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Online news sites vie for niche in Alaska market

Two Web-based news operations break from pack by hiring reporters

Posted: Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Alaska's news consumers are getting a boost from new Web sites that are in some cases going beyond commenting on stories produced by established news media, and are hiring reporters to produce their own news.

"There are a lot of voices in Alaska, and communities, that don't get heard," said Alice Rogoff, publisher of AlaskaDispatch.com, which intends to cover both. It will have a statewide focus with an emphasis on under-covered rural areas.

"In all of the villages, and in subcommunities in the bigger cities, there are very specific needs and interests that don't get on the airwaves or in print," Rogoff said. "It's of interest to them, but it's also of interest to everybody else in the state."

Another site, AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, is hiring reporters as well and plans to focus more on Southcentral Alaska, Editor Paul Jenkins said.

Together, the two new sites are putting Alaska on the forefront of attempts to make money online with local news coverage, and to hire news reporters instead of just commenting on stories produced by established media.

"I think we are the only truly serious, well-staffed one of these," said Tony Hopfinger, a longtime Alaska journalist who is managing editor of AlaskaDispatch.com.

Hopfinger and his wife, journalist Amanda Coyne, have been running the site for more than a year, but a recent investment by Rogoff has given Hopfinger the ability to hire reporters as well.

The first hires were two prominent Alaska journalists, reporter Jill Burke from KTUU-TV in Anchorage and state reporter Rena Delbridge from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Jenkins said AnchorageDailyPlanet.com's investment includes 2.5 reporters. He said they were students, but declined to provide information about their backgrounds, other than that one is from Alaska.

The new Web site model with original reporting may be the future of journalism, said Charles Fedullo, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"They can do some things that newspapers can't do right now because of their debt loads," he said.

Both the Anchorage Daily News, owned by McClatchy Co., and the Juneau Empire, owned by Morris Publishing Group, are part of chains that are struggling after borrowing heavily to expand. Both companies and others have faced newsroom cuts as their parent companies struggled to pay off the debt during a recession that has slashed advertising revenues.

The Associated Press, on which many Alaska news organizations gather, has also had cuts.

It's not likely that Web-based publications are going to completely fill in the gap left by Alaska's struggling newspapers, Fedullo said, but if they can find a way to make money from selling news they may fill part of it.

Another prominent site, radio host Dan Fagan's TheAlaskaStandard.com, won't be hiring reporters and will stick with cheaper-to-produce commentary.

"Reporters are too expensive," Fagan said.

Both Hopfinger and Jenkins say they intend to operate as for-profit companies.

"With all of these (news sites) the business model is being shaken out all across the country," Jenkins said. "We are working it out as we go; it's fairly new territory."

Rogoff, a former executive with the Washington Post Co., is financially backing AlaskaDispatch.com. She said she intends to make AlaskaDispatch.com financially viable.

"I'm now the majority owner, so my commitment is to make it work," she said.

Rogoff said advertising, sponsorships and other innovative methods will support the site.

"We'll have the eyeballs, and advertisers will pay to get them," she said.

Jenkins declined to say who is backing his effort, but that the AnchorageDailyPlanet also intends to make money.

"We've got a business plan. I think we'll be around for a long time," Jenkins said.

AnchorageDailyPlanet.com is operating out of the offices of Porcaro Communications, a public relations firm headed by Mike Porcaro. Jenkins was formerly employed by former VECO Corp. CEO Bill Allen, convicted of bribing several Alaska lawmakers.

Jenkins said commentary on his site would have "a strong conservative bent, very pro-business and pro-Alaska," but the news stories would not.

"I'm going to do my very best to make sure they're balanced and fair," he said.

Hopfinger, who has worked for the Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Press, also hopes to break ground in making online journalism profitable.

"At some point you are going to have to find a way for some of these sites to make money online," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or e-mail patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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