Howard Weaver, Who Helped an Alaska Newspaper Win 3 Pulitzers, Dies at 73

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The Anchorage Daily News was the smallest newspaper and the first in the state to earn the medal for public service in 1976. It then won two more.

Howard Weaver, a self-described “poor kid from a shabby neighborhood,” was 24 years old and terrified when he was assigned by the floundering Anchorage Daily News to expose a rapacious chapter of the Teamsters union that was corruptly profiting from Alaska’s oil pipeline boom.

“Any way you sliced it,” he recalled, “the odds were against us, a mismatch of Goliathian proportions.”

But Mr. Weaver was hungry. Hungry enough that after months of investigative reporting, he and his colleagues exposed “a complex maze of political, economic and social power,” which, they wrote, “challenges at times both mighty industry and state government itself.”

Three weeks before The Daily News declared that it was on the brink of bankruptcy, the scrappy newspaper with a circulation of about 13,000 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1976 for its reporting on Teamsters Local 959. It was the smallest paper and the first in Alaska to win the coveted medal.

The Daily News survived, and Mr. Weaver eventually became its editor. In 1989, he mobilized almost half the paper’s 75-member news staff to investigate the twin plagues of alcoholism and suicide among Native Alaskans. The resulting nine-part series, “A People in Peril,” documented how “among a growing percentage of Alaska Natives, life has become equal parts violence, disintegration and despair,” and traced the cause to “the constant assault of Western institutions, Western diseases and Western economies” that were “destroying the fabric of Native life.”

The Daily News won a second Pulitzer for public service for that series — a remarkable feat for any newspaper, especially a small-town one.

And in 2020, The Daily News won a third Pulitzer for public service, this time for an exposé of failures of the criminal justice system, published in partnership with ProPublica. David Hulen, the Daily News editor and an alumnus of the Weaver years, credited the “institutional D.N.A.” influenced by Mr. Weaver.

“One of the lessons from those years,” Mr. Hulen said, “was you don’t have to live in a big urban center to expect extraordinary things from your local newsroom.”

Howard Weaver died on Dec. 14 at his home in Sacramento. He was 73. The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, his wife, Barbara Hodgin, said.

“When he looked back on his life, his narrative was ‘poor boy makes good,’” Ms. Hodgin said in a phone interview. “As he aged, he was very proud of his professional accomplishments. He tried to use journalism for the people who had no power.”

Mr. Weaver in 1989 receiving a call announcing that the paper won its second Pulitzer for public service.Jim Lavrakas/ADN

Howard Cecil Weaver was born on Oct. 15, 1950, in the Northeast neighborhood of Anchorage, the son of Dust Bowl Democrats who had moved from West Texas. His father, also named Howard, was a union carpenter. His mother, Eloise (Gamble) Weaver, was a bookkeeper at a lumber yard. His parents were alcoholics and died young, he said; he stopped drinking in 1985.

His passion for journalism was first piqued in high school, when, as a boy scout on a flood relief mission in Fairbanks, he bonded with an Anchorage Daily News reporter. As a high school junior, he signed on as a stringer, feeding varsity wrestling and hockey results to the paper’s sports department.

After high school, he attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on a scholarship and graduated with a degree in international relations in 1972. When he returned to the newspaper as a reporter, one of his earliest assignments was a sensational murder trial on Kodiak Island, so remote that he had to transmit his reporting by telegraph. For years, as a two-finger typist, he exuberantly turned out one major article after another.

“I produced a steady flow of stories that played on the front page,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, “Write Hard, Die Free,” whose title borrowed from the Hells Angels motto “Ride hard, die free.” “Every day was Christmas.”

After winning the 1976 Pulitzer with the reporters Bob Porterfield and Jim Babb, Mr. Weaver left the foundering Daily News to launch a statewide investigative weekly, The Alaska Advocate, which targeted oil and gas exploration companies and the conservative Anchorage Times, the state’s largest paper.

The Advocate folded within a few years, but The Daily News survived, thanks to a financial infusion from the McClatchy newspaper chain, which bought the paper in 1979, and the oil boom that bolstered the city’s economy. Mr. Weaver, 29, returned as its editor, embarking on a cutthroat competition with The Times, which claimed about 46,000 readers to The Daily News’s 11,000.

His editorial strategy was straightforward: “Reader centered, philosophically transparent and intellectually aggressive.” By 1987, The Daily News had overtaken its rival in circulation, although both papers were losing money.

After The Times folded in 1992, Mr. Weaver took a year off to earn a Master of Philosophy degree in polar studies from the University of Cambridge. He then moved to McClatchy headquarters in California, where he managed the company’s transition to digital media, wrote editorials for The Sacramento Bee and became the vice president for news, overseeing the editorial operation of the company’s 31 newspapers from 2001 to 2008, when he retired to a ranch near Sacramento.

His first marriage, to Alice Gauchay, ended in divorce. He married Ms. Hodgin, who worked with him on The Advocate and became an administrator of a nonprofit organization in Alaska, in 1975. She survives him. A younger brother, Mark, died in 2007.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Weaver lamented that despite his newspaper’s work uncovering scandals, deceitful business practices and corrupt politicians, Alaskans had been seduced by Big Oil.

He wrote in his memoir: “I had taken up a crusader’s banner two decades before to fight for the things I believed in: my parents’ naïve idealism, the romance and history that made Alaska special, proof that poor boys could make good and, most of all, an enduring belief that telling the truth would change things — that people would make good choices if only they understood.”

But “to one degree or another, I left with all those illusions dimmed or tarnished,” he wrote. “My faith that the human spirit turned instinctively toward the light was shaken. It sure hadn’t worked that way in Alaska.”

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