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Oct. 18, 2010, 1:30 p.m.

Online journalist cuffed in Alaska explains his biz model

When I talked with the editor of a startup news site in Alaska, Tony Hopfinger, last week, he told me his business model is based on cultivating an audience inside the Frontier State, while still writing stories with a national appeal. Proof of concept! Hopfinger was handcuffed by Senate hopeful Joe Miller’s private security guards at a public campaign event Sunday in Anchorage — a story picked up by big political blogs, cable news, and the Associated Press.

The site, Alaska Dispatch, appears to be wobbling under the traffic, going down from time to time.

“Alaska has a lot of appeal beyond its borders,” Hopfinger told me a few days before the cuffing incident, referring to politics (you may have heard of up-and-comer Sarah Palin), industry, and environment stories. “Certainly we are focused on building our Alaska readership, but we also have readers interested in the state beyond.”

Hopfinger started the site during the 2008 presidential race when he was stringing for national news outlets like Bloomberg and Newsweek.

In the spring, Hopfinger raised investment money from now-publisher Alice Rogoff, formerly the CFO of U.S. News and World Report, to expand his staff. The site now employs 10 reporters and editors, plus a small ad sales team. Hopfinger hopes good reporting with a hybrid local-national appeal will draw in enough advertising to make the site sustainable in the next few years. “I think if you hustle and you work hard at it, you’re going to find there are many businesses that want to try online advertising,” he said.

About 100 Alaska-based businesses have bought ads so far, and he says many have signed on for year-long contracts at rates competitive with the largest newspaper in the state, the Anchorage Daily News.

His pitch for typical local businesses is straightforward: Alaska Dispatch reaches locals. But because many businesses are dependent on tourists, local businesses in Alaska also care about outsiders. Hopfinger hopes eventually to tap into the advertising budgets of hotels, cruise lines, and other tourist-based industries.

The site draws in about 7,000 unique visitors per day, spiking to 10,000-12,000 when they have a big story. Hopfinger says about 50 to 60 percent of users are Alaskans.

“Once we break even, we’re not like McClatchy looking to get 20 percent profits,” he told me. “Once we hit that, we’re going to reinvest in the journalism. We’re not interested in these big profits.”

Just the big stories.

POSTED     Oct. 18, 2010, 1:30 p.m.
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