Winning journalism’s top award confirmed Fanning’s quest for journalistic excellence, but didn’t pay any bills
By Howard Weaver
When you win a Pulitzer Prize people naturally start asking, “What’s it like?” The answer is complicated, of course, but over the years I’ve settled on a short response that’s both honest and economical: “It’s like lightning striking,” I tell them.
On May 5, 1976, that lightning struck in Alaska for the first time.
A ringing telephone in the second-floor newsroom of the Anchorage Daily News conveyed the unimaginable news that a tiny, struggling daily on the edge of North America had won not just a Pulitzer, but the celebrated Gold Medal prize for Public Service. The paper was among the smallest ever to have captured that award, its staff one of the youngest. The journalistic excellence and community service that had animated Kay and Larry Fanning in buying the paper and sustained her in preserving it had been stunningly confirmed.
Only weeks after that proud moment, the paper announced that it stood at the brink of bankruptcy, soliciting community support for survival. A few months later about 40 percent of the newsroom staff was laid off for lack of money. The replica gold medals distributed to the writers seemed accompanied by a distinctly bittersweet taste, yet the prize held within it the seeds of one of the country’s most improbable newspaper success stories.
Within the next 15 years, the editor and publisher who launched the prize-winning project would depart to edit an international newspaper; her fledgling little daily would go on to eclipse its long-time rival to become the state’s largest paper; and the Daily News staff would learn, by winning another Pulitzer, that lightning really can strike twice.
Perhaps the portent of such success glimmered deep in Kay Fanning’s well of perpetual optimism on that sunny day in May, but none of the rest of us had a clue.
Even before we published the project called “Empire: The Alaska Teamsters Story,” the odds seemed stacked against us. For starters, our subject had somehow attracted the attention of a competitor that probably didn’t even recognize we were playing the same game.
One good thing about being local: when somebody from out of town shows up and starts asking questions, chances are you’ll hear.
That was the good news. The bad news was that what we heard was this: the mighty L.A. Times was in the state – a whole TEAM of reporters, people said – and they were covering the same ground our little paper had been laboring over for months.
Just how powerful was the Alaska Teamsters union? How wide open were things in Alaska during those Klondike-Dodge-City days of trans-Alaska pipeline construction? And what about these rumors of organized crime?
Bob Porterfield and I had been asking those questions for a couple of months already by the time we heard the L.A. Times was in the state sniffing around. Dispatched by Fanning and directed by Executive Editor Stan Abbott, we’d set out to examine pervasive rumors about the wealth, power and operating technique of Alaska’s most potent labor union. By that point we’d uncovered reams of previously unreported information, but very little of it would fit under the kind of “Union goons rape state” headline that some 24-year old reporters – like me – might have imagined.
Alaska Teamsters Local 959 had a reputation that encouraged such speculation, to be sure. You could hear the stories at any legislative watering hole in Juneau, any lawyers’ luncheon in Anchorage or any union bar in Fairbanks. But you sure couldn’t find anybody to quote. By that time Porterfield and I had learned first-hand the truth of the old newsroom cliché: those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk – not for attribution, anyhow.
But I suppose it’s easier to be bold when your newsroom is 2,300 miles away; when the L.A. Times team got back to California, anything they had learned, they shouted. On Nov. 18, 1975, the paper featured a bold, front page banner headline: Crime Wave Strangles Alaska. Their lead: “Widespread lawlessness, a helpless government and the stranglehold of a single Teamsters Union chief severely threaten a state crucial to the nation’s future energy independence.”
As we read that, our own investigation was still weeks away from publication. “Crime Wave Strangles Alaska.” Damn. Sitting in the newsroom in my home town, I wondered how we could have missed a thing like that.
Still we labored on in the paper’s Fifth Avenue newsroom, a bright, newly constructed space with the ambience of an insurance office, leased from the rival Anchorage Times under an agreement by which it managed everything but our journalism. Two of our dozen staffers had been working on the project nearly fulltime for months, and a third had recently joined in, which obviously strained remaining editors and reporters even more than usual. It seemed somehow symbolic when the electricity failed one evening near deadline; a gas-powered lantern augmented Anchorage’s waning autumn twilight, and we kept writing.
