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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

North to Alaska   

A veteran newspaper executive realizes a childhood dream. Fri., April 6, 2012.

By Carl Straumsheim
Carl Straumsheim (@cfstraumsheim) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

If you were to ask a preteen girl to list her childhood dreams, "living in Alaska" isn't likely to turn up at the top. The outlier is Marti Buscaglia, who has crisscrossed the country as a marketing executive and publisher — and whose career is finally giving her a chance to move to Anchorage.

Buscaglia, 59, recently accepted the position of advertising vice president at the Anchorage Daily News. Before her first day on the job--April 16--she, her 87-year-old mother, Marina, and their two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Annie and Mandela, are packing themselves into a car for the more than 3,000-mile-long drive to Anchorage.

"I wanted to step back into an industry that needs innovation and needs someone who is a visionary, and those are qualities that I have," she says. "I think I can help the industry."

Buscaglia says her time as publisher of (and entrepreneur behind) Duluth-Superior Magazine in Duluth, Minnesota, has provided her with some ideas of how to tackle the perceived decline of newspapers―a crisis she says is largely self-inflicted.

"I think we as an industry made a huge mistake when we proclaimed the death of newspapers on our front pages," she says. "When you have the most credible medium in the market, people believe you. And when you tell them you're in trouble, they believe you."

Buscaglia says the magazine industry tackled a similar crisis by doubling down on its strengths. "I believe that if the [newspaper] industry did that, they wouldn't have fallen so far back.... Some newspapers cut drastically and really ruined their product.

"The Anchorage Daily News is a really good paper, and in spite of having made cuts, they've done it in such a way that it's still a very good product both in print and online," Buscaglia says. "My hope is that I can bring it to the point where it is sort of the reigning medium not only in Anchorage, but in Alaska."

In addition to being a fan of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Buscaglia says she fell in love with Anchorage's mix of the metropolitan and the rugged. "I think it was just the vastness of it," she says. "The idea that it was just huge and wild and beautiful.... And it's not much colder than Duluth."

Both Anchorage and Duluth are far removed from where Buscaglia got her start in journalism. Seeing an opportunity to draw in Hispanic customers to her Newport Beach, California-based advertising agency, Buscaglia accepted a public relations position in the early 1980s with the Spanish language daily La Opinión.

"I've always been an analyzer of demographics and trends," Buscaglia says. "I saw that California was becoming increasingly Hispanic, and I projected that those trends were going to continue, so I decided that I was going to start pitching Hispanic marketing accounts."

The plan was to stay with La Opinión only for one year. "Then there's no way they could say I didn't have experience with the Hispanic market," Buscaglia says.

Instead, Buscaglia granted sole ownership of the agency to her partner and set off down a career path that so far has led her to the Baltimore Sun and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she served as vice president of marketing, and the Duluth News Tribune, where she was publisher.

"Pretty much out of a job" in Duluth in late 2007, Buscaglia saw a market for a city magazine and spent three months researching and writing a business plan. The result was Duluth-Superior Magazine, which saw its first issue published in February 2008―just as the economy plunged into a recession.

"I think it actually helped," Buscaglia says. "We didn't know any better, so we kept the operation running lean. Sometimes stupidity is a good thing―or perhaps ignorance."

(Then again, Buscaglia has a bit of a track record with unfortunate timing. When she left the news industry in the early 2000s to build a Web site for budding musicians, the dotcom bubble burst.)

In the last two years, Duluth-Superior Magazine has turned a profit. And last year's bottom lined doubled that of the year before.

Buscaglia will still be monitoring the magazine's finances, but she is leaving most of the day-to-day duties to her longtime friend and recent colleague Dave Hileman, who until recently served as general manager of KQDS-TV, a Fox affiliate serving northeastern Minnesota.

Hileman joined the team in October 2011, and says Buscaglia is leaving the magazine in good shape. "I think it's a trend that's going to continue," he says. "We fill a niche, we've got great writers―we're a magazine that people enjoy reading."

As Buscaglia has spent more time in Duluth than any other place in her professional career, Hileman says her departure didn't come as a shock. "I think the big thing about Marti is her dedication," he says. "Marti's always wanted to get back in the newspaper industry. Can I say I'm completely shocked? No."