Nome, Wrangell newspapers celebrate centennials

Posted: Monday, December 22, 2003

ANCHORAGE When it comes to beating deadlines and keeping a business going, two Alaska companies share indisputable bragging rights.

For more than a century, the Nome Nugget and the Wrangell Sentinel have been dishing up local news and views, and the owners at both of the state's most venerable newspapers are eager to keep the presses rolling into the new millennium.

In Nome, the editor is struggling to maintain independent ownership, while in Wrangell the owner recently agreed to join forces with another publication.

In the summer of 1900, the rollicking gold rush destination of Nome was the biggest city in Alaska, with more than 20,000 residents. Ten years later, most of the gold was gone and the population had dropped to what it is now about 3,500.

Another thing in the Bering seacoast town has remained constant over the past century: If something made news on the Seward Penin-sula, you could probably read about it in the Nome Nugget newspaper.

Proudly claiming the front page bragging rights of being ''Alaska's oldest newspaper,'' the Nugget was first published on Jan. 1, 1900.

Nancy McGuire, the paper's owner and publisher for the past two decades, said she decided to purchase the Nugget after volunteering at the newspaper for about three years.

''I bought it on New Year's Day, 1982. That's how I worked my way up into the business,'' McGuire said. ''I didn't know a damn thing about journalism when I came up here. But I had been a high school and college science teacher. And understanding science helped me to understand how to ask questions and demand answers.''

Keeping advertising accounts coming in the door is obviously the toughest challenge for the business, she said. With a robust weekly circulation of about 6,000 copies, the paper has attracted several unsolicited buyout and expansion offers.

McGuire is not interested.

''We've fought off a lot of people who think we have to have two newspapers in this town,'' she said. ''There are 3,000 people here. Jeeze, Anchorage can't support two newspapers.''

The Nugget covers regional news items from Kotzebue to Shaktoolik and all points between and McGuire said the paper maintains a close relationship with its readers.

''I think the biggest story of all is the community itself, and the people in the region. They are good folks and I love them,'' she said. ''I often hold them to task for things, but I find that this is a very good town and region.''

McGuire said the key to good small-town journalism is to be balanced.

''I find that I try very much to give everybody an equal say, an equal chance to voice their opinions,'' she said. ''And if they are too chicken to sign their letters to the editor, then I won't print them.''

To visitors, Nome may seem like the edge of nowhere, but McGuire said the Nugget has kept up with modern technology.

''We needed to get online. So we started our own Internet service up here, Nomenet, back in 1995,'' she said.

She and her staff have also taught themselves modern desktop publishing techniques, and in some cases they wrote their own software programs, McGuire said.

''All of my employees, they work their butts off for this paper,'' she said.

McGuire acknowledged that the profit margin for running a small-town publication can be paper thin.

''We're not making the big bucks here. We make money and spend it. Sometimes we spend it and then make the money,'' she joked.

Publication of the Nome Nugget was suspended temporarily during World War II, and that gives the Wrangell Sentinel the right to call itself the longest continually operating newspaper in Alaska.

The first issue came out on Nov. 20, 1902, and the paper is still meeting its mission of serving the Southeast community, said editor Seanne Gillen Saunders. She said the weekly paper has a circulation of about 1,500, and it reflects the tenacity of its readers.

''Our population is dropping and everybody's struggling just to make a buck, to get by and survive,'' Saunders told the Journal shortly before she announced on Dec. 1 the sale of her paper to Ron and Anne Loesch, owners of the Petersburg Pilot.

Management operations of the two papers will be merged, but they will maintain their current staffs and offices under the sales agreement.

The economy in Wrangell is supported by commercial fishing and logging, Saunders said, but jobs at the local timber mill have been hard to come by lately.

''It comes and goes. They'll employ people for a few months and then cut back or shut down,'' she said. ''They claim they are going to go back to work this spring, so we'll see.''

Saunders bought the Sentinel in 1996 from journalist Larry Persily. Now, the relationship has come full circle, with Persily helping to arrange financial backing for the sale of the Sentinel to the Pilot.

Persily also said a struggling economy was a steady source of news and opinion pieces for the paper. He recalled that despite experiencing financial hard times, many residents were known for pulling practical jokes to liven things up.

''One time, a top executive from National Bank of Alaska was due to visit the local branch office,'' Persily said. ''And some guys took a big blue tarp, painted 'First National Bank of Anchorage' on it, and draped it over the NBA sign at the bank.''

Persily said bank employees removed the fake sign before the boss saw it, but not before he got a picture of it for the Sentinel.

Persily and Saunders both said there is a special feeling about operating a newspaper in a close-knit community.

''You get to know everyone in town, and they get to know you,'' Persily said. ''It teaches you that maybe life is better with no secrets.''

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