I quit my job reporting on politics at the Alaska State Capitol on March 14. Boom. Done. I told myself after I quit that I’d never work for a newspaper again, not on a full-time basis anyways.
After a long week of wind and rain the sun came out on Tuesday, March 19, and temperatures peaked above 50 degrees for the first time this year. You might remember that day if you were in Juneau because everybody – I saw druggies tweaking, families skipping rocks in the channel, Rep. George Rauscher on the phone, the cops were on their bikes – it was beautiful outside. We Alaskans were all basking beneath the sun’s brilliant light. If you’re an Alaskan you know these kind of days. You cannot beat them.
I spent that day wandering along the pier admiring the green hills on Douglas Island, watching the tide go out, reflecting on my life trying to figure out what the hell I should do next. I had a plane ticket to Portland at the time, but I didn’t have a plan beyond flying to PDX and looking for work.
Jeff Landfield had previously approached me about publishing some freelance opinion pieces for the Landmine. As I began unpacking my life on that sunny day, I realized I could not encapsulate what I have to say into one or two focused op-eds. So I messaged Jeff and told him I wanted to write something else. I’ve been working on this for the last two weeks or so.
So here we go:
It became clear to me I needed to find a new job in early February, but I wanted to continue reporting at the Capitol. I tried to find a way to stay put. First, I started exploring freelance writing opportunities. There were a few opportunities but it was not enough money to make rent and pay bills. So, I looked into part-time jobs to bolster my income while freelancing. I interviewed for a job in the tourism industry in Juneau too. Nothing was panning out for me.
I even looked into “Unleashing Entrepreneurialism” as a means of supporting my journalism habit.
I mocked up a business plan for a hot dog stand. I believed I could run a successful hot dog stand since I have experience in grilling hot dogs in my personal and professional life. My first job out of college was slingin’ wieners at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. We served the athletes and their fans hundreds of hot dogs every day. It was fun work and the wiener jokes were abundant.
My business plan was to post-up outside the state Capitol and shout “We’re open for business!” and serve “Dunleavy Dogs” to the hungry, tired masses as they leave the Capitol and migrate downhill. These Dunleavy Dogs would be 6.7 inch wieners on an “Honest Sustainable Bun.” These Honest Sustainable Buns would be a foot long to trick customers into thinking they’re getting a good deal. There would be no condiments on a Dunleavy Dog because I’d need to spare unnecessary business expenses. When the customer bites into a Dunleavy Dog their taste buds are met with extreme disappointment.
Slingin’ wieners outside the Capitol seemed like a great idea but nobody would invest. Go figure.
In the end the dollars didn’t add up. Juneau’s an expensive place to live. I finally hit a breaking point and quit. I took the milk run out of Alaska on Monday, March 25. The irony of leaving Alaska on Seward’s Day is not lost on me.
Part II: Something stinks
There’s an ugly stench emanating from the third floor of the Alaska State Capitol building. I can smell it from Portland, Oregon as I follow what is happening in Alaska. I’m sure the people of Fairbanks or Bethel or Nome can smell it too.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget has instilled fear among state employees, teachers, and university staff as they stare at the prospect of unemployment. Business owners are concerned about the recession worsening. Mr. Dunleavy’s proposal to privatize and limit the services of the Alaska Marine Highway System has many Alaskans in coastal communities wondering if they will be left stranded. Seniors worry about their future in the Pioneer homes. Others worry about Alaska’s future as Dunleavy buries his head in the thawing permafrost and ignores climate change. The list could go on.
Mr. Dunleavy, you ran on a campaign slogan of “Standing Tall for Alaskans,” but what you’re proposing to do is take a shit on them.
Mr. Honest Budget, next time you plan a budget roadshow, don’t hide behind Americans for Prosperity and their arbitrary rules that encumber the public process.
Mr. Governor, next time Alaskans protest your abysmal policy proposals on the steps of the Capitol, I’d love to see you greet them. I’d love to see you explain to members of the Inland Boatman’s Union, to their faces, why their jobs are expendable. Explain to these ferry system workers why your salary provides a better service to Alaskans than theirs.
Lucky for Alaskans, the legislators in Senate and House Finance Committees are not dumb enough to drink Dunleavy’s shit flavored Kool-Aid. Co-Chairs of Senate Finance, Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) and Natasha von Imhof (R-Anchorage), deserve more kudos than they have received thus far. Stedman is standing taller than Dunleavy ever has as he fights for the Marine Highway System.
Von Imhof has made what is arguably the most important statement of the legislative session thus far:
“I keep hearing the administration referring to this ‘fiscal crisis.’ We don’t have a fiscal crisis,” she said during a Feb. 21 finance meeting, according to an Anchorage Daily News article. “We have a priority crisis. We have enough money to pay for a certain level of government services and a certain level of dividend. We just don’t have enough to pay for both at the highest level desired.”
Alaska does not have to be this way. Yet Dunleavy persists.
Sens. Bill Wielechwoski (D-Anchorage), Mike Shower (R-Wasilla), Donny Olson (D-Golovin), and Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel), have been outstanding in Senate Finance too. Their line of questioning, and insight has been enlightening as they’ve grilled members of the Dunleavy administration on the budget.
On the House side, the Finance Committee has launched its own budget roadshow. No dumb rules. No Americans for Prosperity. Kudos to House Finance Co-Chairs Neal Foster (D-Nome) and Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) for showing what real leadership is.
