A copy of Howard Weaver’s memoir “Write Hard, Die Free” rests on an ink-splotched guard rail in front of the Peninsula Clarion’s defunct Goss Suburban printing press in Kenai, Alaska, on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

A copy of Howard Weaver’s memoir “Write Hard, Die Free” rests on an ink-splotched guard rail in front of the Peninsula Clarion’s defunct Goss Suburban printing press in Kenai, Alaska, on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Off the Shelf: ‘Write Hard, Die Free’ an exciting and incisive window into history of Alaska, journalism

Immediately after the death of legendary Anchorage reporter and editor Howard Weaver, I picked up a copy of his memoir

I never knew a time when newspapers were successful. Maybe I never will. When I started as a reporter at the Clarion, it was a very small operation — and against all odds it’s managed to grow smaller in the years since. Our story is hardly unique.

Immediately after the death of legendary Anchorage reporter and editor Howard Weaver, I picked up a copy of his memoir, “Write Hard, Die Free.” I scoffed at its subtitle — “Dispatches from the Battlefields and Barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War.” The text centers on his decades-spanning struggle to see the Anchorage Daily News rise from the shadow of the Anchorage Times and ultimately see its competition wholly eliminated.

It’s not that I can’t imagine a time when newspapers were successful enough to war over subscribers and advertisers — there’s enough empty desks and unused space in the Clarion’s cavernous building to paint a picture of a very different operation not-so-long ago. Instead, the idea of such a war seems almost cynical and antithetical to my views on journalism — I think we need more reporters in Alaska, not fewer. I can’t imagine celebrating the downfall and loss of another outlet, and I’ve already seen another local newspaper fold.

From the first chapters, my derision was proven misplaced. Throughout “Write Hard, Die Free,” Weaver shares anecdotes that sprawl across decades of reporting in Anchorage, mostly at the Anchorage Daily News. He openly confronts his flaws, but endlessly describes his love for and earnest belief in reporting — in an early passage, he fails to argue when his first wife says he loves the newsroom more than her.

In reporting, Weaver writes, he found community and he found purpose — most specifically, “a crusade to create journalism worthy of what Alaska meant to me.”

His “Great Alaska Newspaper War” was a righteous endeavor, he writes, because of failings he perceived in the Times in reporting for the whole community, especially by the end of the war when its owner was part of “Big Oil.”

Before reaching that end, Weaver writes sharply and insightfully, constantly rolling from one story to the next in a depiction of Alaska journalism from before the turn of the century that reads entirely like fantasy.

On one page he’s grappling with the realities of reporting on “someone’s husband,” the next he’s tailing “known associates” of an Arizona crime family through Anchorage. He describes Alaska newsrooms with as many as 90 people in them — a far cry from the Clarion’s three — and an instance where his newspaper bought a boat to cover the Exxon-Valdez spill after failing to acquire a charter.

In one odd aside he mentions and presents evidence of his own preternatural insight into a digital future years before it arrived. The ADN was one of the first newspapers to explore a digital presence in the 1980s. Weaver writes that he regrets not doing more to push forward journalism in the earliest days of a digital revolution that would largely leave newspapers behind.

“Why didn’t I do more about it?” he asks. “That’s a question that troubles me still.”

Repeatedly, Weaver shares his views of what good journalism is and isn’t, he grapples vulnerably with his own failings, and he pontificates on leadership that created strong journalists. Throughout, he maintains that Alaska, specifically, deserves quality reporting that it won’t get from Outside. That means writing with purpose and intention, telling valuable stories and ignoring what’s boring.

I’m a sicko for an overly generous — even naive — perspective on journalism as a service of tremendous value. I think reporting matters, which is why I do it, and I was wholly swept up Weaver’s grandiose ideals for better journalism in Alaska.

“Our dream is to produce a newspaper that truly serves this community without fear and without favor,” he writes.

I was less enamored with his extremely favorable perspective on corporate ownership of newspapers — of course, he did go on to be a vice president at McClatchy. I’ve long thought corporate chains and hedge funds to be the biggest threat to journalism in America, so I had a little trouble stomaching “McClatchy’s corporate support was the singular ingredient without which none of this could have happened.”

“Write Hard, Die Free” is an intricately detailed window into an era of journalism — and Alaska as a whole — long gone. It kept me enthralled and left me fired up, despite concluding on a real dour note where Weaver leaves Alaska with his heartbroken, grappling with the impacts of capitalism on the newsroom he once helmed, facing disillusionment in some of the ideals he once clung to so resolutely.

In its final pages he teases a new understanding of Alaska that he intended to explore in another book, but that doesn’t seem ever to have been published before his death last year. Nevertheless, the excitement I felt as I pored over his idealistic views of what newspapers and more broadly journalists can and should be left an impression, and his stories certainly entertained.

“Write Hard, Die Free” was published by Epicenter Press in 2012.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

More in Life

Calzones stuffed with arugula pesto and cheese make for a fun summer meal. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Pedaling forward

These calzones are great after a day of trotting alongside a brave little boy

Ryan Reynolds plays Deadpool and Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine in “Deadpool & Wolverine.” (Promotional photo courtesy Marvel Studios)
On the Screen: ‘Deadpool and Wolverine’ brings crass jokes, heart to MCU

It’s a bizarre love letter to an era of superhero cinema that probably was better left forgotten

Sierra Ferrell performs on the River Stage at Salmonfest in Ninilchik, Alaska, on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Salmonfest returns Aug. 2-4 for ‘musically infused family reunion’

The three-day event will feature art, festivities and an array of performers

Gold Peak play the opening set of the Seventh Annual Rock’N the Ranch at the Rusty Ravin on Friday, July 7, 2023, at Rusty Ravin Plant Ranch in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Gold Peak play the opening set of the Seventh Annual Rock’N the Ranch at the Rusty Ravin on Friday, July 7, 2023, at Rusty Ravin Plant Ranch in Kenai. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Music fest returns to RustyRavin

The annual nonprofit music festival is a fundraiser for Nuk’it’un, a transitional home for men

Lisa Parker, vice mayor of Soldotna, celebrates after throwing the ceremonial first pitch before a game between the Peninsula Oilers and the Mat-Su Miners on Tuesday, July 4, 2023, at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
King of the River food drive extended, Kenai takes lead

The winning city’s mayor will throw the opening pitch at a Peninsula Oilers game

File
Minister’s Message: The gift of lament

We don’t always know what to do in those difficult parts of life.

Chickpea lentil and spinach curry is served with rice and yogurt. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Finding comfort in memories

I believe that houses hold memories, and I hope the memory of our time there comforts it during its final, painful days.

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Good old summertime

The lupines are crazy this year, as were the dandelions.

This advertisement for the Hilltop Bar and Café, the successor to the Circus Bar, appeared in 1962. The names under “Beer and Booze” refer to co-owners Swede Foss and Steve Henry King. (Advertisement contributed by Jim Taylor)
A violent season — Part 5

Bush did not deny killing Jack Griffiths in October 1961, but he claimed to have had no choice in order to protect himself.

Most Read