At Columbia Journalism Review, Lauren Harris reports on the gritty determination of Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, a duo who became the owners of the Skagway News in a give-away. The pair, who are taking the paper into the modern age, are committed to making the publication a success — despite the effects of Covid-19 on a tourist town dependent on visiting cruise ships to survive.
IN 2019, LARRY PERSILY, owner of the Skagway News, announced that he would give away his local Alaskan publication to a person or a pair demonstrating journalistic skill, self-motivation, grit, and—above all—affectionate dedication to the quirks and quiddities of rural small-town reporting. National news outlets picked up the story as a sort of lark, emphasizing the remote and small-town nature of Skagway, the rarity of the giveaway, and then, in a few short lines, the challenges of sustaining critical local news coverage. In such stories, Persily was a Willy Wonka figure, courting a successor.
Among the applicants were Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff, teachers in the Anchorage area who cowrote a blog for Alaskan families. Munson and Wehmhoff envisioned a dream job not unlike that conjured in headlines: the freedom to write and the promise of a place in a tight-knit community. Over the course of months, Munson and Wehmhoff had several intense phone interviews with Persily; for some, they met in a room in the school building with the lights off, to avoid drawing the attention of their principal.
Persily took over the paper’s management in 2019, working from Anchorage—a distance of nearly eight hundred miles from Skagway, which he quickly came to believe was too far.
“You gotta be part of the town,” Persily says. “You gotta go to the basketball games. You gotta be a trusted part of the community.” He discounted applicants who envisioned doing the job “for a couple years” or who wondered about how much they could contribute annually to an IRA. “Small-town papers need small-town editors,” he says. “I wanted an owner who was going to live there happily ever after.”
GRETCHEN WEHMHOFF AND MELINDA MUNSON make a winning pair. Wehmhoff is garrulous and lively; Munson is eloquent and tempered. Munson writes and edits, in addition to managing childcare and remote schooling for six kids; Wehmhoff does everything else. Each shows an obvious faith in the other’s capabilities.
“Gretchen is a Renaissance lady: she can do layout, ads, business,” Munson says. “When Gretchen writes, she spits it out on the paper, then hands it to me to edit.”
“I wipe up a little bit of the spit,” Wehmhoff responds.