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Weekly reads from CJR for March 19, 2021

Lauren Harris on the Alaska newspaper giveaway

In November 2019 the owner of the Skagway News, which serves a small coastal Alaskan community near the border of British Columbia, announced a plan to hand the paper over to new owners, free of charge. “I want someone to get the opportunity to do good things with the paper and for the town,” Larry Persily, the outgoing publisher, wrote at the time. “If that means setting them up in business for free, so be it. Quality and longevity of the newspaper is the most important issue.” National outlets featured stories about the Alaskan newspaper giveaway, which were shared on social media with messages that framed running the Skagway News as a dream job, a respite, an escape.

Ultimately, Persily turned the paper over to Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, two teachers and bloggers, who moved eight hundred miles for the job. They arrived in early March 2020, just before the pandemic shuttered the US-Canada border. Skagway, whose year-round residents number roughly a thousand, is a popular stop for cruise ships, and depends on the annual influx of tourists to sustain local businesses, including the newspaper. Not long after Munson and Wehmhoff arrived, the Skagway Borough Assembly voted to turn away cruise ships for the year. In order to provide access to coverage, Munson and Wehmhoff, the paper’s sole employees, quickly suspended subscription fees, moved their print news outlet online, and built a database of subscribers from scratch. They printed a reduced run on tabloid paper and pasted pages in the windows of the Skagway News office. They also stopped paying themselves

“We can’t tell you what will happen in a year if the cruise ship industry doesn’t come back,” Munson told Lauren Harris, who profiled the Skagway News and its new owners for CJR in February. “I think if the town survives, the newspaper will survive. I think we’re so intertwined. It’s not going to be one without the other. Our fates are going to be the same.” As Munson and Wehmhoff approach their first anniversary at the paper, Skagway officials meet again, to decide whether to turn away cruise ships for another year, risking a local community’s economic survival in order to preserve the health of its members.

“It's easy to celebrate Munson and Wehmhoff for their resilience and their optimism,” Harris writes. “Celebratory coverage, however, can obscure bleak realities. Their response to the curveball of the pandemic is at once inspiring and harrowing.” Numerous stories about the journalism industry extol the importance of local news and make heroes of those who devote themselves to sustaining it, without paying much attention to the associated human costs. If we are to believe that local journalism is essential, then we must know, in full, what it asks of its practitioners. “Quitting isn’t something that just happens easily for either of us,” Wehmhoff told Harris. “I think that has been good for the community.” But as Harris makes clear, whether that doggedness has been good for the new owners of the Skagway News is another matter entirely.
––Brendan Fitzgerald, senior editor

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