The Wrangell Sentinel office (in the far right building with the brown awning) on Front Street.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Alaska’s oldest continuously-published newspaper will soon be under new ownership. The Wrangell Sentinel will return to one of its previous owners at the beginning of 2021.

Listen to the story here.

This won’t be the first time Larry Persily has owned the Wrangell Sentinel. He and his late wife Leslie Murray bought the paper in 1976 and moved to Wrangell. They sold it to a pair from Anchorage in 1984. But he says those owners drove the paper into the ground. 

“I bought it back out of bankruptcy,” Persily said, “and then Seanne Gillen ran it, and then she sold it to the Loesches, I think about 17 years ago.”

The Loesches, of course, being Ron and Anne Loesch of Petersburg, who’ve owned the Sentinel since 2003. They also publish the Petersburg Pilot newspaper. Persily got word the Loesches were moving toward retirement. 

“I thought, well, gee, maybe this is a good time to separate the papers again,” he explained.

Ron Loesch confirmed he’s trying to scale down a bit.

“Someday I’d like to retire,” Loesch said. “And this is one of the ways to do it.”

Baby steps. He’s keeping the Petersburg Pilot. For now.

“At some point, we’ll probably sell that paper too,” Loesch added.

Persily doesn’t live in Wrangell anymore. He’s finishing up a visiting professorship at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He says he’s planning to spend more time in Wrangell once he takes over the paper early next year. 

But the 70-year-old veteran newsman isn’t planning on holding on to the Sentinel for long. 

“At some point,” Persily said, “[I’ll] turn it over to someone who lives in town to be the owner. I don’t want to own it and edit it from Anchorage or Juneau for the next 10 or 20 years. I would like it eventually to become a wholly locally owned, operated, and edited paper.”

It’s not the first time Persily has bought a struggling Alaska weekly and basically handed it over to a new owner. He loaned money to someone looking to invest in the Chilkat Valley News in Haines. He bought the Skagway News in 2019, invested in the operation and sold it for a token $20 dollars.

“Put some money into it to get it stable again, and then just turned it over to someone who would live there happily ever after. Of course, the happily ever after part didn’t quite work out since, there’s [been] no cruise ship season [this year].”

Persily says locally owned, locally operated local papers are central to small Alaska communities. He says he wants to do what he can to revitalize robust local news in Wrangell and elsewhere.

“The economics aren’t great, but I can solve that problem by writing a check,” Persily said. “That’s the easy part. So now it’s a matter of getting more news in the paper, making the website better. And kind of build it back up to what it once was.”

He also wants to add more meat to the Sentinel’s bones.

He elaborated: “[I want to] add more pages to it. Eight-page papers aren’t a newspaper, eight-page papers are just a sheet of newsprint blowing in the wind. So we’ll print more pages, which means we’re going to have to have more news in, more photos. I’d like to add to coverage of interest to people in Wrangell, such as the ferry system, state budgeting, and issues that are relevant to people in Wrangell, even if they’re not necessarily that week’s borough assembly meeting.”

That will probably mean collaboration and maybe some co-reporting from other Southeast Alaska news organisations. He says he’s keeping an open mind. 

Larry Persily got his start in journalism, writing for various Anchorage papers, the Associated Press, and Petroleum News. He was a federal coordinator for Alaska gas line projects under former President Barack Obama, and an oil and gas industry expert as well as a deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue.  Lately, he’s been the visiting Atwood Chair of Journalism at University of Alaska Anchorage and, working with local governments to disburse their CARES Act pandemic relief. He’s worn many hats.

One hat Persily says he won’t wear? Social media manager. He wants to focus on the Sentinel’s print edition and website: “Don’t expect me to do Facebook or Twitter because I’ve never done either in my life and I’m not about to change at the moment.”

Terms of the sale were not disclosed. Both Persily and current owner Loesch say details are still being ironed out, but Persily says he expects to formally take ownership of the Sentinel either in January or February. The Sentinel’s lone reporter, Caleb Vierkant, will remain covering the community.

This article has been updated with corrections. A previous version incorrectly stated Persily’s late wife was named Marie. Her name was Leslie Murray. It also misidentified the journalism chairship, which is the Atwood Chair, not Atworth.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.