As a hazy sun set over the Bering Sea in a blaze of pink glory, a group of weary travelers clustered around a table inside the Twin Dragon, a weather-beaten restaurant on Front Street. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside in Nome, Alaska. Among the diners clad in goose down and fleece was a woman wearing sealskin pants, her sealskin coat with fox fur trim tossed on the back of a nearby chair. She held up a ginger ale.
“Here’s to Suzanna, Marc and Loren and Matt of the Alaska Dispatch,” she said, toasting the reporters and photographers who had been following the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race over frozen rivers and tundra and icy seas.
This was Alice Rogoff, 63, wife of billionaire David Rubenstein and a former Washington business executive turned owner and publisher of Alaska’s largest newspaper. Rogoff had spent nine days piloting her single-engine Cessna 206 from village to village as her reporters covered 70-plus mushers crossing the state.
A Chinese restaurant near the northwest corner of the continent might seem an incongruous setting for a onetime Beltway insider often seen at Kennedy Center galas and nonprofit board meetings. But Rogoff, a petite woman with blond-streaked brown hair, seemed in her element. Since her first visit to Alaska in 2001, the intensely private businesswoman and philanthropist has spent more and more time here, starting an arts foundation, buying a house, earning a pilot’s license to more easily traverse the immense state, purchasing a Web site, establishing an organization to address Arctic Circle issues, then buying the former Anchorage Daily News. Yet for someone who has generated so much news, there has been remarkably little published about her.
Her rising profile in Alaska, her marriage to one of the country’s most successful private-equity managers, and the physical and metaphorical distance from her life — and husband — in Washington have made observers in both places curious about her ambitions.
She, however, is more comfortable talking about Alaska and the environmental and economic challenges facing it.
“This place is my second home,” she told me the next morning, sipping coffee in a cozy cottage she had rented for herself and her team. “But in 200 years, this could all be under water.” Nome, a city of 3,800 souls 400 miles from the state highway system, is at an elevation of only 20 feet. “Like Miami,” she said, “it may soon be gone.”
Her favorite topic: the rest of the country’s glaring misperception of Alaska as “a frozen wasteland.”
If global warming has a ground zero, she believes Alaska is it. The northernmost latitudes are warming twice as fast as other parts of the globe, causing the thawing of polar ice, which leads to shifts in the jet stream, which leads to glaciers and sea ice melting at record speeds. The rising sea levels and retreating coastlines, she likes to point out, are creating expanded shipping channels, something she urgently believes Alaska should capitalize on.
After coffee, she and her reporters climbed into a black pickup and headed through town on snow-packed roads to a bazaar at Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church — now a community hall — where a host of Alaska Natives were selling their wares. As Rogoff wended her way through stalls piled with ivory tusks, jewelry, bear skins (she bought a few) and soapstone carvings, the crafts people greeted her by name. Next, she crossed the street for lunch at Airport Pizza, a hangout for mushers. While Rogoff and her crew seated themselves, Jessie Royer, the fourth-place Iditarod finisher — and top female — entered and nodded at them.
Snow was so sparse at the Iditarod’s traditional takeoff point near Anchorage that for the second time in the race’s 43-year history, the start was moved north to chillier Fairbanks. Rogoff recalled her first visit to the race’s finish in 2002, when a pilot flew her to Nome.
“Planes could still park on the sea ice back then,” she said, as if remembering a bygone era.
The future newspaper publisher grew up in Nutley, N.J., the middle of three girls.
“She was very independent and adventurous,” said Alice’s mother, Sheila Rogoff, a 92-year-old artist, in an interview. Alice loved to bike, ride horses, ski and play the flute, her mother said. “She was good enough to go professional, but her brain was on politics.”
The family was well off; Alice’s father, Mortimer Rogoff, who would later establish Navigation Sciences in Bethesda, Md., invented technologies that contributed to the development of GPS systems and cellular telephones. Alice lived in Paris as a teenager, then attended the prestigious Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She received her BA from Connecticut College and an MBA from Harvard before landing a job as an assistant to the director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration.
