With loss of leader, Alaska Commons faces uncertain future

John Aronno, former managing editor for Alaska Commons (Photo courtesy of Alaska Commons)

An influential web-site in Alaska lost its driving force earlier this week. For several years, Alaska Commons has brought news and commentary with a left-leaning perspective to tens of thousands of readers. With the departure of its managing editor, the group’s future remains unclear.

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John Aronno started writing online about Anchorage politics more than a decade ago. After a stint working for a member of the city’s Assembly, he founded Alaska Commons in its current iteration along with a group of friends just over five years ago.

“I guess we were just annoyed with the fact that a lot of stories that we saw that we thought mattered, we didn’t see getting covered,” Aronno said.

Aronno, who’s earlier career included a stint as a touring rock musician, threw himself into the role of managing editor.

The site has won plenty of journalism awards over the years, covering a mix of Anchorage and state politics, as well as original reporting on progressive issues, commentary and a whimsical weekly roundup of Internet memes. Sort of like a cross between an alt-weekly and a wonky politics blog, it kept growing, and Aronno said drew a monthly readership of 20 to 30 thousand people.

“We’ve had some articles that had over a million views,” Aronno said.

But maintaining a steady flow of content wasn’t easy, particularly with a small group of volunteer contributors.

Aronno said the Commons never figured out a good revenue model, and the site typically only took in two or three hundred dollars a month from Google Ads. The pace and lack of income weren’t sustainable.

“Literally for five years I did not have a day off for a vacation,” Aronno said. “Even if we went off for a trip somewhere, I was still running back to the motel getting articles set up for the next night.”

But deciding to resign was a drawn-out process. Aronno said even the morning he woke up earlier this week and wrote a Facebook post announcing he’d step down, he was still 50-50 about the decision.

The departure is a big deal for close-watchers of state and city politics because of the unique role the site filled. While Alaska Commons would sometimes break news, Aronno is quick to point out it is not a news site, and even pieces with original reporting departed from traditional journalistic standards for neutrality. Stories would frequently criticize conservative targets, and often wound up enmeshed at the center of disputes on controversial issues. Some commentators and politicians complained of being unfairly attacked on the site, notably during the 2015 mayoral election and a recent disagreement over whether an Assembly member inappropriately suggested there could be a terrorist training camp in the Mat-Su Valley.

Aronno didn’t mind getting criticized for stories, but he hated when people would dismiss the site as just a “liberal blog.”

“That’s what really would get under my skin, because I have spent five years fighting the charge that I’m not legitimate, that I’m not worth listening to, that I’m easily discredit-able,” Arrono said.

Aronno said he isn’t sure what his next step will be. As for Alaska Commons, a crowd-funding page was set up before news of Aronno’s departure. A board member [Tonei Glavinic] said there’ll be a meeting this weekend to discuss options for the site.