A reporter who says he was essentially stranded in Dutch Harbor after a rural newspaper chain folded has launched his own news website, in hopes of bringing a local voice to an international audience interested in everything from Bering Sea crabbers to the town's often-rollicking police blotter.
The Dutch Harbor Telegraph hung out its digital shingle about two weeks ago, after James Mason powered up his computers and plunked down $60 for a newsletter template he purchased online.
As one of the few reporters in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor -- the country's No. 1 commercial fishing port and the setting for the hit TV show “The Deadliest Catch,” -- Mason has already received some worldwide attention. That includes a call from a London radio station that wanted a live interview on the police-blotter happenings featured on his site.
"I said, 'Well, there was an incident reported recently, which happens to me a lot by the way. A guy's girlfriend disappears. He calls police. They come and when they're at the house taking the report, she reappears, drunk, topless, and riding on the shoulders of another man."
Mason's been in the news business for decades, including as a photographer during the war in former Yugoslavia. His favorite thing about the fledgling site and working as a one-man show? Not having to listen to editors, including those "visually illiterate idiots" who have butchered his photos so they fit into tiny newspaper spaces.
The Dutch Harbor Telegraph is still developmental -- and optimistic -- with blank slots for ads and upcoming stories, such as technology articles. But Mason's already posted items on topics of national interest, including about the rat-harboring pirate ship, the Bangun Perkasa, that U.S. Sen. Mark Begich wanted blown to bits.
His debut article? An editorial clamoring for faster Internet service on the island. “Without a fast and stable Internet we'll become an Internet black hole, the modern equivalent of a spot on a mariner's chart that says, ‘Here there be monsters!’ "
Mason, 63, reached rural Alaska via San Francisco, where he owned a bike shop before heading to the Far North in 1998. He worked on the Anchorage Daily News' Web site for a while. Then one day on the drive to work, he had an epiphany.
"I did not move to Alaska to sit at stoplights," he told himself. He quit immediately.
A few days later, he called up Alaska Newspapers Inc. (ANI) after learning of a job opening at the remote Arctic Sounder weekly newspaper. He says he had a job before he hung up the phone, and was soon on his way to a Bush community 550 miles northwest of Anchorage.
After several years reporting in Kotzebue, the company fired him. They hired him back this summer, sending him to Unalaska to work at the Dutch Harbor Fisherman weekly newspaper in the Aleutian Islands. The lone newspaper employee, he pumped out a couple of issues. Then ANI parent company Calista Corp. announced it would shut the chain down.
The company promised to fly him back, but didn’t offer the same deal for all the stuff he'd shipped on his own: The SUV and the container van with personal belongings that cost several thousand bucks to get from Anchorage, 800 miles northwest of the island, he said.
So Mason stuck around. Dutch Harbor is rich with news, and there are plenty of scoops for Unalaska's few reporters, two of whom work at the local radio station.
Who knows if the website will make money, said Mason, who added that he's comfortable enough to "cruise" financially these days. So what's his goal? A Pulitzer?
Nah, he’s not interested in prizes. He just wants to tell local news online, and build an audience ranging from his neighbors to the commercial fishermen, adventure-seekers and other globe-trotters who work seasonally in Unalaska. So far, he's only heard positive comments from residents happy to see another journalist in town. That's what he cares about for now.
"I work totally for the reader, and my interest is to ride this wild hog wherever it's going," he said.
(Full disclosure: As a former ANI editor overseeing Mason, the writer of this article is surely one of those "visually illiterate idiots" who played a role in Mason's professional past.)
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com.