It was there she met Rubenstein, an ambitious lawyer two years older than she, who served as the aide to White House domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat. Rubenstein was known for his long hours and his vending-machine diet, as well as for his talent for ensuring his memos were on the top of the pile in President Jimmy Carter’s inbox.
As Rubenstein told Washington Post reporter David Montgomery for a 2012 Style profile: “She figured out one of my tricks that you probably have heard of. The president had the Oval Office, but he had a little office off to the side that he used, and that’s where his real inbox was. I would go in and put my memos on top … and I’d leave at 1 in the morning. And then one time she figured out what I’d done or was doing, and she put [OMB’s] memo on top and the president read it first. He went their way, and I got so mad I didn’t talk to her for a couple months.” The two wed in May 1983 and settled in Bethesda. She was 31.
After the Carter administration, Rogoff was an assistant to then-Washington Post publisher Donald Graham, spearheading the creation of the national weekly edition. In 1985, she became chief financial officer at U.S. News and World Report. The publication’s then-executive vice president, James Glassman, remembers her as a workaholic who returned to the office 10 days after giving birth to her first daughter, Alexandra. “She was there at all hours,” he said, “constantly engaged, always cheerful.”
Meanwhile, Rogoff’s husband was casting about for a post-White House career. In 1987, he co-founded the Carlyle Group, which would become one of the largest private equity management firms in the world. One of his earliest successes involved taking advantage of a loophole in the 1986 Tax Reform Act that allowed firms owned by Alaska Natives to sell off their tax losses to corporations in search of write-offs. Carlyle raked in millions in fees, in what critics referred to as “the Great Eskimo Tax Scam.”
As the firm grew, it recruited senior statesmen as partners or advisers — including former defense secretary Frank Carlucci, former secretary of state James Baker and former president George H.W. Bush — and set about investing in defense contractors. These moves would attract charges that it helped former pols cash in on their connections and conspiracy theories that it profited from the 2003 Iraq war. The firm eventually broadened its portfolio beyond military contractors and now manages almost $200 billion in global assets across a dizzying array of sectors, including agriculture, transportation, natural resources, mining, aerospace, automotive, energy, health care, information technology, real estate and retail.
The Bush and Rubenstein families traveled together, and the Bushes were among the prominent visitors to the compound the Rubensteins eventually built in Nantucket. (The couple also purchased the house next door to their Bethesda residence, converting it to a guesthouse, and property in Beaver Creek, Colo.)
Rogoff had another daughter, Gabrielle, then a son, Andrew, in 1991. “She had a nanny all that while,” her mother said, “but those kids were very active.”
With her husband absorbed in Carlyle, Rogoff quit U.S. News in 1997 and began to work from home. Rogoff and Rubenstein formed Rhodes Partners, a venture capital firm that focuses on Internet-related companies (at one point, the company invested in a local Internet software firm that included The Post among its clients), and she joined the board of several high-profile organizations, including the Carter Center in Atlanta and the National Symphony Orchestra.
But Barbara Overstreet, a friend whose children attended the Potomac School in McLean along with the Rubenstein offspring, said in an interview that Rogoff remained “authentic and passionate” about her convictions.
“She was never the socialite,” said Overstreet, who is now director of development for the Potomac School. “She always preferred small gatherings with intelligent people rather than massive parties.”
In a 1998 article in The Washington Post, part of a series about changing gender roles, Rogoff said she had worked through her regret that she wouldn’t be a CEO.
“My motivation is not to make a huge rate of return but to be part of something interesting,” she said. “Money, professional recognition, I’m finding you can get all that without the big company. ... Wherever this road takes me will be fine.”
Eventually, it would take her to Alaska. And, she recently wrote in an e-mail to me, “what began as a lifelong dream to see and experience Alaska became a deep wish to throw myself into the life here.”
Rogoff was introduced to Alaska in 2001, when she decided to celebrate her 50th birthday by taking a trip there with Overstreet and their children. It was the first of what would become many visits. “Learning Alaska takes time,” Rogoff said last fall, speaking to journalism students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I teach. “I feel like maybe I am finally making sense of it. And then it changes.”
