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Alaska’s Rural Newspapers Close Their Doors

An Alaska Native Corporation has decided to shut down its newspaper business, leaving Alaska Natives wondering where they will get their local news.

For nearly 20 years Alaska Newspapers Inc. (ANI) has published six regional papers reporting stories and community news relevant to rural Alaskans and Native villages across Alaska.

ANI is the publisher of The Arctic Sounder, Bristol Bay Times, the Cordova Times, The Dutch Harbor Fisherman, The Seward Phoenix LOG, and the award-winning Tundra Drums. But on July 22, the board of the organization’s parent company, Calista Corporation made the decision to liquidate all six newspapers, its printing company and First Alaskans, a monthly magazine.

ANI is just one of many businesses owned by Calista, which is the second largest of the 13 Alaska Native Corporations. The closure puts 35 full-time and three part-time employees out of work.

Andrew Guy, president and chief executive officer of Calista was quoted in a press release saying that it was a hard decision to make.

“As a responsibility to our 12,000 shareholders, we had to take a hard look at the subsidiary and make a tough decision,” Guy said. “ANI leaves behind an impressive legacy. We’re very appreciative of the superb staff and extraordinary talent that have worked so hard to report on rural Alaska. We genuinely hope the communities affected by this will find a new media voice to tell their stories.”

Who that new media voice might be and what form it will take remains to be seen. According to reports, efforts were made to sell the publications, but no buyers were found. In the meantime the wealth of stories from rural Alaska may go unreported.

ANI stories have celebrated significant events with local communities that have small interest elsewhere and in some cases have had impacts on a larger scale. Of great local interest, ANI reported the exciting second place win of a young Native musher in a prestigious mid-distance dog sled race in January. The son of an Iditarod musher, the local was new to competitive racing and came in only one minute behind the first place winner.

In January 2009, the ANI was the first to publish a letter from Yup'ik elder Nicholas Tucker about the deprivations in rural villages caused by exorbitant fuel and heating costs. The letter prompted attention to energy issues in rural Alaska and inspired a nationwide food drive for rural Alaska Natives who were forced to choose between buying food or paying exorbitant energy costs.

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Blogger Ann Strongheart was one of the coordinators of the food drive inspired by Tucker’s letter. She fears the loss of ANI will have a number of negative consequences. “Where will the school stories about the students’ achievements, sports, challenges appear now? How will people reach others for legal notices that are required to be published in a local paper? What difference will this loss have on political awareness in rural villages?”

ANI has been the primary, if not the only outlet for stories about the local sports teams and activities of rural schools, announcements of community events and also published required legal notices and ads for local businesses.

Myron Naneng, president of the Alaska Council of Village Presidents, points out the importance of the paper for vital communication around the state and beyond, “The closure of ANI will cut into village information sharing as well as getting information to the state legislature, our congressional delegations, as well as federal agencies on information they might need on what is effecting villages.”

Some of the more recent stories covered by ANI papers and given little coverage elsewhere include national recognition given to an Alaska traditional healing clinic, research being done on glaciers by a university research team, activities of an outreach program to involve more Alaska Native students in the fields of science and engineering, and the possible cancellation of the prestigious mid-distance dog sled race mentioned above.

The closure of the papers even drew a response from one of Alaska’s

U.S. Senators. Lisa Murkowski issued a statement honoring the contributions of the publications to life in rural Alaska. She noted the experience gained by “green reporters,” who learned first-hand about Alaska Native communities while reporting ANI stories and ended with an acknowledgment of the unique role of the publications in the life of rural Alaska.

“In the age of the Internet and cable television, rural residents will still be able to find out what’s happening outside, but the loss of ANI may make it more difficult to know what’s happening just down the river.”

Calista says the last edition of the papers will be published sometime in August.