HOMER — During 2014, Homer will note several milestones. Some are sad, like the 50th anniversary of the March 27, 1964, Great Alaska Earthquake, and the 25th anniversary of the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Others are transformative, like the March 28, 1964, official incorporation of the city of Homer. The year begins with an anniversary important to this paper: the 50th year of our publication as the longest-running newspaper on the lower Kenai Peninsula.
In the early 1950s, H.W. and W.H. Hegdahl started the first weekly paper called the Homer News, an eight-page, mimeographed and stapled paper heavy on hand-drawn ads. The Hegdahls changed the paper’s name to the Kenai Peninsula Pioneer in 1955. Also published in the 1950s was the Cook Inlet Courier, founded in 1959 by Jim McDowell, with the motto “the only newspaper in the world that gives a damn about Homer, Alaska.” Robert Norman published the Homer Herald in the late 1950s, with the slogan, “Where people like to live.”
Stories in those papers often considered a big issue of the time: How should Homer be governed? A civic entity called the Public Utility District provided basic services, but in the early 1960s a move toward incorporation built up steam.
That was the front page story of the Jan. 7, 1964, issue of the Homer News, founded by Hal and Marion Thorn. The Thorns were big boosters of incorporation, and recycled the motto of the Hegdahls: “Aims for progress.” The first edition had a print run of 600 copies and sold for a dime.
“We want to see our town grow, and we believe it would be wise if we had a first-class city — for we should prepare for future development,” the Thorns wrote in an early editorial.
In 1969 the Thorns sold the Homer News to an employee, Gertrude Lucille Billings, listed as “Girl Friday” on the masthead. In 1973, Billings sold the paper to Larry and Linda Gjosund, who renamed it the Homer Weekly News. Gary Williams bought the paper on July 1, 1974, and changed the name back to the Homer News.
“It was doublespeak,” Williams said of the name change. “What’s the point?”
Williams, now the River Center manager in Soldotna, became mayor of Homer after he bought the Homer News. The paper also became more professional, Williams said, like not printing city council minutes verbatim.
“It was not serious. When you have a headline that in October of 1973 says ‘Happy Halloween,’ you can’t be serious,” he said. “Homer was hungry for a newspaper. . Every small town likes to have a place where they can go, see what everybody else is thinking, particularly when we become estranged by time and distance.”
In September 1975, Williams hired a young reporter fresh out of Hampshire College, Massachusetts, Tom Kizzia, who did “everything except ads and writing editorials,” Kizzia said. “Which was perfect: Those were the two things I didn’t want to do.”
Kizzia brought another innovation that changed the look of the paper, Williams said — typesetting headlines for each story on the front page. Before then, all but the main story would have a headline set in all capital letters the same as the body text.
Kizzia, now the best-selling author of “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” started a wave of writers who worked at the Homer News and went on to other newspapers or to write books. Those include Bob Ortega, who went to the Wall Street Journal; Chip Brown, Washington Post; Joe Wills, Sacramento Bee; Annabelle Lund, Juneau Empire; Charles Wohlforth, Steve Rinehart, Liz Ruskin, T.C. Mitchell, Kizzia, and Joel Gay, all Anchorage Daily News reporters; Andromeda Romano-Lax and Nancy Lord, fiction and nonfiction book writers; and Chris Bernard, nonfiction book writer.
In December 1977, Williams sold the Homer News to two Washington Post editors, Howard Simons and Martin Cohen, and Simons’ wife, Tod Simons. Howard Simons had been the editor on the Watergate series and was the one who coined the code name “Deep Throat” for the source of much of the revelations in that scandal. Earning his share in the company through sweat equity was Tom Gibboney, an Anchorage Daily News managing editor, who became the Homer News editor and publisher.
Gibboney, now editor and publisher of the Almanac, a group of weekly newspapers in Palo Alto, Calif., said the idea for Simons to buy the Homer News came up when Simons visited Kay Fanning, the former Daily News publisher. Simons also used to go visit Clem and Diana Tillion in Halibut Cove and go birding. Fanning invited Gibboney and some other staff out for beers with Simons.
“I was talking to Howard, and the idea of a weekly came up,” Gibboney said. “He let out that he was interested in having a little paper of his own. I happened to know at the time the Homer News was for sale.”
Williams said he selected Simons, Cohen and Gibboney because they were the strongest team.
“I wanted to see the paper’s legacy continued,” he said. “The paper was something I loved very much. I loved it so much I had to give it up.”
One change Gibboney made was to shift printing from Fritz Creek Printing, then run by Jim Clymer, to printing at the Peninsula Clarion. Fritz Creek printed a page at a time, collated the pages, stacked them up in piles 4-feet high and glued the edges together.
“Somebody had to take a bindery knife and cut those damn things apart,” Gibboney said. “This was crazy.”
The Homer News did well enough during the 1980s, particularly in a real-estate boom, that it could build its own offices in 1987 on the south shore of Beluga Lake, the current Landings Street location.
Gibboney said that while the Washington, D.C., owners didn’t meddle in the Homer News, he was always aware that they read it.
“I didn’t want to put out a paper that Howard Simons would not be proud of, which is a little tough when you’re having a Washington Post editor looking over your shoulder,” Gibboney said.
In many ways, the Homer News of 25 years ago is similar to what it is now, Gibboney said.
“Covering local government, doing all that. It’s a community newspaper. It’s just gotten better over the years,” he said. “You guys are doing a good job. . Graphically, the paper looks a lot better.”
In 1988, Gibboney and his wife Kathe and their children moved to California, where he had a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. They wound up staying.
In 2000, the Howard Simons estate, Cohen and Gibboney sold the Homer News to Morris Communications, its current owner. Morris also owns the Peninsula Clarion, the Juneau Empire, Alaska Magazine, the Milepost, the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the Capital City Weekly and 13 radio stations in Alaska.
Gibboney said Morris bought out his sweat equity.
“I don’t know if it was worth all the years I put in there, but that was OK,” he said.
What will the next 50 years hold?
Community papers fill a niche that other sources can’t, Gibboney noted.
“These local papers, if they’re doing a good job covering the community, people will continue to read them, and then if the readers are there, the advertisers are there,” he said. “If you have something the audience can’t get anywhere else, they’ll come to you.”
“A small-town newspaper I think will always be with us in one form or another,” Williams said. “We’ll always have our circular in one form or another.”