In 2002 Rogoff and Overstreet asked a pilot to fly them along the course of the Iditarod, which their sons were studying in school. They touched down in Athabascan Indian villages in Alaska’s interior and the Yukon River delta, and Inupiat villages along the shores of Norton Sound and the Bering Sea.
“The ice was melting so much earlier in the season than before,” Overstreet said. “Houses were falling into the ocean. It was central to every conversation early on.”
When the families returned that summer to visit remote St. Lawrence Island, about a 160-mile flight from Nome, Rogoff met Alaska Natives trying to sell their art. “She fell in love with it,” recalled Pat Hahn, a Nome resident who befriended Rogoff. She soon realized, he said, that “if you buy their art, it helps their economy.” Suspecting that profits generated in high-end shops weren’t being passed to the artists, Rogoff decided to try to link buyers and sellers directly.
“Alice had her work cut out for her,” Hahn said. Though Rogoff wanted to move to Nome, he said, he and his wife discouraged her. “She needed a bigger puddle than Nome. Anchorage was perfect for her.”
Rogoff established the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in Anchorage and purchased a house there in 2006. She seemed to see herself as Alaska’s unofficial ambassador to the East Coast. In 2005, the foundation set up a three-day festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington; a few years later, it established a 3,000-square-foot gallery named Alaska House in Manhattan’s Soho district. “We specifically chose higher prices in New York,” said Overstreet, who serves on the board. “We had $25,000 pieces,” plus baskets woven from seal intestines, moose bladder pouches and walrus intestine raincoats. The goal was to get fair-market value for the art and serve as what Rogoff called a “virtual embassy of Alaska.”
Alaska House opened on Sept. 15, 2008, with a standing-room-only crowd that included Todd Palin, husband of then-Gov. Sarah Palin; financier Steve Rattner; philanthropist Daisy Soros; hedge fund manager Orin Kramer; Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass; and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Unfortunately, Lehman Brothers went under the same day. Rogoff’s plans to raise $1 million a year to operate Alaska House evaporated, and her efforts to secure an $875,000 grant from the state legislature were unsuccessful.
“Most members of the Alaska legislature had not spent time on the East Coast and didn’t understand why it was good to have people on the East Coast understanding Alaska,” she told me recently. “And I am not a born supplicant. That is not my strength.”
By that time, Rubenstein had made generous donations to the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Duke University and the Lincoln and Kennedy centers, as well as purchased a $21.3 million copy of the Magna Carta to be displayed at the National Archives. (He would later also help fund repairs to the Washington Monument after the 2011 earthquake.) “I’m not sure if legislators and the governor will say this out loud,” wrote then- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole, “but they will want to know why Rogoff and Rubenstein don’t fund the Alaska House with their own money.”
Rogoff rejects that logic. “Nothing in my life in Alaska is about my husband,” she told me. “Nothing in his professional life is about me.” She closed Alaska House in July 2010, though she remains on the board of the foundation, which runs a two-room gallery in downtown Anchorage.
But, as Rogoff says of herself, “I don’t have the ability to turn my brain off.” And, especially with her children now grown, she was determined to make a life in Alaska. “Those of us lucky enough to be in good health and financially independent will find that we have many more chapters of life to live after our children leave the nest,” she said in an e-mail.
Rogoff had already tried to establish an Alaskan arts television network and was musing about starting a Web site that would focus on underreported stories about the 49th state when she was introduced to the three journalists behind a year-old online news organization named the Alaska Dispatch. An hour of conversation over buffalo burgers, a handshake and an agreement inked on a napkin led to Rogoff’s purchase of 90 percent of the Dispatch in July 2009. “She gave us this amazing opportunity to open offices and hire ... a team of people willing to take a risk,” said Tony Hopfinger, who had been running the site out of a spare bedroom. Over the next five years, about 30 reporters and sales staff came onboard.
