Significant layoffs hit ADN, with more changes ahead

Ryan Binkley speaks with reporters following the court hearing on the sale of the Alaska Dispatch News (Photo By Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

As it struggles to emerge from bankruptcy under new owners, the state’s largest newspaper has started making deep staff cuts. The Alaska Dispatch News laid off a number of employees this week, but there’s no clarity from its new management on whether or not this is the end of reductions.

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Word spread quickly on Wednesday that staffers at the ADN were being let go.

“David Hulen, the executive editor, was tapping people on the shoulder and calling them into his office,” Jeanette Lee-Falsey said. She covered business at the ADN, and was one of the people tapped on the shoulder.

“If you’d walked into that newsroom and hadn’t known the state of things, you would not have known that people were being laid off,” Lee-Falsey said. “It was all very quiet and done discreetly. And that was to protect people’s privacy as much as possible.”

According to Lee-Falsey, the layoffs began at the end of last week, and by Wednesday the mood in the office was tense.

“You knew this big thing was happening in front of your eyes, but you couldn’t acknowledge it, which for people who are used to being open and communicative is a very difficult thing,” Lee-Falsey said.

In her reporting, Lee-Falsey tended to pick stories that were complicated and took a little longer to finish, which, she explained, is not necessarily the trend in daily newspaper journalism. And being a business reporter, she knew the new owners of ADN would have to shed employees to reduce costs.

“I saw this coming, and in these types of situations no one is safe,” Lee-Falsey said. Wednesday was her last day at the job.

The layoffs come as the paper is emerging from the brink of financial collapse.  Earlier this month, when a judge approved the sale of the paper to the Binkley family of Fairbanks for $1 million, staff were told layoffs would be part of the effort to reign in multi-million dollar annual deficits. In the first six months of this year, the paper reported a $4 million loss.

According to bankruptcy filings, ADN had 212 employees. Reached by cell phone, publisher Ryan Binkley wouldn’t comment on the full number of layoffs so far. He pointed to a short article on page five of Wednesday’s paper, saying it had all the information that would be released. The story calls the staff reductions “significant,” but doesn’t say how many people were let go. Binkley declined to answer any questions, saying “my Uber driver is waiting.”

“What’s really striking to me is how many of the people who were laid off have had a significant, long role in Alaska journalism,” Michael Carey said. Carey is a retired editorial page editor at the paper who still contributes pieces occasionally.

Carey believes the loss of institutional knowledge at the paper and in the state’s press corps is tremendous, adding that Wednesday was among the worst days in the history of Alaska journalism.

In the course of his career Carey saw plenty of layoffs, but none this big in such a short time.

“My guess is they wanted to do it all at once, and they did it all at once,” Carey said.

Carey rattled off the names of almost a dozen colleagues let go in the last week, some of whom had tenures more than three decades long with the paper as sports writers, editors, photographers and reporters.

The paper is still looking for ways to cut expenses, including changes to leased space and the operation of its printing press. The sole employee at the paper’s bureau in Bethel wrote on Facebook that she’s moving back to Anchorage, and the one staff writer based in Fairbanks was among those let go. A letter on the front page from Editor David Hulen this week notes the paper is scaling back to just two sections for most weekdays, with content focusing more on news in Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska.