Same media 'whirlwind' that came to Janesville hit Wasilla, Alaska, in 2008
JANESVILLE Wasilla might be in Alaska, but about four years ago, it was in the same place that Janesville is in right now.
“It was like the Wizard of Oz,” said Greg Johnson, who was managing editor of the Wasilla, Alaska, newspaper when Sarah Palin was named John McCain’s running mate.
National media converged on the Alaskan city, which has a population of about 7,800.
“The tornado came, and it picked us all up,” Johnson said. “It didn’t set us down for eight months, and when it did, the house landed on us.
“It was a giant whirlwind.”
The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman publishes three times a week and has a staff of five.
“I think we didn’t sleep until the election was over,” said Johnson, who is now a copy editor and reporter for the Frontiersman.
How long will the media attention on Janesville last?
“It’s going to last a while,” Johnson said.
As if to illustrate that, when a Gazette reporter googled “Wasilla news,” the story that popped up was “Levi Johnston gets another chick pregnant.” Johnston dated Palin’s daughter four years ago and fathered her child.
Johnson wanted Gazette readers to know that the Johnston story did not run in his paper.
The difference between Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin is that Ryan’s name was already out there, Johnson said. And Paul Ryan isn’t a former Miss Alaska contestant, he said.
The Wasilla paper had covered her for years, though.
“It was the stuff everybody wanted, but our readers had already read it,” Johnson said.
The media that came to Wasilla wanted access to the paper’s archives. The staff quickly moved the bound volumes from the basement to the newsroom, fearful that others would simply rip pages from the books.
The paper hired a temporary worker to mark relevant pages, he said. It also created a basic folder of stories and photos to send to other media.
“The biggest challenge for the staff were the interviews,” Johnson recalled. “Everybody wanted an interview.”
Meanwhile, the paper had its own deadlines to meet.
The paper decided early on that the only people who would do interviews would be Johnson and the publisher.
Many of the locals weren’t happy about the way the media portrayed Wasilla and its residents—basically as Alaskan hillbillies, he recalled.
“The term used up here is “Wasillibilly,” he said.
“We on the local level, we covered how we were being covered, how we were being portrayed,” he said.
Some publications portrayed Wasilla as a quaint little Alaskan village nestled next to Mount McKinley.
“You practically hear birds chirping when you are reading it,” Johnson said.
Other accounts portrayed residents driving around in monster trucks with babies hanging out and 50 guns in their gun racks and spitting tobacco all over the streets.
Neither image is accurate, Johnson said.
Johnson doesn’t believe the stint in the national spotlight helped or hurt the city in the long run.
Before, most people had never even heard of Wasilla, Johnson said.
“It really opened us up,” he said. “It takes away a little bit of your blissful anonymity.
“More people, when they take their dream trips to Alaska, they come up through Wasilla,” he said.
“But at the same time, there’s only one road from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and it goes through Wasilla.”