The financial risk was all Rogoff’s, according to Hopfinger, who declined to disclose the amount Rogoff paid. “It’s patronizing to think Rubenstein is behind all this,” he said.
The budding organization needed a newsroom, so Rogoff arranged for the reporters to work out of offices next to the airport hangar where she housed her Cessna, which she used to search out stories and ferry writers and photographers around the state. Rogoff would drop by the office several times a week and “we’d help her roll her plane out,” said Hopfinger, now president and editor-at-large for the Dispatch newspaper. “It was a very unique place to go to work each day.”
About the time she purchased the Web site, Rogoff told me, she began reading the “brilliant” work of Scott Borgerson, a former U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant commander and Council on Foreign Relations fellow who is now chief executive of CargoMetrics, an investment management firm that specializes in collecting data on global shipping.
In several articles for Foreign Affairs magazine, Borgerson noted that the Russians, Canadians, Danish and Norwegians are establishing deepwater ports along their Arctic shorelines, funding new Arctic naval patrol vessels and staking territorial claims on the Arctic Ocean floor. Because the north is a fabulous trove of mineral deposits and the repository of a quarter of the world’s estimated oil and natural gas deposits, he argued, the Arctic region will become a center of trade and commerce akin to the Mediterranean Sea.
Anchorage and Reykjavik could someday become “the high-latitude equivalents of Singapore and Dubai,” he wrote.
Anchorage? Rogoff decided to organize a Dispatch-sponsored conference in 2011 to focus on “infrastructure development, policy needs and economic opportunities in the Alaskan Arctic.” She called it the Arctic Imperative Summit, holding it at a tony ski resort just south of Anchorage, and drawing an impressive constellation of speakers and guests including retired Coast Guard Adm. Thomas Barrett, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service; Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, whom she had met at a reception in New York; Dan Sullivan, then commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources; Rubenstein, representing Carlyle; and Edward Itta, then mayor of the North Slope Borough. One of the 200 attendees, whose way was paid by Rogoff, was Nome Mayor Denise Michels.
“It was a diverse group and very high-level,” remembered Michels. “Alice has a true investment in the people here, and she’s providing a voice for us who cannot travel. Her goal was to make sure that rural people were there at these discussions.”
Rogoff had another conference in 2012, also including Grimsson. He was eager for Iceland to take a central role in the international Arctic discussion. He and Rogoff decided to combine forces.
In April 2013, the two flew to Washington to announce that they were founding the Arctic Circle, a new organization whose first assembly would be held in the glass-paneled Harpa Concert and Conference Center in Reykjavik.
Instantly, the new circumpolar forum was viewed as a rival of the more tradition-bound Arctic Council, founded in 1996 as an intergovernmental group of eight nations with Arctic real estate: Sweden, Iceland, Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland and Denmark. Chairmanship rotates among the member nations, and all other participants have only nonspeaking observer status.
By contrast, Rogoff’s organization would widen the circle.
“It’s clear that the Arctic Circle is intended as a high-profile, dynamic conference where India and Google and Greenpeace — and countless others with a stake in the Arctic — need not wait for years hoping they may be allowed to speak,” the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote.
The assembly met in Reykjavik again last fall, this time attracting more media and 1,400 people from 34 countries, including heads of state from Finland and Germany . The highest-ranking U.S. representative was Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Not present was Secretary of State — and Rogoff’s Nantucket neighbor — John F. Kerry.
Though Kerry is chairing the Arctic Council for the next two years, Rogoff fears he’s not invested in Alaska’s future.
“I don’t think John Kerry has a clue about Alaska and doesn’t care about Alaska,” Rogoff told the journalism students last fall. “And I happen to know him personally, and he’s never been to Alaska except maybe on a refueling stop and has no interest in the place, and for him, the Arctic equals hunting.” (According to the Dispatch, Rogoff herself is a big-game hunter, a fact some East Coast friends find surprising.)
A State Department spokesman confirmed that Kerry hasn’t been to Alaska but said the secretary plans to host the Arctic Council there in 2017.
While Rogoff was establishing herself as a player in Arctic issues, the Dispatch had earned plaudits for its coverage of the 2010 plane crash that killed Sen. Ted Stevens, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which had ramifications for future oil drilling off Alaska) and Sarah Palin. But five years into Rogoff’s ownership, the Web site’s 1.5 million monthly page views weren’t approaching the Anchorage Daily News’ 14.7 million, and online advertising wasn’t generating the hoped-for profits.
At the same time, Sacramento-based McClatchy was weighed down by its $4.5 billion 2006 purchase of Knight Ridder Inc. Rogoff guessed that McClatchy might, for the right price, be persuaded to unload the Daily News, which had a daily print circulation of 51,539 and a Sunday print circulation of 45,783. She offered $34 million for the paper and its building, more than some observers said they were worth.
She then sold the building to GCI, an Alaskan telecommunications corporation, for $14.5 million with a rent-back agreement through the end of this year.
“The amount of revenue we have coming from advertisers for the print edition is 15 times what we get from digital,” she said to the journalism students. “That’s why we bought the newspaper, in one word. It was for revenue. Because we wanted to do more journalism.”
On April 8, 2014, McClatchy and the Dispatch cast the sale in terms of reverting the Daily News to “local ownership.” The Dispatch ran a 1968 photo of the last local Daily News owner, Kay Fanning, alongside an article linking Fanning and Rogoff as female publishers who “came home to the North” and wanted to “make a difference in Alaska.” (This 2,062-word piece in her own publication was the only profile of Rogoff I’ve been able to find.)
Reaction to the sale was mixed. “Salmon swallows whale,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote about a Web site buying a newspaper. But others countered the David-vs.-Goliath story line. Former Daily News executive editor Pat Dougherty, who retired shortly after the purchase and whose job went to Hopfinger, gave an interview to Alaska Public Media in which he said: “The sale of the Daily News to the Dispatch is not the story of the feisty little Web site that persevered and toppled the old media giant. This is the story of an heiress, married to a billionaire, who was willing to pay whatever it took to buy the state’s most influential newspaper and most successful Web site.”
Still others, pointing to the longtime Alaska presence of the Carlyle Group, wondered how aggressively a newspaper owned by Rogoff would cover Carlyle’s extensive dealings in the state.
Pando.com, a California-based tech Web site that focuses on start-ups, noted that Carlyle helps manage the assets of the Alaska Permanent Fund, established in 1976 to conserve a portion of oil revenue for future generations. Carlyle also has investments and interests in natural gas storage and energy, ocean transport and port operations — all key Alaskan industries, the Web site said. Rogoff herself is on the advisory board of PT Capital, an equity firm founded in 2013 that looks for Arctic investment opportunities.
Michael Carey, who was editorial page editor of the Daily News from 1990 to 2000 and still writes a column for the paper (now the Alaska Dispatch News), was one of the few journalists in Alaska who would talk about Rogoff on the record. (“It’s a small state,” an anonymous scribe said. “People are pretty cautious.”)
He’s critical of the Dispatch’s decision to stop running unsigned editorials or endorsements. Rogoff replaced the editorials with more reader opinion, telling readers that they didn’t need a newspaper to tell them what to think.
“Has the major newspaper in any state ever done anything like this?” he asked. “Simply abandoned its opportunity to have influence in the state through opinion? I guess some people are happy with what Alice has done: legislators and big business. Maybe that was the goal all along.”
Brian O’Donoghue, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says the state’s largest paper, which had suffered cuts under McClatchy and narrowed its focus to Anchorage, “has improved undeniably” since Rogoff beefed up staff and coverage. “It’s a good paper now,” he said, “but is it a sustainable paper, or is it the last flowering of an investor’s enthusiasm?”
Since Rogoff took over, print circulation has dropped as it has at many newspapers — by 6,300 daily and about 9,000 on Sundays (the Web site attracted 11.7 million page views in March ). “The big question is whether the Dispatch’s leadership understood the challenges of publishing a print newspaper,” O’Donoghue said. “How long will she bankroll that experiment?”