Since Dunleavy and many in his administration do not seem to give a damn about the people who will lose their jobs as a direct result of Dunleavy’s budget, I have an idea. Since it’s difficult to tell whether or not Dunleavy gives a damn about the people who will be missing out on essential services that he proposes to cut, I have a suggestion. My proposal is for Alaska’s Senate or House Finance Committees. I want to see the creation of a finance subcommittee on Thoughts and Prayers Assistance, or TAPASS. The purpose of this TAPASS subcommittee would be to comb through the budget bill and find each provision that would result in a job loss or cut needed services. The TAPASS subcommittee’s next task would be to add amendments to the budget bill containing language that assures those soon-to-be-unemployed Alaskans, or other effected Alaskans, that the Dunleavy administration’s thoughts and prayers are being sent to those people. I’m sure it will alleviate their pain.
Part III: Some random thoughts on journalism
I never worked in journalism for the money. The pay has never been great, but I got by. I am a journalist because I believe in journalism and what it can accomplish. I do it because I like telling important stories. In a single day, working as a newspaper reporter you can run the gamut of emotions. In the end it’s satisfying work, which is why it is so hard to walk away.
Alaska needs a strong Capitol press corps. That press corps has become exponentially important this legislative session as Alaska nears the edge. If you don’t think good journalism matters, just imagine where Alaska would be today if journalists weren’t digging into Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s so-called honest budget? Has the Dunleavy administration shown it understands transparency?
Despite all the good newspapers do, I am frustrated by the industry. During the last six years I’ve seen my friends in the newspaper business struggle to pay their bills. I’ve seen my friends stressed to a breaking point. I’ve seen my friends cry in frustration. Many journalists feel undervalued and wonder if it’s worth it to continue. I’ve seen talent move on from newspapers to new fields – grad school, public relations, union labor, law, web, coding, etc. — I cannot blame them.
In the end self-preservation will win out no matter how much a reporter loves working in newspapers. And it did with me too.
Throughout my career I heard of newspaper strikes happening in a bygone era when newspapers were king. Sometimes I wonder why Alaska journalists don’t unionize. What do Alaska’s journalists have to lose?
There’s this sense of entitlement among news consumers who feel that news must be free. That is infuriating. During a fairly recent conversation at the Triangle Club Bar in Juneau, a man told me news should be free. He scoffed at the idea of paying for a newspaper subscription. I asked this man what line of work he is in. He said he was a helicopter pilot. I asked him how successful his business would be if patrons demanded free helicopter rides simply because they were entitled to free rides.
A subscription to the Juneau Empire costs $0.99 for the first month and $9.95/month thereafter. A subscription to the Anchorage Daily News costs $11.99/month. An online subscription to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner costs $14.99/month. A subscription to any one of Alaska’s big three newspapers would cost you no more than $0.50 per day. If you don’t like how much your newspaper has shrunk in the last decade, consider your subscription an investment into the product.
As newsroom staff decrease at Alaska’s traditional newspapers, independent media continues to play an increasingly important role. Say what you will about Jeff Landfield’s Landmine, Dermot Cole’s columns, or Matt Buxton at the Midnight Sun – there is no denying they are breaking important news and they’re doing it in a fun way. These journalists have the freedom to do journalism on their own terms. They’re not being held down by the traditional rules of journalism, which are at times arbitrary. Yes, their posts are interspersed with editorial opinion, which readers should be aware of. However, their body of work remains important. I hope to see more of independent media in the future.
Journalists get a lot of bullshit criticism based off reader assumptions or readers being blinded by their own bias (Yes, you can read your own bias into a completely neutral story. Think about that!). As frustration with the Dunleavy administration and this legislative session grows, I’ve seen important discussions on Alaska Twitter about journalism, its quality, its purpose, people’s frustrations with the media – journalism in Alaska is being critiqued. Good. Journalism must improve. Journalists should engage. The world is rapidly evolving. Is journalism keeping pace?
Part IV: Last words
As I put the finishing touches on this article I’m sitting on a pink couch in Portland’s Alphabet District. My belly is full of pancakes and I’m drinking coffee. I’ve been thinking about Alaska and where it’s headed during the last 24 hours as I try to figure out how the hell I should end this article.
I hope you Alaskans keep fighting. I like how Alaskans are reacting to this session. Alaskans are getting pissed. Alaskans are protesting. Alaskans are educating themselves. They are reading the news and engaging in the public process. Alaskans must let Gov. Mike Dunleavy know that Alaska is a lot bigger than the Anchorage/Mat-Su region. You would think with his lofty 6-foot, 7-inch viewpoint he’d be able to see the rest of Alaska.
Keep fighting for your children’s future. Do it for your friends. Do it for the methheads and heroin addicts who have been forgotten on the streets. Do it for the orcas and the bears and the environment. Do it for yourself because you deserve a good life.
Alaska can be a challenging place to live. Generations have worked hard and died for Alaska to be as it is today. If you’re familiar with the state’s history you know that many lives have been crushed throughout Alaska’s often tragic history. Don’t let Dunleavy crush yours.
Kevin Baird is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He moved to Alaska in 2016 to work for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner where he was a reporter and later the opinion editor. He also worked nearly three months at the Juneau Empire covering Capitol politics. Follow him on Twitter: @evil_bad_man