‘A thing of the past’

Seward Journal calls it quits after struggle to keep newspaper afloat

The final issue of Seward’s community newspaper hit stands Nov. 29, snuffing out one of the Kenai Peninsula’s last remaining news sources and the eastern peninsula’s only weekly newspaper.

“After lengthy deliberation, the decision has been made to discontinue publishing the Seward Journal at the end of the month,” Seward Journal Publisher Michael Paschall wrote in the paper’s Nov. 22 edition.

The end of the Journal comes as the number of local newspapers in the United States continues to decline. A study published in early November by the Northwestern University-based Medill School of Journalism found that, on average, more than two newspapers closed each week during 2023.

A lack of local advertising, which Paschall called the “funding source for newspapers,” an increase in production costs and the difficulty keeping staff in Seward all contributed to the decision to shutter the paper. His company, TriDelta, Inc., took over publishing the Journal in January 2017 and operates out of Delta Junction, where he also serves as fire chief.

The paper in December 2017 announced that it would be combining with the Seward Phoenix Log. That paper opened in 1966 under Willard and Beverly Dunham and Joan Hoogland and is one of many that have served the Seward community since the early 1990s. That’s according to Evangeline Atwood and Lew Williams Jr.’s 2006 “Bent Pins to Chains: Alaska and Its Newspapers.”

Per “Bent Pins to Chains,” at various intervals, the “Seward Gateway,” “Seward Polaris,” “Seward Seaport Record,” “Seward Advertising Bulletin,” “Petticoat Gazette,” “Seward Phoenix Log,” and eventually the “Seward Journal” all chronicled happenings in town; each have their own colorful history.

The “Seward Gateway” was founded by John Ballaine at the same time he founded the City of Seward. The “Petticoat Gazette,” was run by the town’s Business and Professional Women’s Club and was printed at the Seward Sanitorium as part of a patient rehabilitation program. The “Phoenix Log” is so named for a Russian ship built in Resurrection Bay in the late 1800s.

The Seward Journal additionally purchased in 2018 the Seward City News, an online media outlet that had previously been owned by Steve Fink.

The primary challenge of keeping the Seward Journal afloat, Paschall said last Thursday, is and always has been revenue constraints. After taking over the publication, he said he tried to follow the model of Alaska Newspapers, Inc., which “Bent Pins to Chains” called an Alaska Native-owned company behind the state’s first successful newspaper chain out of Seward in the 1990s.

Paschall said he played with different sales models over the years, even at one point mailing it directly to all postal addresses with a 99664 postal address. The rise of social media also meant people had alternative ways to advertise their businesses than the paper.

One blow to sales, he said, came after the paper moved from being sold over the counter at Safeway to being sold to a display alongside the Anchorage Daily News near the front of the store. That meant shoppers didn’t see the publication until they’d already checked out.

He then decided to make the Seward Journal free of charge, positing that it might reach more people — especially during tourist season — and thereby increase the product’s value to potential advertisers. Paschall said advertising revenue, though, was still a struggle, noting that the operation “never really got profitable.”

“Where all of it continued to fall apart was just not (having) the financial support of advertising,” he said Thursday.

Paschall in March 2022 published an article titled “Is the newspaper important to the community?” in which he warned that the publication could become “a thing of the past” without the financial stability required to cover local news in-depth.

“Quite frankly, if the support is not there from the business community, local news coverage in Seward will discontinue,” he wrote.

The income generated by advertising sales, he continued, is directly tied to how much the Seward Journal can pay staff. Those individuals often struggled with Seward’s high cost of living and lack of affordable housing.

Sam McDavid has been the Seward Journal’s only full-time reporter since August 2020, when he took the advice of a friend doing seasonal work over the summer.

“Without any plan I hopped on a plane and headed up,” he said.

McDavid is based in Alabama now, but said he lived off and on in Seward for multiple summers, sometimes providing labor in exchange for a place to stay.

His “audition story” — the article he wrote in order to land a job at the Seward Journal — was covering the 2020 Seward Silver Salmon Derby. Since then he said there have been a lot of stories that stick out, such as then-Seward High School junior Lydia Jacoby bringing home gold in the 2020 Olympics or a Seward man’s battle against a grizzly bear near a tributary of the Yukon River.

McDavid said he particularly valued tracking Jacoby’s progress through her coach, Solomon D’ Amico, who he said always “had every faith” she would become an Olympic champion. Seeing that prophecy come to fruition, he said, was “remarkable.”

“I feel like I got to be a part of one of the town’s biggest milestones in history,” McDavid said.

He, of course, also wrote about issues that were more polarizing.

As Seward residents have considered and then reconsidered the sale of the city’s electric utility, McDavid said his biggest goal was always to make sure his work reflected the diversity of voices and options being considered. He said he always kept the impacts to residential ratepayers at the forefront of his reporting on the issue, and said his work didn’t always sit right with readers.

“There’s an immediacy to the consequences to anything that you write,” he said of reporting in a small place. “You feel the reverberations. Everyone shares in all of the events that take place in the town.”

Paschall had similar thoughts on the Journal’s coverage of the sale, saying that he and McDavid spent a lot of time and resources trying to present all of the information as fairly as possible.

“There wasn’t an agenda,” Paschall said.

Even though he’s no longer going to be writing for the Seward Journal, there are a couple of issues he said he plans to keep an eye on. They include the Seward Heat Loop Project — a plan to heat a handful of city buildings with geothermal energy — and what happens next with Seward’s electric utility.

“I’m going to miss being a part of Seward,” he said.

Paschall said he expects the Seward Journal website to stay live until the end of December. After that, Seward Journal content will not be available online. More than a reliable source of community news, Paschall said an end to the Seward Journal means also an end to an unbiased view of community issues.

“I think what you lose is an independent voice that is willing to dig in and look into information, whether it’s popular or not popular,” he said.

The final edition of the Seward Journal was published Nov. 29 and, until next month, can be viewed at sewardjournal.com.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.