Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The Big Story Written Small."
“I’m a great believer in newspapers,” says “Butch” A.L. Alford Jr., publisher of the Morning Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho. Many publishers voice that faith, but Alford is among the few who really live by it.
His grandfather and great-uncle founded the Morning Tribune in 1892, and his father later ran it. Butch Alford signed on as a reporter in 1961, fresh out of the University of Oregon with a journalism degree, and worked his way up the ladder, becoming publisher in 1968.
Over the years, Alford, now 65, has fought to keep the Morning Tribune under local ownership. When others in the family wanted a higher return on their investment in the 1980s, they sold a majority interest to a Utah company that ran the Salt Lake Tribune. When that company was swallowed by telecom giant TCI in 1997, Alford feared he would be forced to cut the newsroom staff. He recruited private investors and bought back control of the paper, outbidding several chains that were hungry for it.
Alford says he believes in “the passion of private, independent ownership” because “there’s more opportunity to do a better job. The heartbeat is stronger.”
It’s also nerve-racking. Alford is paying off more than $20 million in loans, because the deal also made him an owner of two other dailies and two weeklies. That makes the Morning Tribune’s budget temporarily tight.
Still, with a circulation of 25,000, the Morning Tribune has 32 newsroom staffers — about the average for a paper its size. To pay his staff top dollar, Alford would likely have to thin the ranks. Instead, he tries to keep staffers happy by donating newspaper stock to an employee stock-ownership program. Last year, employees received stock amounting to 34 percent of their salaries, he says.
“It’s less squeezing than if the paper was being run by one of the chains,” Alford says. “And it’s an opportunity for the employees to own some of the action.”
Though the staff may be smaller than Alford would like, the Morning Tribune does “a very good job covering environmental issues, especially compared to other daily papers (of similar size),” says Jonathan Oppenheimer, regional representative for the Idaho Conservation League.
The Morning Tribune has worked with other Idaho papers on statewide news projects, covering the problems plaguing rural communities and the health of the Snake River. Recently, the paper’s full-time environmental reporter, Eric Barker, has done projects on salmon and forest health. “We take a lot of pride” in the coverage, Barker says. “We definitely struggle a bit to cover all the issues, but I get the chance to break loose from daily stories and do deeper work.”
Alford is one of the 400-plus Western journalists who belong to the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a group that advocates for newsrooms to take priority over profits. Newspapers play an essential role in a democracy by informing citizens, says Alford. With the pressure to increase profits, “Let’s hope they continue to have that role.
“Small, independent papers can be The New York Times on a local front,” he says. “The best journalism is like sailing — it can be done in a small boat. You don’t need a yacht.”