A Conversation About Alaska Journalism and Where It's Headed

Sam Davenport.JPG

A Conversation about Alaska Journalism and Where it's headed

With Sam Davenport, editor of The Northern Light

By Cody Liska


Journalism is going through some growing pains. Not just in Alaska, everywhere. It has become such a crisis that the entire Spring issue of Columbia Journalism Review focuses on the deterioration of local news and the steps being made to revive it.


“It’s not a happy story,” CJR Editor Kyle Pope writes in his editor’s note.


I’ve read that issue cover to cover, re-read several articles, and the thesis is this: local news everywhere is taking a hit, for many papers that hit is fatal, for others it’s an opportunity; archaic-minded institutions are floundering, while forward-thinking ones are adapting.


“Only 15 percent of local news organizations are independently owned and operated,” writes Emily Bell in “The Facebook Rescue That Wasn’t.” The Alaska Dispatch News is one of those independently owned and operated local newspapers. The other 85 percent of local newspapers in the nation are owned and operated by large organizations, and “the centralizing of costs in large local organizations like McClatchy, Gannet, Tronc, and Digital First has to serve shareholders first and communities later, if at all,” Bell writes.


What does that tell us? First, that corporations are largely controlling local narratives. It also tells us that America is drowning in identity politics and advocacy journalism. Echo chambers and news as entertainment, that’s how readers have been trained to get their news and therefore build their political identity. And as those readers' political identity grows stronger, their demand for news that confirms specific political leanings also grows stronger. So, the next time you read or hear someone use identifiers like “centrist,” “left” or “right,” know that that person is a part of the problem.


Journalism is a work in progress. That’s something a lot of people forget, that it’s constantly changing and adapting to the times. The majority of those who understand that concept, as it applies to new journalism, are the ones who understand their communities, both physical and online. Right now, those people are millennial journalists, and the best of them understand that future newsrooms shouldn’t tell readers what to think, they should help readers to think.


The future of Alaska journalism depends on the future of Alaska journalists. To that end, I sat down to talk with Sam Davenport, the editor of University of Alaska, Anchorage’s student-run newspaper The Northern Light, about her take on the current state of Alaska journalism and where it’s headed.



There’s been a lot of talk about the past and present of Alaska journalism, where do you see it going in the future?

I just listened to a Talk of Alaska from Alaska Public Media that had Julia O’Malley and Michael Carey, an old columnist from [the Anchorage Daily News], and Paola Banchero, who is the department chair here [at UAA] in the journalism program, and they all kind of had different views on what [the future of Alaska journalism] would be. I kind of felt like, specifically with ADN, I don’t know if print will survive forever—I think right now ADN’s print is at six days a week and I’m not sure how long that’ll last.


Right now, there are so many different things happening, not just with the [Anchorage] Press, not just with ADN, but journalism as a whole. It’s changing. I don’t know where those papers will be in five years, or if there will be papers. I know, with [The Northern Light], one thing we’ve discussed is cutting down our print costs and putting more into online. As great as picking up a [physical] paper is, not everyone does that anymore, more people are into online content, so I think following our audience is where [TNL] is going.



Considering how this generation gets their news and how future generations will likely get their news, is it irresponsible for news organizations to currently allocate so many resources to print?

My dad reads the paper every day. Yea, he reads stuff online, but print is his main source of news, and I don’t think he’s the only one. Going back to that Talk of Alaska that Alaska Public Media did, one woman called in and was talking about how she’s from Fairbanks and how she used to subscribe to the Daily News Miner and now she doesn’t [because] she doesn’t have enough money to pay for Internet. So, I think a lot of people who have cellphones—which is almost everyone we know—kind of disregard the fact that there’s an older generation that isn’t used to getting their news online. So, for right now, I think still having that print source is good because a lot of people still enjoy picking up the paper and reading it. But at the same time they need to look toward the future and start reshaping and rethinking how they’re using their money and resources.



Where do you get your news?

Most of my news, I get from Twitter. I read a lot of national stuff—Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times. I read a lot of ABC News and MSNBC. I read Fox News too. I think having that other perspective is good because it’s always nice to see where the other side of the aisle is coming from on certain issues. I try to get my local news in too, that can be local radio or local print.



I used to have a similar response to that question, that I try to read news from both sides of the aisle, but what I realized is that response means that I follow different forms of advocacy journalism. If we, as readers, have to piecemeal our news in order to come up with this amalgamated version of what we think the real version of the story is, I don’t think that’s a good thing. I think this is something that is part of the real issue with journalism today, that journalists need to stop perpetuating identity politics and advocacy journalism. 

