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Alaska Rural Newspapers Find New Owners

Concern and disappointment over the closing of Alaska's rural newspapers, known collectively as Alaska Newspapers, Incorporated (ANI), has turned to hope and excitement as all six of the papers now have new owners and all are expected to continue publishing. For decades, the rural papers have been the main, and sometimes the only, news source for and about rural Alaska, including most Alaska Native villages.

After a quarterly board meeting in July, Calista Corporation, owner of all six rural papers, announced that it would be ceasing publications in August. The Alaska Native corporation stated that they were taking their shareholders' interests in mind when making the decision citing increasing costs.

Alaska Native leaders such as Myron Naneng (Yup’ik) of the Association of Village Council Presidents stated that the information links between communities would be damaged and the concerns of rural residents would not reach the ears of legislators, state or federal agencies without local reporting on local issues.

Thom Leonard, Calista's communications manager, said he is hearing lots of good feedback acknowledging Calista's role in publishing the papers over the last 19 years. Leonard notes that many of the communities served by the former ANI papers are hundreds of miles off the road system.

Now that buyers for all six papers have been found, Leonard says, "It is a relief; it's wonderful knowing these community papers are going to continue. It is easy for these voices to be lost in the rest of the nation. It is wonderful to know those voices will still be there."

The sale of the first paper was announced on August 2. Cordova resident Jennifer Biggons, who was employed by ANI as editor of the Cordova Times, stepped up to continue the publication. Three days later, the announcement came that three more of the weeklies had been sold. The Arctic Sounder, The Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Bristol Bay Times are all being purchased by the husband and wife team of Jason Evans and Kiana Peacock. Both Peacock and Evans have close ties to rural Alaska. Evans was born and raised in Nome, while Peacock was born and raised in Kotzebue.

The last sale and perhaps the one that has garnered the most attention is that of the last two papers. This most recent sale, announced on Wednesday, August 17, transfers ownership of the Seward Phoenix Log and the Tundra Drums back to Edgar Blatchford. Blatchford is a previous owner of the Seward paper and later was an owner and founder of ANI before Calista bought the majority of ANI shares 19 years ago. Blatchford has maintained a connection to the papers over the years, serving as a board member for Calista Corporation. With degrees in journalism and law, Blatchford, who is of Yup’ik and Inupiak heritage, is also an associate professor teaching media-related courses at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“With Blatchford’s ownership it feels like the publications are remaining in the family,” Margaret Nelson, Calista's senior vice president, said in a press release.

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The importance of rural Alaska viewpoints noted by others is echoed in Blatchford's priorities for the papers. When asked what his hopes are for the future, Blatchford responded that he will be "making sure there is a voice for the opinions of the communities the papers represent."

He stated that Alaska has valuable resources and that there is a need for all local people to be heard. In an Alaska News Nightly report, Blanchard expressed concern about the social, political and economic issues facing rural areas of the state and his strong belief that they need to be covered by local journalists.

When Calista announced the closure of the papers, Blatchford decided he wanted to purchase the papers he "started out" owning. Blatchford said he is "going back in time, and back to the foundation" with his purchase of the two original ANI publications. He said that in the case of the Seward Phoenix Log and the Tundra Drums, both markets have strong newspaper traditions, which he believes is a key to the success of the weekly papers. The Tundra Times has been publishing since 1974. The Seward paper has been in print since 1966, and according to Blatchford, it played a key role in healing the community after the deadly Alaska earthquake and massive tidal wave hit the community in 1964.

In respect to media format, Blatchford said he will be "looking at concentrating on print with a gradual move to more web-based forms of publishing."

But he added, "As long as we have significant number of readers who are not familiar with use of the web, we will print."

Blatchford has hit the ground running. Under Calista's management, the home offices for all the papers were in Anchorage. Just one day after the sale was announced, Blatchford was already on his way to Seward to set up his new office for the Seward Phoenix Log and has plans to re-establish the Tundra Drums in Bethel.

As he drives to Seward, Blatchford said he is determined that there will be no gap in publication, "We have to publish; we are committed to not missing any issues."

The next issues of the Tundra Drums and the Seward Phoenix Log are expected to run with no break in schedule.