He purchased the paper in April after a friend who launched the local outlet 42 years ago persuaded him. But the acquisition was a short-term fix that only briefly saved it from financial troubles and an absentee owner.
The 68-year-old Anchorage resident told The Washington Post that trying to manage the paper from 500 miles away wasn’t a feasible solution. In traditional, small-town America, he said, the best thing for the residents, the town and the newspaper’s longevity is an owner who is both the editor and the in-town reporter.
And so in mid-November, soon after the most recent editor — the fourth in four years — quit, Persily devised a plan: find a person (or couple) who will care about Skagway, produce a high-quality newspaper year-round and then give them the newspaper for free.
“I want someone to get the opportunity to do good things with the paper and for the town. If that means setting them up in business for free, so be it,” Persily wrote in the pre-Thanksgiving op-ed.
As his search for the “as-close-to-perfect-as-possible new owner and editor of The Skagway News” continues, he has already received “more than 100 inquiries from people in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, across several other states from New Mexico to Indiana to Massachusetts. Emails came in from Canada, Australia and a couple other overseas journalists,” he wrote in a follow-up post published on the paper’s website Monday.
Two-thirds of the potential buyers have been journalists, he told The Post. The other 33 percent were people pursuing an adventure.
“When you give a newspaper away, you get a lot of fascinating responses,” he said; some have been heartfelt, others swore at him, and one was from someone in Ukraine. And for those people whose applications suggested remote work, Persily said: “Not going to happen.”
Skagway has a long history tied to adventure. It was established in 1887 as a port town on Nahku Bay, to serve as a gateway to the Yukon. It became a boom town during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s. A railroad was built to take miners and supplies over White Pass and into Canada.
Today, the town of 1,100 serves as a stop for cruise ships, bush pilots and tourists, with nearly a million visitors each year. It is connected to Alaska’s capital, Juneau, by commuter flights, and by road to Canada and the Lower 48 by the Klondike Highway. Seattle is 1,762 miles away by car. You can also reach the town via the Alaska Marine Highway, a car ferry service that serves southeast Alaska from Bellingham, Wash., 30 hours away.
Persily has a vision for the future leader of the Skagway News: someone with journalistic experience, who understands small-town life and who is willing to relocate to southeast Alaska.
“It’s a different kind of reporting than The Washington Post — the paper doesn’t cover the impeachment or Ukraine, it covers Skagway — every other week, year-round,” he explained of the town.
“It’s reporting on your neighbors because you see them every day,” Persily continued. “In a town where people know each other and care about each other, it helps if the editor knows the kids on the basketball team and their parents, that he or she spells their names right and knows the members of the city assembly and can talk to them.”
In addition to its remote location, the Skagway News suffers problems that mirror a nationwide trend. As Post columnist Margaret Sullivan said, the demise of local newspapers is “journalism’s worst crisis.”
In the past 15 years, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that local outlet circulation in the United States dropped by 30 percent. Weekday print circulation in the country dropped from nearly 60 million in 1994 to 35 million today, for print and digital circulation combined, according to The Post.
“The decline of local newspapers is a discouraging trend, but I’m trying to be the exception. It takes a lot more money to run a paper in Youngstown, Ohio, than Skagway,” which has a staff of two, Persily said of his two-person staff, compared with the 150-year-old paper that shut down in August, making Youngstown the largest U.S. city without a major newspaper.
For Persily, “quality and longevity of the newspaper is the most important issue,” he wrote in the November op-ed. His goal — one which he believes he will achieve — is to have the new owner/editor in office by March 1.