FAIRBANKS — When I made a mid-life career change into journalism, I envisioned a paper like the one Howard Weaver describes in “Write Hard, Die Free: Dispatches from the Battlefields and Barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War” — uncompromising, hard-driving journalists who stopped at nothing to find the story and the truth, who defied publishers and advertisers to bring the stories that mattered to their readers; freedom to take the time to investigate, ask questions, ask harder questions, meticulously craft good stories (under deadline), and bring the truth to light; writing for the reader, not the editor, advertisers, or copy desk; ethical, technically proficient, caring reporters who balked at cheerleading for “the man” and eschewed false equivalencies and “balanced” (as in giving equal weight to ALL sides, even the fringe, wingnutty ones) reporting.
Alas, as Weaver sighs, those halcyon days are gone, replaced by “citizen” journalists (people with a computer), shrinking budgets, technology, and emphasis on the bottom line. But, dang, they were good days while they lasted, eh?
Weaver came to the Anchorage Daily News in the early 1970s, young, naïve, ready to prove his mettle as a reporter. It was love at first sight, Weaver says: “My affection for the newsroom at the Anchorage Daily News was instantaneous and my devotion never faltered. … No matter what you were before, here you could become a byline, privileged to add your words to those being delivered every day to doorsteps all over town.”
As one of the few locals on staff, Weaver, “an insecure kid from Muldoon,” was seen as a mascot by the older, far more cynical reporters surrounding him, but Weaver ignored them and began writing, writing, writing, his “uninterrupted, voluminous production” filling up the always-hungry news hole with stories they didn’t want to cover themselves.
The ADN in those days was the legacy of legendary newsman Larry Fanning, a Chicago reporter who became the editor and publisher of Alaska’s then-smaller daily, and who died “a classic newsman’s deadline death at his desk” a year before Weaver walked in. Fanning was one of the old-school reporters — gangsters, crooked politicians, breathless headlines, and writing each story to its limits and beyond — this was the newsroom Weaver took his first journalistic steps in, cutting his teeth on the crime beat, “mining the naturally colorful Alaska characters and still-rugged frontier atmosphere of” his hometown.
The other daily, the Anchorage Times, was the establishment paper, reporting on the dealings of the Chamber of Commerce, cheering on the oil and gas companies, and keeping bad news about leading citizens under wraps, Weaver writes. No investigative journalism, no mining the seedy underworld for colorful quotes and sketches, just a public image of Anchorage as “pristine and constipated,” good for business — if the business was oil and gas.
That left a lot of stories for Weaver and his fellow Daily News reporters, and Weaver’s stories of crime began winning the little daily Press Club awards and some disdain from Robert Atkins’ crowd (Atkins was the publisher of the Anchorage Times). The Times may have had the money and advertisers, but the Daily News had enthusiasm and lots of anonymous sources.
Weaver writes with great deftness as he details the growth of the Daily News, its constant struggles for funding, its intense competition with the Times for supremacy, and his growth as a reporter, editor and person. For those of us who were in Anchorage at the time, who read the two papers but knew nothing about the inner workings, it is a snapshot of the end of an era. As you read Weaver’s colorful descriptions of Anchorage nightlife, bars, and underworld, it’s like looking at an old ‘70s photograph — the colors are darker, more muted, the patina is hazy, but the memories rush back and you remember it all.
Weaver spends a great deal of time talking about his short-lived effort to establish a third newspaper in Anchorage, the Advocate, and also discusses the ADN’s constant money struggles, Fanning’s widow Kay Fanning’s valiant efforts to keep the ink flowing, and eventual salvation in the form of C.K. McClatchy, who purchased the struggling daily and gave Weaver, who by this time had become the managing editor, carte blanche to upgrade, capitalize, and re-equip for battle.
And war it was. Throughout the book is woven the metaphor of battle, as the two dailies — the giant, establishment-supported Anchorage Times and pugnacious little Anchorage Daily News — fought for winner-take-all stakes to be the last paper standing. It took money, for one thing, and good reporters, which McClatchy’s bail-out allowed, and determination on the part of everyone in the newsroom. In the end the Anchorage Times went down with a crash; when the dust cleared, the Daily News stood tall, the sole survivor.
From an untested, 21-year-old cub reporter to McClatchy Company vice president for news, Weaver packed a lot of learning, growing, fighting, and accomplishing into his 23 years at the paper. Under his tenure, both as reporter and editor, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes, numerous other awards, and upended a goliath of a newspaper, without compromising what he saw as the most important aspects of newspapering: fearless storytelling, a sense of community, keeping the readers’ trust, and giving them what they need.
His philosophy can be boiled down to four words: Write Hard, Die Free. He made this the newsroom motto, “cribbed” from the Hells’ Angels motorcycle gang. A quest for independence and tough-mindedness, even if it made people mad.
That’s the kind of newsroom all hard-core journalists dream of.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.