June 1, 2023 — Melinda Munson & Gretchen Wehmhoff — We bought the free paper: inadvertently becoming the state’s two oldest interns

Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff purchased The Skagway News for $20 in early 2020. While preparing to travel to Skagway with Melinda’s family of seven children in February, the Diamond Princess remained docked in Japan with a deadly outbreak of a new virus, COVID-19. Two weeks after taking ownership in March, a pandemic was declared, borders were closed and the cruise ship industry was dead in the water. The new owners published one paper before being closed off from their printer in Whitehorse, Yukon. The lack of cruise ship capital crippled the small town of Skagway whose economy is 90% dependent on tourism.

The tale of the paper is a mirror of the tale of the town of Skagway. Two women took a leap of faith in their journalistic skills and each other to keep The Skagway News alive and their own lives in balance. The Skagway News is surviving, but the challenges have not stopped, including a major rockslide on the largest cruise ship dock in town, which threatens to shut down half the town’s income.

Munson and Wehmhoff have learned about the job, themselves and each other as they make tough decisions in the name of keeping The Skagway News alive.

In November 2019, Melinda Munson, a long-term substitute teacher and part-time freelance journalist living in Chugiak, saw an article in the Anchorage Daily News in which Publisher Larry Persily promised to give The Skagway News to the best applicants willing to move to the remote Southeast Alaska town of 800 year-round residents. She talked her dubious colleague, Gretchen Wehmhoff, into applying as a team. Melinda didn’t tell her husband about the application until Persily made contact. Lucky for her, her spouse didn’t ask for a divorce. By March of 2020, Munson, her husband and her seven kids sold their home and drove 800 miles to live in a pricey 1,300 foot rental where they would encounter Covid-19 and rockslides that nearly destroyed the town’s economy – and the paper.

A believer in small town journalism and now 50% owner of a newspaper – a job Melinda didn’t even think to dream up – she is learning how to shop in a rural grocery store (freeze everything) report on local politics without getting embroiled (don’t sign petitions) and be an editor in a place so small, the residents literally know what she is having for dinner.

Gretchen Wehmhoff, a retired journalism teacher, advised the award-winning Chugiak Pegasus for over two decades. She co-owns The Skagway News with Melinda Munson.

Wehmhoff moved to Alaska in 1965 with her family. For the Wehmhoffs, education was an expectation. Both her parents had degrees. Her mother had two and her grandfather and both of her grandmothers also held degrees. Wehmhoff’s entire life was spent surrounded by strong female role models through family, Girl Scouting, work and volunteerism.

Wehmhoff was the public relations director for Susitna Girl Scout Council, did layout for the Anchorage Daily News, then began teaching in 1985, first in Kenai, then with the Anchorage School District.

Upon retirement from teaching, Wehmhoff’s dream was to operate a newspaper that paid young journalists. While teaching, she took students on more than a dozen trips to national journalism conferences, introduced them to local press and journeyed with them through multiple First Amendment battles – successfully.

After retiring in 2009, she freelanced for local newspapers covering news in the Chugiak/Eagle River area. Wehmhoff entered politics, running for the Alaska Legislature and Anchorage Assembly. She was appointed to finish the term of the Chugiak/Eagle River assembly member in 2018-19.

She currently teaches communication courses for the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff