By Ashley Yeaman
Pat Dougherty, executive editor of the Anchorage Daily News and 1974 Baylor graduate, led a political discussion Thursday in the Castellaw Communications Center, focusing on the newspaper’s coverage of former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin and the current state and future of the newspaper industry.
The discussion was part of a series of events celebrating the legacy of journalism education at Baylor, particularly the graduating class of 1958 to 1976, which is referred to as the Cheavens-McHam era.
Dougherty took his first journalism class with Dr. David McHam. At the time, he said he took the class only to fulfill degree his requirements. Dougherty ultimately decided to pursue a career in journalism.
After working for other newspapers in Alaska, he was hired in 1980 by the Anchorage Daily News. He has since held other leadership roles, culminating in the position of executive editor in 1998.
The Anchorage Daily News gained widespread attention for its coverage of Palin.
“She has been such a presence for the life of our newspaper,” Dougherty said.
The benefits received by covering Palin were mutual as the “paper was actually very crucial to the rise of Sarah Palin,” he said.
“The relationship between the paper and Palin was actually pretty good,” Dougherty added. “We had a few disagreements on policy, but really we were her strong supporters.”
Despite the paper’s support, Dougherty said he was shocked to hear Palin would be running for vice president alongside Sen. John McCain.
Dougherty said he then recognized that things would change, as the announcement brought worldwide scrutiny to Palin and a close examination of the paper that had followed her from the beginning: the Anchorage Daily News.
“Everyone in the world was calling because nobody’s ever heard of Sarah Palin. A year after the announcement our paper had 175 million page hits online,” he said.
Throughout her time in the spotlight before and after the 2008 elections, Dr. Brad Owens, a senior lecturer in journalism, said Palin has been questioned for her ability to handle criticism. So has the Anchorage Daily News.
“The Daily News itself has had those same questions raised,” Owens said. “Pat and other competitors face criticism and critical coverage and arguably competitive reporting from blogs, from talk-radio, from the urban weekly and news sources.”
Dougherty said the paper struggled from the recession and the competitive news market. When he started, the Anchorage Daily News had 104 employees. Today, that number is 34.
In this tough environment, the paper has had to adapt, he said. Palin brought in huge hits on the paper’s website, and today 17 percent of its total revenue is a result of the Internet.
The paper currently charges for online access to obituaries and wedding and engagement announcements and is considering charging for business announcements, Dougherty said. The Web version also offers more reader-generated content in the form of reader comments and submitted photos.
Although the question of whether printed newspapers will survive long term remains, Dougherty said he believes their success and failure is directly connected to the economy.
“Someday the economy will get better, and the [newspaper] survivors may do well,” Dougherty said.