In the mid-1960s, Kay Field, an elegant banker's daughter, was frustrated and depressed with her comfortable life in Chicago. So she divorced...

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“Kay Fanning’s Alaska Story”
by Kay Fanning
with Katherine Field Stephen
Epicenter Press,
255 pp., $24.95

In the mid-1960s, Kay Field, an elegant banker’s daughter, was frustrated and depressed with her comfortable life in Chicago. So she divorced her husband, Chicago newspaper publisher and department-store magnate Marshall Field IV; quit the Junior League and joined the Urban League; stopped drinking, smoking and popping tranquilizers; and converted to Christian Science, which was to inform her life thereafter.

Then she moved herself and her three children to Alaska, soon married Larry Fanning, one of the great newspaper editors of his generation, and embarked on the improbable journalistic adventure that is the subject of her memoir, “Kay Fanning’s Alaska Story: Memoir of a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper Publisher on America’s Northern Frontier.”

In 1967, the Fannings pooled their life savings — Kay had not sought a divorce settlement from Field — and bought the Anchorage Daily News, the No. 2 newspaper in a frontier town with a population of about 100,000, for $461,056. This was a grandly Quixotic gesture. The Daily News had never made money and, the Fannings were warned, was unlikely to.

But the Fannings were idealists. They loved their new home state but were unsettled by the monochromatic tone of public discourse. As Kay puts it in this memoir, “Alaska needed an alternative voice to the often strident big business-building polemics of the Anchorage Times.”

They were determined to provide that — and did, against long odds.

Larry had the journalistic reputation — he was managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle at age 26 and later edited both the Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News for Marshall Field during one of the last and most colorful big-city newspaper wars against Col. Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune and American. But he was stricken by a fatal heart attack at his desk at the Anchorage Daily News in February 1971 at age 56. Larry left an indelible mark, but the truly extraordinary chapters of the Daily News story were written by Kay after his death.

In an astonishing two decades she learned both the news and business sides of the newspaper business from scratch, guided a feisty little newspaper that was perpetually broke to a Pulitzer Prize, found a way to ensure its future at its bleakest moment and became one of the most admired women in U.S. journalism.

Her story deserves a thorough telling, but this memoir takes us only part way there. Kay died in 2000 at age 73 before completing a full draft; her memoir ends with Larry’s death. Kay’s elder daughter, Katherine Field Stephen, solicited 17 reminiscences from friends and employees to flesh out the rest of the story, and each adds something to our understanding of Kay and what she accomplished. They do not, however, make up for her missing voice.

The Fannings fought a lonely and sometimes bitter struggle against Bob Atwood’s very profitable Anchorage Times and most of the state’s business and political structure, which hewed to the frontier boom-and-bust creed of build it now and worry about it later.

Kay never budged from her commitment to journalism that she believed advanced civic goals, even if it alienated the powerful. Her crowning achievement was an investigation of Teamsters Union Local 959, which had grown fat and very powerful off the river of money that flowed into the state to develop the Prudhoe Bay oil field and the pipeline to carry the oil to Valdez. That series won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the most prestigious award in American journalism.

In late 1978, when it appeared certain that the Daily News would, finally, die, Kay convinced the late C.K. McClatchy, then president of McClatchy Newspapers, that he ought to buy the Daily News. Her megawatt charm and sunny optimism seem to have beguiled McClatchy, who also was intrigued by the possibility of saving a renowned little paper and establishing a business foothold in a city that had a lot of promise. McClatchy lost millions before making a cent, but won the war: The Anchorage Times folded in 1992.

Kay left the Daily News in 1983 to become editor of the Christian Science Monitor, where she campaigned for the kind of journalism and civic values she had always advocated.

When the American Society of Newspaper Editors elected her its first woman president she said, “Profit is not the purpose of the press, as protected by the First Amendment; the free, unfettered flow of ideas is. In the end, ideas are more powerful than dollars.”

Allan Frank, who was a reporter at the Daily News, says in his reminiscence, “Kay Fanning was, in life, the character Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly always tried to be in the movies.”

She was that, certainly, and a whole lot more.

Note: The publisher, Epicenter Press, is donating profits to a charity of Kay Fanning’s choice.

Tom Brown worked for the Anchorage Daily News in 1968-73 as a reporter and editorial page editor.