Meanwhile, critics are keeping a careful eye out for any possible conflicts. The weekly Anchorage Press noted recently that the Dispatch’s business section didn’t reveal in an article about the sale of a local aviation services firm that the buyer is owned by the Carlyle Group. “Did [the reporter] feel that readers wouldn’t be interested in Rubenstein’s investment in a prominent Alaskan business?” the paper asked. “Or, was he told to leave the information out?”
Hopfinger said the article involved staff who were unfamiliar with Carlyle and the slip-up “was not intentional in any way. If there’s a perception of conflict of interest on something related to Alice,” he said, “we try to disclose those things.”
Rubenstein declined to be interviewed, and Rogoff ceased cooperating with this story after I contacted her husband for a quote. Several of her friends whom I also contacted told me they needed to check with her before commenting, then never called back. Earlier, citing privacy reasons, she had refused to answer even general questions about her family life and had asked that her grown children not be contacted.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that in an early face-to-face with Daily News reporters and editors, she declined to answer questions about her relationship with Rubenstein.
All she would say was, “It’s complicated.”
Before she ceased cooperating with this story, Rogoff agreed to a brief interview in her 4,100-square-foot lakeside home in Anchorage. It could double as an art gallery or home design showplace: A wild abundance of ivory figurines of seals, whales, bears and other Arctic creatures decorate the shelves, plus sculptures, paintings, a muskox rug. Masks by Sugpiaq Alaskan painter Alvin Amason and a triptych of a scene on Maryland’s Eastern Shore painted by her mother are set against coral-colored walls. There are vases of flowers everywhere. Four couches are arranged in the center of a huge living space that includes the kitchen, living and dining room.
Wearing jeans and a striped shirt, and with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, Rogoff offered me chicken soup with Brussels sprouts and insisted she doesn’t like articles written about her: “The only cause I have is the cause of more and better journalism.”
But she is passionate about the Arctic and about pushing her vision of Alaska’s western coastline as the next hub of world maritime commerce. “I’m a messenger,” she said. “I’m promoting this part of the world without an ice cap. The ice is almost gone. There is an ocean there.”
Since she took over the paper, she has hired a former Politico reporter as its Washington correspondent and ramped up state coverage. In an attempt to buoy interest in Arctic issues, she has installed an Arctic NewsWire tab on the Dispatch home page, which gathers polar news from English-language media from around the world.
Rogoff came to my campus last fall to give a speech whose title perfectly married her two interests: “The Importance of the Arctic and the Media’s Role in Communicating Its Value.” She focused more on the Arctic than on the media.
“We are the last ones to the table and we are doing nothing in Alaska,” she told us. “Look at what Russia is planning on doing on the Bering Sea coast. Look at what Scandinavia is doing. Look at what Canada is doing. Look at what Greenland is doing,” referring to those countries’ oil, gas and mineral explorations. “Greenland has 50,000 people, and they will have more Arctic-related development” than along America’s 2,000 miles of Arctic coastline.
She voiced hope that Alaska Gov. Bill Walker would support a deepwater port just north of Nome, which she said would give rise to port-related business “in every small village along the Bering Sea.” She also talked up a road that would link western ports across hundreds of miles of bush country to Fairbanks.
Her if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy anticipates a time when the majority of the world’s shipping will be floating by Alaska’s west coast, which she’s calling “the next Panama Canal.” And Alaska, through efforts of people like her, will be stepping up to the plate as an Arctic power.
“I love those images of Alaska from space because to me it tells you the whole problem in a nutshell,” she said to the class. “There are lights over Prudhoe Bay and lights over Fairbanks and a couple of lights over Anchorage, and that’s it. So when I am inside those pearly gates — if I should qualify — I want to look down and see lights over western Alaska.”
Julia Duin is the 2014-2015 Snedden Chair for the journalism department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Knight Ridder had owned the Anchorage Daily News. This version has been corrected.
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