Outside interests and Alaska newspapers

Publishers unfamiliar with highway programs threaten 'civil war'

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sen. Ted Stevens urges Alaskans to a push for opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration in the same manner that two famous publishers, Robert (Bob) Atwood and C. W. (Bill) Snedden, led the charge for Alaska Statehood.

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Atwood owned the Anchorage Times and Snedden the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Gov. Frank Murkowski went further and urged newspaper chain owners with interests in Alaska to use their extensive holdings to get Alaska's message to readers in the Lower 48.

The response was underwhelming. Two publishers said they editorially support opening ANWR but an archive search revealed a dearth of such editorials except for five in the last year on the Anchorage Times Page of the Anchorage Daily News. Contrast that to more than 250 editorials Atwood wrote promoting statehood before it was granted Jan. 3, 1959. One publisher said newspapers aren't advocates for the state. If not our newspapers, then who?

A publisher for Donrey Media (former Juneau Empire owner) once told this writer that the late Don Reynolds had one policy for his publishers: Send money, not troubles.

The week after Stevens' and Murkowski's comments, the News-Miner published a commentary opposed to ANWR development, and started fomenting an Alaska civil war.

For the record, four Outside newspaper chains own the majority of newspaper circulation in Alaska - five of the seven dailies. Morris Newspapers, based in Georgia, owns the Juneau Empire, the Peninsula Clarion, several weeklies and 40 newspapers nationwide. The family trusts of the principals in MediaNews Group, who live in New Jersey and Texas, own 60 newspapers, including the News-Miner and the Kodiak Mirror.

The California-based McClatchy Co. owns the state's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News. It is buying the Knight Rider chain, which will make McClatchy the second largest chain in the United States by circulation with 32 newspapers, although it plans to sell a few. The purchase includes a 49 percent interest in the Seattle Times.

The Times is part of the Seattle Establishment that has been antagonistic toward Alaska since Nome Nugget publisher J. F. A Strong wrote one hundred years ago: "Seattle's attitude toward Alaska has always been the mean-spirited kind." McClatchy is keeping its Times interest.

Arizona-based Wick Communications, with 32 small newspapers in 13 Western states, owns The Frontiersman at Wasilla. We understand it is changing to daily publication.

That leaves only the Daily Sentinel in Sitka owned by the Poulson Family and the Ketchikan Daily News owned by Lew Williams III and his sisters, Tena and Kathy Williams, in Alaskans' hands.

A News-Miner editorial last week urge dropping the Gravina Island bridge and the Knik Arm Crossing from the state highway program because, they allege, they take money from the central part of the state. That could incite a nice editorial and political war.

The Juneau Empire editor would be justified in saying that the $16 million slated for a highway project at the University of Alaska Fairbanks would be better spent improving access to the Juneau campus. A national network reported last week that Cordova is dying because of effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Although national networks are notoriously inaccurate about Alaska, it gives the Cordova Times editor justification to argue that money programmed for existing highways should go to complete the long-stalled Copper River Highway to give Cordova a tourism boost.

In the meantime, Fairbanks is doing well under the highway program and the governor has $80 million in the budget for the Fairbanks airport. And proponents of the Knik Arm Crossing are going to sell bonds to be repaid by tolls as part of the Knik financing.

This writer was on the committee that drew up a 20-year plan for Ketchikan's Gravina Island airport. Our first report, issued in 1975, asked for a "hard link" to the airport. The Department of Transportation conducted studies and by October 2000 listed 18 alternatives. These were reduced, after public hearings, to the current proposed bridge that was on the state highway program long before the earmark designation.

In the past 31 years, we presume a few state and federal dollars were spent on Fairbanks' airport access. In that 31 years, Ketchikan Gateway Borough bought and operated ferries, on which travelers pay for airport access. It cost this writer $34 to get to and from the airport for a recent trip to Fairbanks. It would have been $40 by airporter.

Independent publishers learned long ago that the community (or state) supports the newspaper that supports the community. Hired publishers lack the independence of independents. So they are neutral or critical, which costs nothing -except circulation!

Hired publishers, in and out of Alaska, appear unfamiliar with the federal highway aid program. The highway trust fund was created in 1956 and is fed by the 18.4 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.3 cents per gallon tax on diesel.

Every six years the money is divided up among the states based on a formula that includes the size of the state, the population, the miles of road and other factors. To violate that formula invites a national highway civil war, so Congress declined to take the bridge money away from Alaska. States match federal money by another formula. The money isn't free.

Each state is required to create a 20-year transportation plan and a three-year State Transportation Improvement Plan with extensive public hearings. It must be approved by two federal agencies. They approved Alaska's plans, with the bridges, in February. The Legislature can defund a project but that action can be vetoed by the governor.

Do Alaskans really want a civil war, or to promote the state and ANWR so we all prosper?

• Lew Williams Jr. is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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