The Skagway News Ending Print Editions, Switching to Online Only
Black & White Elephant
In a joint statement in the November 25 issue, the co-owners announced that the December 9 and 23 editions would be the last with physical copies. Going forward, the newspaper will be available online only at skagwaynews.com, either as individual stories or as a PDF of the full-page layout.
“We will maintain the printable PDF version of The Skagway News and email it to subscribers,” the statement said, promising that Munson would personally visit any reader who needs help accessing the site.
Munson and Wehmhoff took over the paper in March 2020, buying it from the previous owner, Larry Persily, for $20. (He had offered to give it away for free.) Persily, who also owns the Wrangell Sentinel, had acquired the Skagway paper in 2019 from his friend, William J. “Jeff” Brady, who founded the newspaper in 1978. Within months, the editor quit, and Persily sought a new owner who could live in town year-round and edit the paper.
Munson moved to Skagway from Chugiak, where she and Wehmhoff were both teachers with backgrounds in journalism. They are the paper’s only full-time staff, and Wehmhoff says they have yet to make any money from the venture.
Not printing two issues each month for its circulation of about 500 readers will save about $24,000 per year, Wehmhoff estimates. They had contracted with the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman for printing services, and mailing copies back to Skagway and to about 100 out-of-state subscribers added to costs.
To save more money, the newspaper is quitting its lease at an office above the Skagway News Depot & Books store on Broadway. Munson is setting up an office in a secondary building at her home on Main Street, which Wehmhoff says is more accessible to the public anyway. That change ought to save an estimated $16,000 per year.
“We’ve had a great deal of support,” Wehmhoff says. “People want to know how they can donate to us. That’s just an odd thing: how do you donate to a business? In this business, the way to donate is to buy ads for other people, do nonprofit ads and sponsor them.”
Melinda Munson (left) and Gretchen Wehmhoff (right) during the trip from Chugiak to Skagway in January 2020.
The company’s main source of revenue was never the newspaper, Wehmhoff explains, but the annual visitor guide, The Skaguay Alaskan. That publication will continue in a printed format, the owners say, “handed to thousands of tourists by our famous, adorable local newsies.”
The shock to Skagway’s tourism industry from COVID-19 helped pave the way for the newspaper’s switch to online only. First, when the Canadian border closed, print deliveries were halted, so the new owners were forced to rely on their website. Print editions resumed in February 2021.
Second, Wehmhoff says local advertisers that depend on cruise ship visitors took an economic hit. Although cruises returned in 2021, a landslide at Skagway’s Railroad Dock limited the number of visits, choking off business by at least 25 percent. Without that income stream, the newspaper had to cut expenses.
Freedom to Get Creative
Closing a second-floor leased office is one another cost-saving measure for The Skagway News.
Viewing the transition less as an ending and more of a pivot, Wehmhoff sees plenty of positives in the newspaper’s future. To begin with, the co-owners can begin drawing a salary. That’s especially important for Munson working full-time in Skagway while Wehmhoff continues teaching in Chugiak, working on the paper from home.
They note that an exclusively online paper is better for the environment, and Wehmhoff adds “it also will give us more freedom to get creative.” The changes in store include an expanded website with increased content, bulletins in between regular issues, a more complete archive, and the ability to listen to articles. Wehmhoff says she and Munson are looking forward to recording their Taiya Talks podcast, which presents another opportunity for sponsorship.
And, best of all, eliminating printing expenses keeps Skagway’s newspaper in business, doing favors for the community that no other medium would. “We don’t charge for obituaries,” Wehmhoff says. “We let people give us photos to put in. The 4th and 5th graders did news stories, and for two issues we gave them a page in the paper. In December, the school is giving us letters to Santa.”
When Persily vetted some 200 applications to take over The Skagway News, one of his chief criteria was a commitment to serving the town. The owners he chose are sticking to that promise, despite the hardships.
“We cannot let this paper die,” Wehmhoff says. “When a newspaper goes out of business in a community, besides actually losing news coverage, we also lose part of the community.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.