I rarely watch broadcast [news] and part of the reason for that is because I feel like a lot of it is advocacy journalism. Not that I don’t respect people who go into broadcast, I understand there’s a high demand for it in Alaska because a lot of people get their news from TV, but it’s always been kind of irritating to me when I watch a newscast and it has the same three pictures that they cycle through, and at the end it’s like even though there’s all this depressing stuff, here’s a puppy that got saved from Hurricane Harvey so you can feel a little better about your news intake for the day.



When I was the editor at the Anchorage Press we ran an article that had been recently published in The Frontiersman, another paper Wick Communications owns in Alaska, and it was full of inaccuracies. I got a lot of emails from local lawyers detailing, point by point, what was wrong about the article. They all agreed that a correction needed to be made in the paper the following week. I agreed, but after talking with the Wick regional editor I was told that the Press should never print a correction or retraction. How does something like that effect a community and its ability to trust the news?

I think it’s very important to print corrections. Journalists are only human and humans make mistakes. Inaccuracies happen and that doesn’t mean it’s okay, but if you fix it and show [your readers] that you made an error, you’re more transparent and truthful as opposed to hiding your mistakes. If we get something wrong in [TNL], I’m going to print [a correction] because it shows not only that we make mistakes, but that we’re doing everything we can to correct them and that we want to publish accurate content and not mislead readers.



A lot of media is experimenting with different ways to bring in money. I personally think new media houses look something like a shared space with a newsroom on one side and maybe a bar or a coffee shop on the other. Something like what the Writer’s Block is doing in Anchorage, where you go in there and you can get a beer, you can chill, you can do work, you can get a coffee, and it’s also a venue.

I think adaptability is something that if you can’t do it as a journalist, then you’re just not going to make it. Especially with all the changes in the last five years, ten years, twenty years. Talking to older journalists who’ve been in this field forever and how technology has completely altered how they do their job… I think it’s pretty amazing and scary in some ways.



In your opinion, what’s the current mindset of journalism students at UAA?

One thing that is always kind of baffling to me is when I go into classes and promote the paper and talk about why you should start here [at TNL], and at least get clips, and [students] are never interested because they think that just having a degree in journalism is enough [to get a job], and that’s simply not the case. We did an interview with a student earlier [today] who’s in the journalism program and she wanted to apply because she’s like, “I need clips, I need to show someone I’m capable of having something published in a real paper.” TNL is small, we’re a student paper, but it’s something and it’s a start. In this day and age, [journalism] is such a competitive field that just having a piece of paper that says that you completed a program isn’t enough.


I think millennials get a bad rep. I think this generation has done a really good job of accepting people and turning that into a cultural norm. But I also think a lot of people just lack the passion or motivation to actually put in the time and get a degree, [while also] understanding that this is a lifestyle. That’s why you notice [young journalists like] Zakiya McCummings, Victoria Petersen, Young Kim and Ammon Swenson, because they’re actually doing stuff in the Alaska journalism community.


The job [of a journalist] is changing. You can’t just do one thing anymore. You can’t just do radio anymore, you can’t just do print. You have to do all of them, so it’s like, “yea, I’ve worked here for however long and I have clips from this place and it’s great,” but that’s not enough. So, I think one thing that new journalists have to do is be good at film, be good at radio, be good at all those different things—photos, you name it.



I think there’s something to be said of the modern day independent journalist who tries to also be a businessperson. There are a lot of them out there today doing their job and just eking by because they’re good at reporting, not at making money. And it’s because of the current state of journalism that they’ve been forced to create their own channel and, in many cases, I don’t think that’s sustainable.

When I first got into this field, and also this job, I was solely doing writing. After becoming executive editor [of TNL], we had nine months where we didn’t have an advertising team. So, as the executive editor, it was just one of those things where I had to step in and do it because no one else was going to. So, I sold ads for nine months, and having that experience was very beneficial because I was able to see the [advertising side of journalism], but it’s never something I would ever want to do, I only did it because I had to.



What do you see as the responsibility of present-day editors and future editors?

I think, as an editor, your job is to edit for content quality, but also to edit for accuracy [because] America sees media as the enemy right now. A lot of people don’t trust [the news] based on the vernacular that has been used by certain politicians. As someone who creates content and reads content, I think it’s important to see multiple sides of every story. A lot of my family is Republican and has very different viewpoints than I do. They’re very old-fashioned in their thinking and even though I think I’m more accepting of gender or culture or what-have-you, a lot of people don’t [think that way]. They see one thing and choose to stick by it no matter what, like ride or die. So, as an editor, you need to remain unbiased. 


If something makes people uncomfortable, I think that’s a good thing. And a lot of people don’t want to write those stories because they think they're going to make [readers] uncomfortable or that [readers] are not going to agree with it. I think that gets back to advocacy journalism. Sometimes advocacy journalism is good, but that doesn’t mean it should be your sole focus as a paper. That's one thing we’re doing at The Northern Light, we're writing things that make people uncomfortable and make people question the other side because [content] that sparks debate is the best thing you can do as a journalist.