AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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Check it out: Alaska Dispatch’s In-depth Coverage of the Point Hope Caribou “Massacre” Controversy

Once upon a time, the Anchorage Daily News was widely known and celebrated for its investigative journalism and the longer, in-depth magazine-style pieces that ran in “We Alaskans.” That began to change not long after the newspaper won Anchorage’s long-running newspaper war. (Looking back, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory; not necessarily for its owner, but certainly for the paper’s readers and staff.) The first sign of a diminished newspaper was the decision to dump “We Alaskans.” Editor Pat Dougherty assured readers this was a good thing and that many of the features that once made the Sunday magazine such a gem would now be spread throughout the rest of the newspaper. Of course that didn’t happen. Once the newspaper war had been won, and years before the Internet changed the face of journalism, the Daily News’s California owner began to cut back its flow of money to Anchorage. The newsroom began a slow (and later accelerated) shrinkage. And of course the paper’s coverage of both local and statewide events and issues suffered.

Though it still calls itself “Alaska’s Newspaper,” the Anchorage Daily News has become a faint shadow of its heyday self. Nowadays this former Pulitzer-winning newspaper rarely covers newsworthy events in any great depth, particularly those that occur beyond Southcentral Alaska.

Enter Alaska Dispatch, an online newsmagazine launched in 2008 by a pair of veteran journalists, Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger. For about a year or so, Hopfinger and Coyne poured their energies and personal resources into AlaskaDispatch.com. Unable to pay themselves or those who contributed stories to the site, they somehow found the time, energy and money to keep Alaska Dispatch afloat, while earning a living from their other journalism-related jobs (primarily freelancing and, in Coyne’s case, teaching at APU). From the start, the two hoped to fill in some of the gaps left by the Daily News’s dwindling coverage, and, whenever possible, be even more ambitious. As their site’s “About Us” blurb explains, “Alaska Dispatch is committed to telling the story of Alaska and to promoting citizen journalism in the hope of helping to bridge Alaska’s urban-rural divide. . . .”

As the months passed, the partners wondered if they could afford to keep their enterprise going on an admittedly shoestring budget. Then they got some timely and big-time backing.

As reported this fall in the Anchorage Press article “The newsroom of Alaska’s future?” Alaska Dispatch was saved – or at least heartily replenished – this past summer, when a wealthy easterner named Alice Rogoff invested heavily in their venture. (Rogoff it should be noted, has considerable experience on the business side of journalism; she’s also a been a major benefactor of Alaska Native arts, and by her own admission, has had a life-long obsession with Alaska.) Suddenly able to afford a real office and staff, and to send its reporters to the state’s far reaches, Alaska Dispatch in only a couple of months has already shown signs of becoming an Alaska journalism powerhouse. The first incontrovertible evidence: a three-part series on an controversial issue that has simmered – and been under-reported by Alaska's media —since the summer of 2008.

On Oct. 21, AlaskaDispatch.com began a three-part series, reported by Jill Burke and headlined “Point Hope: Waste, wounds, and the hunt for truth.” It’s a must read for anyone who’s wondered about the disputed slaughter and wanton waste of caribou by Point Hope residents, the stand-off between Inupiat villagers and state wildlife-enforcement officials, and the larger issues of rural subsistence practices and Alaska’s rural-urban divide. Actually, it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about Alaska’s people, wildlife, and the politics of place.

In the interest of full disclosure I’ll say that Tony and Amanda are friends, that Amanda and I belong to the same writing group, and I’ve contributed a feature, a couple of book excerpts and a few opinion pieces to Alaska Dispatch. Heck, I may as well also share that I care deeply about Alaska’s wildlife and its management, and worry about the sometimes ugly nature of our state’s rural-urban divide, which seems to be widening. All that said, I believe the Point Hope series entails the most comprehensive, in-depth reporting – and excellent story telling – that any Alaska media has done in a long time. Burke shares a wealth of previously unreported information and provides excellent historical context that helps to explain why the situation has evolved as it has. Some folks – including a few friends of mine – have raised questions about the series’ balance, because it so heavily emphasizes the perspective of Point Hope residents. But I believe that the series has helped to balance the overall picture, by presenting a local perspective that had been largely missing in previous media reports.

Alaska Dispatch also deserves credit for running several follow-up pieces, including an analysis by former Daily News outdoors editor Craig Medred, now on the Dispatch staff; a “response to the three-part series” by Steven Conn, a retired professor of justice at the University of Alaska; an account by the white (non-Native) teacher, Kurt Schmidt, who reported the caribou waste to state troopers; and a commentary by well-known Alaska author Seth Kantner, a white man who has spent essentially his entire life in Northwest Alaska and found a respected niche among the region’s Native peoples. Rather than attempt to provide links to each and every story, I will direct the curious reader to Alaska Dispatch’s Rural Alaska News Section. It's easy enough to scroll through the stories and commentaries and locate the Point Hope ones.

It’s also worth noting that Jill Burke was recently interviewed about the Point Hope series by the Poynter Institute which, in its own words, “is a school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders. It promotes excellence and integrity in the practice of craft and in the practical leadership of successful businesses. It stands for a journalism that informs citizens and enlightens public discourse. It carries forward Nelson Poynter's belief in the value of independent journalism.”

I get the sense that the Alaska Dispatch is still something of an unknown to many Alaskans. Stay tuned as the online magazine continues its coverage of the Point Hope caribou kills: a trial of several Point Hope residents charged by the state is scheduled to begin Nov. 30. I hope the Daily News will be covering the trial too.

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