to rapidly transform a print publication into a digital product. They revived a website redesign that Persily had begun. Because the paper had always been delivered in print copy, Munson and Wehmhoff didn’t have a list of subscriber email addresses. Using mailing addresses, Facebook messages, and a local phone book in its final year of publication, they began building electronic contact information for their subscriber base."

Some older residents said they wished the paper still had a print edition. "Late last year, the Skagway Assembly awarded the paper $10,000 in small-business grants from the municipality. Munson and Wehmhoff are using it to reestablish a print edition of the paper," Harris reports.

Harrris notes that, though Munson and Wehmhoff should be celebrated for their resilience and optimism, it's important to acknowledge the size of their task. "Their response to the curveball of the pandemic is at once inspiring and harrowing. They’ve worked overtime monitoring social media platforms popular among Skagway residents, countering rumors by corroborating information and steering readers back to their coverage. Both continue to teach remotely to supplement the modest income they’ve taken for their journalism work. They spend significant amounts of time crafting the paper; Munson’s children often accompany her to the newsroom," Harris reports. "Nearly a year into their time at the paper, Munson and Wehmhoff are still learning how they can best serve Skagway, even as they wonder whether they can survive long enough to figure that out."

"Quitting isn’t something that just happens easily for either of us," Wehmhoff told Harris. "I think that has been good for the community."


J. Mineo said...

Wow, I am constantly amazed and encouraged by people who do things like this. Such dedication!

J. Mineo said...

Wow! I am constantly amazed and encouraged by people who are so dedicated. Rural press is so important.