As publication day approached, I tried out one proposed lead after another, stretching for as much drama as I thought the facts could sustain. Still, our series was a good deal less dramatic than L.A.’s. The lead article Fanning finally approved ran under a question-mark headline – “Teamsters: how much power?” – and began this way: “Teamsters Union Local 959 is fashioning an empire in Alaska, stretching across an ever-widening slice of the life from the infant oil frontier to the heart of the state’s major city. “
Rather than breathlessly decrying generalized lawlessness and helplessness, ADN reported on more concrete realities: how much money were the union’s trust funds generating, and did the fact that they invested them with the state’s richest bank give the union influence? (It did.) Did financial ties between the union’s legendary lobbyist and various elected and appointed officials result in favorable decisions? (Sure enough.) Were there a surprising number of convicted felons on the roster at a Teamster-controlled warehouse supplying the trans-Alaska pipeline? (As a matter of fact, there were).
And while the hyperbole and “Outside agitator” status of the L.A. Times provoked outrage in the state, it was the steadier hometown reporting of Fanning’s Daily News that brought results. The final product was likewise an honest reflection of her steady judgment. Less flash. More substance. Ultimately, more impact.
Publishing the series required journalistic courage I couldn’t appreciate at the time. On a personal level, I entertained predictable “boy reporter” fantasies when my old VW bug caught fire in my driveway one evening, and the L.A. Times later reported that its reporters worked in pairs in Alaska “partly as a matter of safety.” But the genuine bravery involved was that of the beleaguered small-town publisher playing You-Bet-Your-Newspaper on a daily basis. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Kay was by this point only months away from the wrenching public acknowledgement that her paper was broke and close to folding. Still, instead of kissing up to the power structure in Anchorage, she gave us a flashlight and sent us looking in the shadows.
Any way you sliced it, the odds were against us, a mismatch of Goliathian proportions. The paper was at the time a distant number two contender even in Anchorage, claiming a circulation of a little more than 13,000 to the 45,000 of the Anchorage Times. (Perhaps it was coincidence that the bigger paper, though staunchly Republican on most matters, delivered little substantive criticism of the union that was making big deposits to the bank owned the publisher’s brother in law.) Stacked up against the L.A. Times, ADN’s odds looked incalculably longer; with a Sunday circulation then numbering 1.2 million and a staff of hundreds, the paper had already won eight Pulitzers, and its voice boomed where ours strained to whisper.
When contrasted with Local 959, the Daily News looked even more fragile. The union’s dues-paying membership was more than double the paper’s circulation and, as reporter Jim Babb detailed, its trust funds were growing by a million dollars a week. Where politicians jokingly asked the progressive ADN editorial page to do them a favor and not endorse them, the Teamsters enjoyed a widespread reputation as kingmakers – and backed it up with campaign cash and the delivery of disciplined voters.
Kay Fanning never told me why she decided to investigate the Teamsters. I didn’t ask, for the simple reason that I never wondered. I knew she did it because it was the right thing for the newspaper to do, a self-evident act of public service that many good newspapers elsewhere would have undertaken without a second thought.
The fact that tackling the project represented a rare act of independence and integrity says as much about the Anchorage power structure of the day as it does about Kay Fanning. The city’s ruling elite was as cohesive as it was insulated in those days: the state’s biggest union boss sat on the board of the state’s biggest bank, whose owner was the brother-in-law of the publisher of the state’s biggest newspaper. A lot of what went on in Anchorage then could be decided with no more advance work than booking a reservation for four at the Chart Room.
Kay Fanning stood outside that circle, partly by her choice and partly by theirs. What it cost her in dinner invitations and newspaper ads it repaid in independence, and she was splendidly unafraid to spend that capital.
Pulitzer jurors noticed. So did the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which later elected her its first woman president, and heard her say, “... profit is not the purpose of the press, as protected by [the] First Amendment; the free, unfettered flow of ideas is. In the end, ideas are more powerful than dollars.” And she would also be noticed, one day, by a similarly principled newspaper owner in Sacramento – an owner with a profitable operation, and a great deal more money to spend.
But that’s a chapter for later in this story.
A personal footnote: I was living in Juneau in 1976, the one-man legislative bureau of the Daily News. I was in Anchorage the day the Pulitzer was announced only because Kay – who knew about the victory beforehand – brought me to town under the pretense of planning for another Teamster installment. It was characteristically thoughtful, one of many classy, generous acts I’ll always remember.