By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
A longtime Alaska newspaper that recently sold for $0 is the subject of a new documentary production that promises to tell the story of two teachers who acquired The Skagway News.
National attention shined on Skagway, a sleepy cruise ship destination, late last year after, Larry Persily, the newspaper’s retiring owner, announced his intentions to give away the publication to the right suitor.
The story quickly gained attention across journalism circles and became a punch line across social media and late-night talk shows. More than 200 applicants — mostly current and retired journalists — submitted proposals to take over the century-old newspaper, but only one pair was willing to drive through an Alaska snowstorm from the Anchorage area to visit Skagway: teachers and new co-owners Gretchen Wehmhoff and Melinda Munson.
“We’re like the oldest interns in Alaska,” Munson said, only half-joking. “I’m sure the other candidates had more experience than us, but I don’t think they had the enthusiasm we had.”
That’s about the time Stan Bush, a former Alaska resident and founder of Go North Productions LLC, contacted the newsroom. Bush recalls sometimes having to interview his own coach as part of his sports reporting during high school for The Skagway News, so the publication’s sale was personal.
“I’m telling a story that came and went and everyone forgot,” Bush said. “My initial thought was that we will follow the hunt for the right person and that will be the story. But the story, to me, became more interesting when Gretchen and Melinda got the job.
“It’s not about getting the job. It’s about making it work and surviving.”
Bush, a Denver resident who credits his Skagway reporting job for springboarding him into a media career, said he feels personally responsible to tell the story of Wehmhoff and Munson as they navigate the existing challenges facing newspapers in addition to a pandemic that uniquely impacts The Skagway News. He is working to gain funding on a 12-18 month funding that tracks the effort to keep The Skagway News afloat amid all this adversity.
“I see their story as a microcosm for what is happening everywhere,” Bush said. “I think this story boils that issue down to the roots of who we are as a society.”
Since acquiring the newspaper in March, only one print bi-weekly edition was distributed before the Canadian border shut down, preventing the duo from picking up papers at the printing press. That complication has also kept Wehmhoff, a longtime high school journalism teacher, from relocating or even visiting from the Anchorage area. Munson, a journalism major with prior industry experience, and her husband relocated with their seven children to Skagway just before quarantine rules were enacted.
While there is another printing press in nearby Juneau, the extra cost is too much to bear.
“After the cancelation of the cruise season, we’re just trying to pay rent and keep the lights on,” Munson said. “I think we’ve proven ourselves because any sane person after those first three weeks would have gone back.”
That also meant a visitor’s guide — a major moneymaker for The Skagway News — was canceled this year. And Munson’s husband remains unemployed after losing a chef’s job before he started.
Skagway residents are also feeling the pandemic’s impact. Bush said 80%-90% of the town’s economy is bolstered by tourism, with the town of 1,000 sometimes peaking at 20,000 people between May and August when cruise ships visit.
“It’s like a skyscraper docking,” Bush said. “Entrepreneurs have built their lives around this really short season, and it’s all gone.”
The town has taken unique steps to assist by handing out $1,000 monthly per resident starting in June through December.
“The goal that people would spend that money in the community to help the businesses,” Wehmhoff said. That includes $25 annual newspaper subscriptions, even though delivery is suspended.
The early days as co-owners have mostly consisted of Munson meeting community members and the duo covering Skagway assembly meetings. Wehmhoff said they have mostly received the benefit of the doubt as fellow Alaskan residents. And elected officials have even responded to their presence, she said.
“What we noticed by the second meeting that assembly members cleaned up their act a little,” Wehmhoff said.
Their reporting efforts follow in the footsteps of several notable alums of The Skagway News, including Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins, a former Skagway reporting intern who won a 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his “Lawless” series.
That has Wehmhoff and Munson committed to producing a high-integrity publication. And if Bush is able to gain support for the “The Last Front Page,” their behind-the-scenes efforts will soon be documented.
“Maybe the lack of experience is what will help them the most because they are looking at this industry with fresh eyes, but they also know what it’s like to be in Alaska,” Bush said.